Last spring the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a study concluding that charter schools enroll a lower percentage of special education students than traditional public schools. Some commentators have questioned this study’s methodology and conclusions, while others believe it confirms what they have seen in practice. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, charter schools have a great opportunity to increase their special education admissions and improve how well public education serves all struggling students.
Charter schools can do this by using a bottom-up model called Response to Intervention, along with the Common Core standards. Response to Intervention can be employed in any school – private, public, charter, maybe even virtual – but it is particularly well-suited for implementation and success in charter schools because of their enhanced freedom to enact school-wide reforms.
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a special education reform codified into the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s designed to decrease the rolls of special education students. Following a dramatic rise of the number of students identified as specific learning disabled (SLD) in the 1990s, researchers from the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation suggested in a landmark 2001 paper, Rethinking Learning Disabilities, that the SLD label was a “catch-all” for low-achieving students which serves as a “sociological sponge that attempts to wipe up general education’s spills and cleanse its ills.” A 2002 report from a presidential commission on special education stated up to 40 percent of children identified for special education weren’t truly disabled, but were simply not taught to read properly.
With RTI, schools use a data-driven system of high quality core and supplemental instruction to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on individual student responsiveness. The idea is if the RTI data shows a particular student fails to achieve state standards even after participating in systematic high-quality interventions, only then is she referred to special education. Of course, RTI is not appropriate for students with every type of disability. Educators wouldn’t administer RTI to blind or severely autistic children before providing them with special education. But it can be successful with children who have significant academic and behavioral deficits.
RTI is as difficult to implement as it is to describe. Many states, including Florida, Connecticut and Colorado, mandate that RTI occur in every general education classroom in every public school, yet few of us are seeing it done systematically or successfully. At least one group, the Hill for Literacy, has developed a cost-effective and sustainable model to train school personnel to improve and even turnaround struggling schools using RTI and the Common Core.
If charter school management organizations began employing RTI on a schoolwide basis, they would improve the quality of education for all struggling students – some of whom are truly disabled and some of whom are simply not learning as quickly as their peers. Charters would also attract, enroll and retain special students in greater numbers, and take some wind out of this line of attack from their political detractors.