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by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
Table of Contents
Remember the series of "choose your own adventure" books that were popular in the 1980s? They offered decision points at key moments in the story, and the choice you made determined the outcome of the tale (and often the fate of the characters). With that in mind, let's play the school version of Choose Your Adventure.
Adam is in the 5th grade in a public school somewhere in the United States. Here are some things to know about Adam: He is an active 10-year-old boy who plays baseball in the local Little League. He has an older sister who generally regards him as a bother (she's 13, after all) but loves him, nonetheless. Before his mother and father adopted him at the age of 7, he lived in foster care for a time with a member of his father's family. Adam's mom and dad first got to know him this way and soon decided that Adam needed to be a permanent part of their family.
Adam's family is moving to another state because his mother accepted a job offer with better pay and benefits. They plan to enroll Adam in school and prepare him by touring the school with him, introducing him to teachers, and filling out all the forms with emergency contact information, known allergies, and the like. They were delighted to learn that the school system in the new state operates on a year-round schedule, with evenly distributed breaks of three or four weeks each quarter. His parents will be adding their names to the list of school volunteers, and Adam's dad is willing to be a guest speaker at the school's career day and discuss his work in the health care field.
Here's the key moment in the story where your choice factors in and may help determine the outcome:
After meeting the important people in the school (the principal, the custodian, and the lunch staff), Adam settles into his 5th grade class. His teacher, Ms. Riley, is experienced with this age group and has been a staff member at the school for 15 years. Adam likes his new class and soon establishes social relationships with his peers. He is quickly seen as an asset in any recess game and is well liked by other children, who say he is "nice."
The reading block is his least favorite time of day. He stumbles over words when Ms. Riley asks him to read aloud to the class, and his handwritten work is difficult to read. She notices that during some lessons, Adam gets boisterous and calls out to other students. He is scolded frequently for his outbursts and is already becoming a regular visitor to the principal's office—not the relationship he imagined when he first met her. Adam is soon placed in a remedial reading group named the Blasters, and he spends most of the reading block in the company of a paraprofessional who works with this group in another room to minimize distractions. They complete lots of workbook pages and worksheets, but they rarely spend much time with longer books.
Adam's incomplete assignments, missed homework, and mediocre written work soon take a toll. Two marking periods later, Adam is performing well below other students in the class, and Ms. Riley calls in Adam's parents for a conference. She informs them that Adam is in danger of being retained because he hasn't received passing marks in most subjects. Following the district policy, Ms. Riley draws up a learning contract that states that, because retention is a possibility, Adam is required to attend intersession, a mandatory two-week remediation period for struggling students. Adam and his family are discouraged because they won't be able to travel and visit family during this time, but they agree that anything that might help Adam be successful is worth the sacrifice.
Adam's social relationships also begin to fray. Because classmates increasingly view him as a problem (they have, after all, witnessed their teacher dealing with him this way), they begin to avoid him. Even his physical skills are not enough to overcome difficult relationships with peers. As Adam becomes marginalized, his behavior grows more problematic, and despite the attention of the paraprofessional, Adam's reading and writing do not seem to improve. The handwriting worksheets he completes have little effect, and he daydreams more often, missing more instruction. Countless meetings later, Ms. Riley brings Adam's name to the attention of the school's Student Study Team. "I've tried everything," she tells them, and they nod in sympathetic agreement. They've seen Adam on the playground, in the chair outside the principal's office, and taking a circuitous route to the bathroom. "What's wrong with this kid?" she asks.
The team completes the paperwork for special education testing, and Adam's parents sign it. They are concerned that he is not doing well and that their once outgoing boy is withdrawing into himself. Going to school has become a daily battle, and Adam's parents are at a loss as to how to deal with him. In the meantime, Adam must now attend mandatory six-week summer school. If he is unable to do so, he will repeat 5th grade with a new set of classmates.
Adam barely passes summer school and advances to the 6th grade. By this point, his special education testing results are in. Unfortunately, Adam doesn't meet the criteria for a handicapping condition. "I guess he's just a 'flatliner,'" remarks Ms. Riley. "I hope the 6th grade teachers know what to do with him. I tried everything." The 6th grade team members, resentful that he didn't qualify for special education, are bracing themselves. "We've all seen him around school," remarks Ms. Colón. "Wish us luck."
The reading block is his least favorite part of the day. His teacher used some simple screening instruments on his first day, including the San Diego Quick (LaPray & Ross, 1969), a word list that targets decoding skills, and a cloze assessment on simple machines that was based on a recent chapter from the science textbook. Ms. Riley knows that these screening instruments should not be used as factors in big decisions, but they provide a starting point for making initial instructional decisions. The results of the decoding assessment show that Adam is decoding at about a 3rd grade level. In addition, he struggled to complete the cloze assessment, accurately completing only 36 percent of the words and indicating that he had difficulty comprehending the passage. Ms. Riley knows that the next round of benchmark testing will occur in a few weeks, and this will offer a better opportunity to measure Adam's reading ability.
