A $1.4 million grant to Drs. Marcy Stein and Diane Kinder from the U.S. Department of Education will fund a project to improve special education teacher preparation.
An educational problem-solving approach known as "response to intervention" (RTI) offers a different way of identifying kids who need help. Using an RTI approach, schools can spot problems early and begin to take corrective action, keeping more kids in the general education classroom by reducing the number of students referred for special classes.
Special education programs are designed to give children who have physical, emotional and learning disabilities the extra help they need to achieve academic success. But many students currently in special education classes don't belong there.
Children typically are placed in special education around third grade, when they fall behind their peers academically. But for some struggling students, the problems could be the result of factors other than learning disabilities, such as inadequate prior instruction.
Low-income and ethnic minority children tend to be placed in special education classes at a disproportionate rate, raising questions about current practices for placing students into special education classes.
UW Tacoma Education Professors Marcy Stein and Diane Kinder recently received a $1.4 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education for Project RTI, a plan to redesign the university's special education program. Among the changes they will incorporate is preparing new teachers to use an RTI approach to help all students reach their potential.
"The concept of RTI has been around for quite some time," Stein said. "But school-wide implementation of RTI as a means of improving outcomes for students continues to be a challenge."
Stein and Kinder explained that the common "wait-to-fail" model of identifying children with learning disabilities literally waits for children to fall behind before providing extra help. Children who are struggling learners — but who don't have learning disabilities — tend to get swept into special education as well.
The RTI alternative approach is designed to provide teachers with scientifically based teaching methods that are known to be effective for most children. Monitoring the progress of all students and how they respond to instruction gives educators further information about what works best for a particular child. The approach helps teachers make better educational decisions about their students.
The RTI approach keeps most students from falling behind in the first place, Stein and Kinder said. "It's the reverse of the wait-to-fail model," explained Kinder.
Historically, the old model resulted in overrepresentation of some minority groups in special education. Using an RTI approach is designed to decrease this overrepresentation.
Washington state has received a large federal grant focusing on implementing RTI in schools. According to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction's website, "With RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student's responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities."
For the next five years, the federal government estimates up to 200,000 first-time teachers will be hired annually. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has challenged education colleges to improve their teacher preparation so students are better armed to compete in the 21st century. He has said the United States will have to recruit "an army of new teachers to ensure its long-term economic prosperity."
The Dept. of Education grant allows Stein and Kinder to revamp UW Tacoma's "dual certification" program for teachers in K-12. Teachers in this program receive both a K-8 teaching certificate and an endorsement in special education.
Stein and Kinder's project was one of nine funded this year through the Dept. of Education's Special Education Pre-Service Improvement Grants Program. The grant's purpose is to help states fill the need for "qualified personnel in special education, related services, early intervention and regular education to work with children with disabilities." The grant emphasizes "practices determined to be successful through research and experience."
Over the five-year life of their grant, Stein and Kinder will use an iterative process in redesigning UW Tacoma's special education program, continually trying new ideas and then monitoring and revising them. As part of their new initiative, they plan to establish a residency program for student teachers, which will give beginning teachers more field work in their first year of teaching, and develop a mentoring program for newly hired teachers.
The project is designed to create a model program for other colleges and universities to follow.
Stein and Kinder's project aligns with state efforts to increase Washington school districts' ability to implement an RTI approach. They are collaborating with local school districts, including Chief Leschi School and the Franklin Pierce School District. The UW Tacoma professors will seek feedback from an advisory board of community members including teachers, administrators, and parents whose children struggle in school. And they will work with the UW's Goodlad Institute for Education Renewal, located at UW Bothell, which will help them coordinate partnerships with school districts.
"This grant gives us an opportunity to revise the current program in ways that will better prepare teachers in both general and special education," say Kinder and Stein. "Through better prepared teachers, we hope to ensure the success of struggling students in Washington state classrooms."
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