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Addressing the Need for A Next Generation of Special Educators Capable of Providing Most Intensive Instruction


Although some refer to students with learning disabilities (LD) as "mildly" impaired, many fail. By the time a typical student with LD is in high school, he/she is 3.4 years behind grade-level in reading; 3.2 years behind in math (e.g., Wagner, Marder, et al., 2003). In recent years, responsiveness-to-instruction (RTI) has been promoted as a means of addressing this large achievement gap. A signature characteristic of RTI is that it comprises multiple tiers of instruction that systematically increase in intensity. Tier 1 is general education's core instructional program. Tier 2 typically involves small-group tutoring that relies on a validated program. When such a program is used with fidelity at Tier 2, a majority of students should benefit. Those who do not benefit, however, demonstrate a need for non-standard (i.e., individualized) instruction, which occurs in the most intensive tier of the RTI system. As conceptualized, most intensive instruction begins with a more intensive version of a Tier 2 validated program, but the teacher does not presume it will necessarily meet the student's needs. Rather, frequent progress monitoring quantifies the effects of the validated program using rate of improvement (slope). When slope forecasts that goal attainment is unlikely, the teacher experiments by modifying program components. We refer to this process for individualizing instruction at the most intensive tier as experimental teaching.

In practice, however, few RTI frameworks have been developed that match this vision. One important reason is confusion over what constitutes "most intensive" intervention. According to a survey conducted by Berkeley, Bender, Peaster, and Saunders (2009), practitioners express poor understanding of how to design most intensive instruction; individualized instruction generally, and experimental teaching in particular, are absent from their frameworks, even as instruction typically fails to account for the behavioral issues that have been documented to undermine the learning of these students with LD. The result is that, whereas the skills of many at-risk children have been strengthened via RTI, students with LD continue to flounder because they have not received adequately intensive help. So the question is, "Why not use individualized, experimental teaching at the most intensive tier?" After all, hundreds of studies show that special educators using this approach accelerate the academic progress of lowest-achieving students with impressive effects. One answer is the serious shortage of personnel who are skilled in intensive intervention. To provide the instructional intensity that students who are unresponsive to Tier 2 need, interventions must (a) involve one-to-one tutoring using specialized and complex tutoring programs, (b) require teachers to integrate progress monitoring, diagnostic assessment, and deep knowledge of instruction in sophisticated ways, and (c) incorporate strategies to address the behavioral issues these students present. This was the focus of special education personnel preparation years ago. It is no longer the case today.

The outcome of this  leadership grant , Addressing the Need for A Next Generation of Special Educators Capable of Providing Most Intensive Instruction grant is that six scholars will exit the program prepared to (a) train teachers to use validated programs (VPs, i.e., scientifically-based practices) and experimental teaching (ET) and (b) have expertise in conducting research to develop new VPs and to extend knowledge about the effects of VPs on diverse populations and about methods for optimizing the use of ET. In preparing the next generation of special education scholars and leaders, the overall goal is to improve outcomes for students with LD who are served in pervasively lowest achieving schools within the most intensive tier of the RTI system.  Grant ID:317