It’s an interesting time to be working in public education. With the new Special Education reform, including the recent mandate that all schools implement Response to Intervention (RTI) procedures for at-risk students, schools are scrambling to figure out how to implement widespread changes in a long-established system. As a new Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) in a public, urban elementary school, I have the benefit of coming in without any idea of what working in a school had been like prior to the reform. Fresh off the grad school boat, I was full of ideas and research, but little practical knowledge. A little about my school: opened in 2010, approximately 250 students enrolled in grades pre-K through 2nd grade. Obviously, it’s new, and so is much of the staff; most teachers are within their first 5 years of employment. In many ways, this creates an environment primed for implementing new policies and practices aligned with the law. In some ways, we’ve made strides; in others, though, we’re just as confused as I’d imagine are many other schools.
A concrete example: earlier in the school year, the Pupil Personnel Team—a committee designed to discuss and problem-solve students at risk for academic failure or misconduct—was discussing possible “Tier 2” interventions to use for two students, Edgar and Tiffany, struggling with literacy and consequently all academic areas in the classroom. Edgar is a sequential bilingual speaker of Spanish and English who speaks solely Spanish in the home; he is still classified as an English Language Learner (ELL). Tiffany is no longer an ELL, as she is grossly English-dominant, speaking English predominantly in the home and at school. She is a simultaneous bilingual child, however, and has been exposed to both languages from birth. Both come from low socioeconomic status (SES) homes, both exhibit oral language comprehension and expression adequate for age and development.
There is a wealth of research and resources readily available to the public regarding literacy instruction in the ELL and low SES population (see www.rti4success.org for more information and resources); it takes a bit of work and professional development to find them, learn them, and implement them, but ultimately, they’re there! For us to use, and help! But when presented to the team, these strategies, which are evidence-based and proven to be effective, were met with resistance. “This is nice in theory, but how are we supposed to do this realistically? When is there time to run a small group? The teachers are overwhelmed as it is.” Now, those students are receiving sporadic support within the classroom from a variety of instructors. Development of the support system is ongoing, but right now, this sporadic support seems unfair—unfair to the teachers, but more importantly, unfair to the students. On top of inconsistencies in the provision of services, there’s been no effort to formally train the instructors on these evidence-based strategies. So even though on paper it would appear guidelines of RTI are being followed, fidelity is lost in translation.
My question is this: How do we stress the importance of implementing evidence-based strategies, of increasing communication between teachers to ensure fidelity and continuity of instruction, of changing the attitude from “change the students to meet our needs” to “change our needs to meet the students’?” Isn’t that how it should be? It takes work, but how do we all get to a place where we’re willing to put that work in?