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Interventions In Education To Help Detect Learning Disabilities


January 17, 2010

Getting her son the help he needs has never been easy for Mary Lou Woynar of Westbrook. She's had to educate herself and be assertive and vocal.

Woynar believes it is largely because of her efforts that her son Max, 11, is receiving extra academic support. Max, in fifth grade at Westbrook Middle School, has a learning disability; he has a difficult time reading and spelling and struggles in English and math, she said.

Although Max has gotten the help he needs, Woynar says she can't be complacent, even as Connecticut schools embrace a new way to help students who struggle academically.

Throughout the country, school systems are looking for better ways to help all students and to meet more specific and demanding federal guidelines for special education, a category of learning meant to help students with disabilities, such as dyslexia and cerebral palsy.

The federal guidelines call for academic help that doesn't require pulling students out of their classrooms and changes in the way schools identify special education students.

Reacting to the federal mandates, the Connecticut Department of Education has begun requiring schools to use a process that offers earlier help to students and relies on data, rather than opinion and teacher observation, to determine whether a student is making academic progress. By doing so, educators hope to help students with learning disabilities get the most appropriate help and possibly avoid being placed into special education programs.

Research-Based Intervention

Woynar says that she is confused by the new protocols schools are required to use to monitor students' progress, even though she's well-versed in the topic.

As a care coordinator for the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut Inc., her job is to help parents work with school systems to determine what services are needed for their children.

Woynar says she doesn't understand how the new research-based way of monitoring students works, and is concerned she will not be informed of her son's progress reports. She also worries that the new process still allows for teacher judgment, and wonders if schools will have the resources needed to truly help students.

"There isn't a whole lot of structure to it," Woynar said of the process known as scientific research-based interventions.

While parents like Woynar may be apprehensive about research-based interventions, educators say they welcome the change, noting that the new process relies heavily on data collection and much less on discretion. They say the process changes how student progress is monitored and how students with learning disabilities are identified.

The first step in the process is to periodically test all students, regardless of ability, using short, universal assessments. Data are analyzed and compared with other assessments and teacher recommendations.

Next, students who need extra help are identified and support is provided in group settings for a short time. Educators continue to monitor progress during the short-term interventions, and if students make little or no progress, the interventions increase in intensity and become more individualized.

When interventions don't work, the process yields data to support a recommendation for special education services, and long-term plans are developed. While students can be referred to a special education program at any time, the intent is for educators to exhaust all short-term interventions before identifying students as needing special education.

The goal is to help all students establish a strong educational foundation, said Deborah Richards, chief of the state Department of Education's bureau of accountability and improvement. In addition, the new requirements are a more efficient way to use resources earlier in the process, she said.

Max has already been told he has a learning disability and only stands to benefit from being monitored regularly and from interventions benefits now available to all students. Struggling children who have not yet been labeled as having special needs, however, could be affected the most by the new process.

Providing academic help earlier and allowing data to determine educational decisions means that some students could potentially avoid or postpone being introduced to special education programs.

A Departure

The process is a departure for school systems.

For years, educators recommended special education services for a student when there was a significant "discrepancy" between daily achievement in the classroom and intellectual ability as measured by standardized tests.

But when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was modified in 2004, use of the "discrepancy model" was no longer required.

According to the education department, the "discrepancy model" sometimes led to students being placed in special education because of inadequate education practices and limited opportunities for extra help, not because of genuine disabilities.

The federal act allows for research-based interventions, and Connecticut decided to mandate the process starting July 1, 2009 saying the new model looks at curriculum, instruction and environment first before looking at problems with the student.

Being labeled as a special education student is a life-changing event, said Cathryn Riggs, Rocky Hill's special education director.

By intervening earlier when students are struggling, Riggs said she hopes most students will get the help they need before they are recommended for a special education evaluation.The new process will not eliminate the right to special education or prevent educators from recommending a special education evaluation at any time, Riggs said. Using data and providing additional support, however, could keep students out of special education programs, she said.

To assist districts starting the new process, the state Department of Education will provide guidance, but Richards said specifics are left to individual school systems.

While most schools are beginning to use research-based interventions, others still struggle to create programs that will work, Richards said. She said about 40 of Connecticut's school systems applied for a deadline extension this year, allowing them to continue to use the old special education identification model for one more school year.

Rocky Hill is an example of a school district that forged ahead, and school leaders say they are excited about the change, but note that it will take time for teachers to adjust. Teachers are still learning how to collect and read data, they said, noting that new math and reading tests had to be purchased before the district could start the program.

"The goal is to touch students before they fail," said Rocky Hill Assistant Superintendent Marian Hourigan. "We hope we can close the gaps for them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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