“What might a new collaboration between general and special educators look like?”
What might a new collaboration between general and special educators look like? This collaboration would include not only teachers but also the special education staff members so vital to meeting the needs of students with special needs: the school psychologist, speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, and registered nurse, to name but a few.
For the sake of illustrating the potential power of nonteaching special education staff in supporting general education, let’s consider the speech and language pathologist. Speech and language pathologists are experts in language acquisition, a major factor in the difficulty that leads to more students qualifying for special education with a diagnosis of specific learning disability than any other difficulty—failing to learn to read. As we have learned more about reading, as we screen for reading difficulties earlier and more successfully, and as we use more targeted and well-designed programs and strategies to provide supplemental supports, we are becoming more successful at meeting the phonemic awareness needs of students. Phonemic awareness, however, is a subset of a much broader set of reading and language skills known as phonological awareness. Students who do not respond to phonemically based core instruction and supplemental supports may have challenges based on their ability to process auditory inputs. Discrete sounds, or phonemes, may present difficulties for these students. They may respond to a broader phonological approach. Luckily, there are staff members on every school campus who are experts in language acquisition, phonological awareness, and auditory processing. They are the speech and language pathologists. They can and should be working with students in early schooling in a preventative manner. They can and should be working with all teachers, providing the knowledge and strategies to identify needs and provide targeted instruction. They can and should be screening and more fully diagnosing phonological and auditory needs earlier. Doing all this will require increased levels of collaboration between general and special education staff and an increased commitment to fully funding and staffing key positions. The same scenarios could be described for other special education support staff.
Through this collaboration between general and special education, many students will receive supports that traditionally required special education identification. If general and special education staff work collaboratively through the RTI process to meet the need of all students, then what is so “special” about special education? Why should students be qualified for special education, and what services should be provided once they have qualified? First, the special training of special education staff should be used to help any students who might benefit from their expertise, not just those students who have earned the right by failing far enough behind. This ability to provide preventive support for at-risk students is a critical new role for special educators and one allowed and encouraged in IDEA. And because the RTI process can impact overqualification of students, this will allow special education to focus on the primary role for which it was founded—to meet the unique, intensive learning needs of students whose disabilities are adversely affecting their ability to learn. These services will include both students who are capa-ble of being independent adults but suffer from learning obstacles that far exceed the resources and training of most faculties, and students who face profound disabilities and require specialized curriculum, facilities, and educational staff.
We look forward to the day when all schools and educators are empowered to create systems of interventions that are designed to meet the specific needs of their students with the limited resources at their schools, and to build upon the unique talents and skills of their staffs. Yet we fear that some may equate the word simple with the word easy. These are not synonymous. If RTI was easy, everyone would be doing it, and we would have record levels of student achievement at virtually every school. Ensuring that every student succeeds at school is difficult, demanding work. There will undoubtedly be challenges and unexpected obstacles for any school with the courage to embrace this work. The journey may be challenging, but we cannot image a cause more important or efforts more worthy of a life’s work.
“We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”
C. S. Lewis once said, “We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” RTI is at such a transitional point. Within RTI lies the ability to transform our schools and provide all children with “wings” to reach their fullest potential. Yet at most schools this potential lies dormant, buried under layers of state regulations, district protocols, and traditional school practices that are misaligned and counter-productive to the essential elements of RTI. Over time, this promise will decay into just another failed educational reform unless we, as educators, grasp a new way of thinking about our work. If we are willing to believe that all students can learn at high levels and embrace that our collective efforts can achieve this outcome, then we can begin to reach this noble goal for every child.
The National Association of State Directors of Special Education published a list of eleven RTI myths in 2006. This publication reinforces an important point—RTI is the responsibility of both general and special education educators. Some have loudly stated that RTI is a general education responsibility (Batsche et al., 2005). The reasons for this insistence are understandable. RTI should not simply be an alternative, albeit superior, way of determining if a student has a specific learning disability. RTI’s advantages over the discrepancy model are well documented. But if RTI evolves to be solely the domain of general education, we will lose a powerful opportunity. Special educators may hesitate to contribute their critical knowledge and experience to assisting teams of educators in meeting the needs of students as early as possible, as their efforts may not be deemed needed or appropriate at Tier 1 and 2. General educators may hesitate to welcome their contributions for the same reasons. Meeting the needs of all students, whether prereferral or after a student has an IEP, is the responsibility of all educators at all times.