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Response to Intervention (RTI)

Under President George W. Bush a policy war was fought between the whole language and phonics camps and the phonics camp came out on top, at least for the time being. The result was a significant change in federal law governing special education.

I’m not going to get into the gory details of the particular laws involved for two reasons: 1) They are mind-numbingly boring to parents and 2) I don’t want to have to spend my time dotting i’s and crossing t’s to make sure I’ve cited everything correctly. And I certainly don’t want to have to read all of them. However, you need to understand how the federal special education law was changed if you have a dyslexic child attending a public school.

A Significant Change

The law establishing the Discrepancy Model was changed in a rather big way. The federal law specifying that schools must require the use of the Discrepancy Model had a big "not" inserted into the original language. Thus, after a certain date in the future instead of specifying that states must require the use the Discrepancy Model to determine whether your child is eligible for special education services, the law now specifies that they must not require the use the Discrepancy Model. Strange, yes, but true.

In its place, a new model has been specified, the Response to Intervention, or RTI as it’s being called. As a parent, you’ll like this version much better, but more on that later.

Here are the provisions of the 2004 federal law:

IDEA 2004 and final regulations state that:

1. States must not require use of significant discrepancy as part of determination of a SLD (Specific Learning Disability.)
2. States must permit the use of a process based on a child’s response to scientifically based intervention as part of determination of a SLD.
3. States may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures to determine whether a child has a SLD.

Note that individual states still have some latitude. For example, your state could continue to permit local school districts to use the Discrepancy Model, but the state cannot require schools to do so. My state, Wisconsin, is requiring all school districts to switch to the RTI Model as of a certain date, specified as four years following enactment of the Wisconsin statute, which puts RTI out to about 2009 or 2010.

Being rational, and realizing that the next President and Congress could decide to remove the word not from the law, thereby restoring the Discrepancy Model to prominence again, most states are probably still operating under the Discrepancy Model while also churning out piles of paperwork and hundreds of committee hours getting ready to switch over to RTI if the present federal law survives.

How Does RTI Work?

Remember, RTI stands for Response to Intervention. Here’s the part you’ll like. You know how everyone suspected in kindergarten, or even preschool, that something was up with your child? Under RTI, as soon as your child begins to lag in an area, a teacher or parent can raise a concern and that concern is supposed to be investigated. If, indeed, it is found that your child is failing to learn to read using the curriculum in place in the classroom, then an intervention is called for.

The intervention can be as simple as changing his seat assignment. However, once the intervention is implemented the R of RTI kicks in and the response is assessed. In other words, did changing his seat assignment do any good? It’s reasonable to assume that if all that was wrong was that your child was being distracted by the cute little redhead next to him in the back row, then getting him to the front row next to the teacher might cure the problem quickly. If, after the next assessment, he’s still not catching on to reading, then it’s time to try a more serious intervention. And that’s where the fun starts.

Finally, Some Choices

You know all those programs you’ve been reading about since you started investigating dyslexia? Well, they’re all fair game as potential interventions. But, as with everything, there’s a catch. Remember, there’s always a whole language versus phonics war going on, a situation that will be never-ending in English-speaking countries, I suspect. And remember, I said earlier that the phonics advocates were temporarily winning the war under the second President Bush. So, here’s the catch. Because the phonics advocates have tons of research documenting the effectiveness of phonics instruction, and the whole language advocates have precious little, the law specifies that the Intervention must be research-based. That is, any method chosen as an intervention must have been researched and shown to be effective.

This was clearly done in an effort to make sure that struggling readers get a good dose of a phonics program before we give up on them and, as they say, that’s a good thing. However, what I suspect the phonics advocates are going to soon learn is that the response part of RTI is going to be surprising in many cases. In particular, while you can often teach a dyslexic child to read with a good phonics program, you can’t teach him to like it if he’s fighting a vision problem. He might do better on reading tests, but he won’t necessarily catch up to his peers. In other words, phonics will again appear to fail a large number of kids, which is exactly why we keep having the Reading Wars; because both sides in the war absolutely refuse to acknowledge vision problems of the nature discussed here.

Furthermore, you can bank on there being one further frustration in all this. Once your child gets a suitable phonics intervention, but fails to respond sufficiently for you to drop your concerns, you will find that if you go in requesting one of the many programs you’ve read about such as, say, Earobics, FastForward, Lindamood-Bell, or (here it comes) Vision Therapy, you will hear the statement “We don’t offer that because it’s not ‘research-based’.” And this assumes that they are even seen as academic interventions rather than medical interventions.

One Possible Result - More Accessible Vision Therapy

Nevertheless, under RTI, at least schools will be taking action when they should, at the earliest notice of a problem, rather than waiting for one or two years while hoping that things change. Eventually, with phonics instruction finally being offered to most kids who are struggling with reading, it will become clear that the dyslexic child often (though not always) needs something more. As word of the efficacy of vision therapy spreads, teachers and special education staff will become more willing to recommend it to parents, even if it is as a recommendation to seek a medical intervention, that is, something outside the school's area of responsibility.

Eventually, good, professionally-administered, vision therapy might even become easier to find due to the increase in demand. (As of about 2008 there were only six vision therapy departments in the entire state of Wisconsin.) I am optimistic that, in time, a developmental vision examination will be routinely recommended when a child is even suspected of being dyslexic.

Another Possible Result - Awareness of Nutritional Benefits

RTI, properly implemented, is going to give parents more influence over the particular services that schools offer dyslexic children because it is the parents who will be most likely to be monitoring the success, or failure, of the latest intervention. Unsuccessful interventions are therefore not going to be allowed to go on for years, with little evidence of improvement.

So, let's assume that dyslexia is caused by something that can actually be addressed, but let's assume it's not just phonics instruction (as the promoters of the RTI regimen assumed,) but something else entirely, for example an auditory problem, or a vision problem, or even a nutritional problem. Again, I'm saying let's just assume that there's a single cause out there.

Well, if that happens to be true, then under RTI it's much more likely that it will be found, and actually found rather quickly. Why? Because all the other interventions will be seen to fail, and because parents will be the ones watching over the process. Many of them will also be diligently seeking the next intervention with the potential to turn their child's academic career around, to get him over his reading problem. A few of them will try this, a few that, and a few something else.

And if it turns out that my hypothesis is correct that dyslexia is a manifestation of a genetic predisposition triggered by a vitamin D deficiency in early childhood, someone is bound to try addressing that as an intervention. If it works, more will try it. If it turns out to be a "magic bullet" of sorts, eventually most will try it. Now, there might very well be several of these "magic bullets" but my point is that under the RTI system, we're going to be much more likely to determine what they are. And, who knows, maybe the phonics adherents will turn out to be right and dyslexia will nearly disappear with research-based phonics instruction? I doubt that will be the case, but I wouldn't rule it out completely.

On the next two pages, I'll discuss the prospects for having schools intervene in the vision and nutritional areas, starting with School-Based Vision Therapy.