By James Aycock

A version of this article was originally published on the Bluff City Ed blog.

In our last post, we said that the brilliance of RTI² is that “kids don’t have to be diagnosed with a disability to receive extra support to help them catch up.” However, there’s a reason that diagnosis – especially the specific learning disability diagnosis – is so frequently used as a mechanism to get help for kids who are behind. And it’s those incentives, as well as possible alternatives, that we want to examine here.

An Example

Take Jaylon (not his real name), a scholar with a diagnosed specific learning disability who has been receiving special education services since the end of 1st grade.

Jaylon obviously needed extra support in elementary school. However, despite four years of special education services, he still entered middle school reading around a mid-1st grade level.

The rate of improvement (ROI) we’ve see from Jaylon this year, though, has been tremendous. After one semester at Grizzlies Prep, he was already reading on a late-2nd grade level and is now on pace to enter 7thgrade reading on a 4th grade level. Jaylon still receives special education services, but he requires less and less support as his reading skills improve. Eventually, he may no longer need services.

Seeing an ROI like Jaylon’s makes me question his diagnosis. Does he really have an educational disability, or was he just behind and needed some extra supports to catch up?

A National Trend

Jaylon is not alone. An estimated 80% of students diagnosed with a learning disability are diagnosed as such because they never learned how to read. So says the 2002 President’s Commission on Excellence on Special Education. That’s over a third of all students receiving special education services.

Let that sink in for a second. These are kids with skill deficits who would have benefited from some early interventions and never needed costly special education services. But all too often schools lack quality intervention programs, kids never become fluent readers, and ultimately the result is a specific learning disability diagnosis like Jaylon’s.

As a result, the number of students with disabilities nationwide grew at nearly double the rate of their nondisabled peers in the 1990s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nationally, that growth peaked about a decade ago. Not so in Tennessee, however, where the number of students identified as needing special education has grown by about 3% in the last decade. And so students who receive special education services now represent about 14% of total students nationwide (statewide too), much more than was ever intended, which explains why special education seems so underfunded.

Furthermore, when these students enter special education, they often fall further and further behind, as access to the general curriculum is limited and expectations are often low, creating even greater needs.

Financial Incentives

Why are kids like Jaylon referred to special education instead of being provided with interventions within the general education program?

In my experience, too many schools feel that the only way to get resources for struggling students is by pushing them into special education. To be clear, this practice is done only with the best of intentions, so there are no accusations here of improper motives. But the end result is that a great number of kids – and a disproportionate large amount of African American boys – end up unnecessarily diagnosed with a learning disability.

Why does this happen?

The answer is often as simple as funding. Schools generally don’t receive any additional funding, or any additional teachers, to provide interventions. There are, however, funding and personnel for special education, creating a strange incentive to push kids into special education unnecessarily.

This is unacceptable.

RTI²: An Alternative Solution (Maybe?)

At the individual school level, there is some financial logic to using special education this way. Schools are underfunded, and district regulations mostly limits the control school leaders have over their budgets. But the financial logic fades when you rise to the district, state, and federal levels.

Financially – and, I would argue, morally as well – it makes more sense to invest in prevention.

Conservatively, special education costs at least $1,500 per student per year for mild disabilities like Jaylon’s. For Jaylon, that will amount to over $150,000 by the time he graduates from high school. This is why the annual special education budget in Memphis/Shelby County is over $80M.

Ensuring that every school provides quality interventions could prevent up to one-third of special education cases, eventually saving a district like ours over $25M per year and pushing resources to those students with more significant disabilities that require much more costly services.

With its required tiered intervention services, RTI² has the possibility of being the solution.

However, unless there is a change in how schools are funded, RTI² will be an unfunded mandate, thereby limiting its effectiveness.

Funding Reform

So, how do we fund RTI²? I want to offer two possibilities.

First, federal special education funding, which is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), contains a “permissive use of funds” clause. One function of this clause is to allow districts to “use up to 15% of [IDEA] funds…to develop and implement Coordinated Early Intervening Services…for students…who have not been identified as needing special education or related services but who need additional academic and behavioral support to succeed in a general education environment.”

In other words, a portion of federal special education funding can be invested in prevention, the very thing promoted by RTI².

However, of all the large school districts in Tennessee, only Knox County opted to utilize the permissive use of funds clause in 2012-13 (the last publicly-available set of IDEA applications).

Taking advantage of the permissive use of funds option in its special education budgets is a solid strategy for districts looking to fund RTI². And the state should encourage, and possibly even incentivize, districts to use this option.

Secondly, the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) needs to add RTI² into its funding formula. This has to happen. This would require legislative action and probably an increase in education spending, but these intervention services, much like pre-K, should be seen as an initial investment that will ultimately save money in the long run.

RTI² should help schools better align our resources with the needs of our students, thereby better serving kids like Jaylon in the process.

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Next time, we’ll wrap up this series on RTI² by looking at effectiveness.

James Aycock is currently the Director of Scholar Support at Grizzlies Prep, an all-boys public charter middle school located in downtown Memphis. He previously served as the founding Special Education Coordinator with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, after several years as a special educator and baseball coach at Westside Middle School in the Frayser community of North Memphis. Contact him at jaycock@grizzliesprep.org with questions or to learn more about Grizzlies Prep’s RTI system.
You can read Part One, Two and Three of James Aycock’s RTI2 series HEREHERE and HERE.