During the next few weeks, Ms. Riley has a chance to witness Adam's reading firsthand. While most of the reading instruction in her class comes from a core textbook, she has many books available in the class. Adam seems to drift from book to book when the class is engaged in independent reading time. Ms. Riley offers to help him locate books of interest, but to no avail. Adam consistently abandons books after a few pages, spending most of his time "looking" for a new book to read.
In the meantime, the results of the benchmark assessment are clear— Adam is reading well below his peers. Fortunately, the elementary school has a Response to Intervention program. Ms. Riley contacts the Title I teacher, Mr. Alonzo, who coordinates Tier 2 supplemental interventions for 4th and 5th grade. Three times a week, several students from these two grades meet with Mr. Alonzo for additional instruction. Adam's group is rarely larger than four students, and the lesson format is always the same: begin with a flashcard game to practice decoding, read a short informational or narrative passage that matches group members' reading level, discuss the content, and respond to comprehension questions. If there's enough time, they also do a bit of writing. Adam's handwriting is difficult to read, but the intervention lesson format really doesn't allow for additional instruction in writing.
Within the next few weeks, Mr. Alonzo and Ms. Riley meet with Adam's parents. They share their concerns about Adam's current reading status and describe the intervention they have implemented. Mr. Alonzo has collected further assessment data about Adam's progress and has already charted Adam's results from the flashcard drills and his rate of accuracy for the comprehension questions. Mr. Alonzo also plans to collect a measure of Adam's oral fluency rate.
Socially, Adam is holding his own. He misses some classroom instruction because he goes to work with Mr. Alonzo, but he manages to maintain his friendships with peers. Ms. Riley notices that he is prone to some outbursts in class, especially during science instruction. He also continues to wander during independent reading time. After 16 weeks of Tier 2 supplemental intervention, Adam has not progressed far, and he and the classroom teacher meet again with Adam's parents. They all agree that he is not making the progress they had hoped for, and Mr. Alonzo's data collection on fluency, comprehension, and decoding bears this out. Adam's mom and dad agree that a Tier 3 intensive intervention, also implemented by Mr. Alonzo, might help. This involves the use of a phonics-based intervention program purchased by the district specifically for this level of support. As part of this process, Adam meets with Mr. Alonzo for 30 minutes every day.
Mr. Alonzo likes the intervention program because it works through a series of prescribed lessons, each accompanied by an online assessment tool that allows the teacher to chart results over time. The visual representations are a clear way to evaluate each student's progress. Toward the end of the school year, Adam begins to make some gains (especially in decoding), but his comprehension still lags, preventing him from reading more complex texts. Another meeting is scheduled, this time with the school's Student Study Team. Adam's parents are in attendance, and Ms. Riley begins the meeting by reminding everyone, "Our main job here is to figure out how we can help Adam learn." The team discusses the previous interventions and notes that Adam is not making the desired progress. They decide to refer Adam for special education testing, and Adam's parents consent.
Adam has demonstrated difficulty with the 5th grade curriculum but has made some progress. The results of his testing do not show that he meets eligibility requirements for a federally handicapping condition. His teacher recommends that Adam attend the six-week summer school so he can revisit 5th grade content. He is promoted to 6th grade but one of the 6th grade teachers says, "We're not quite sure what to do next. I guess we'll start fresh and see what happens."
The reading block is his least favorite part of the day. His teacher used some simple screening instruments on his first day, including the San Diego Quick, a word list that targets decoding skills, and a cloze assessment on simple machines that was based on a recent chapter from the science textbook. Ms. Riley knows that these screening instruments should not be used as factors in big decisions, but they provide a starting point for making initial instructional decisions. The results of the decoding assessment show that Adam is decoding at about a 3rd grade level. In addition, he struggled to complete the cloze assessment, accurately completing only 36 percent of the words and indicating that he had difficulty comprehending the passage. Ms. Riley wonders whether it was an issue of background knowledge or difficulty with reading comprehension skills, so she asks him about his science class at his former school. "We were learning about plant and animal cells," he reports, which suggests to Ms. Riley that at least part of the problem might be background knowledge.
The following day, Ms. Riley gives Adam another cloze assessment— one that uses a passage on plant cells. He scores higher this time—52 percent—but not as high as she had hoped; he should have been familiar with the content and needed a score of at least 60 percent to be considered at an independent level. Over the next few days, she gathers other information, including the Metacomprehension Strategies Index (MSI) (Schmitt, 1990). She administers this 25-item questionnaire at the beginning of the school year to all of her students so that she can make some initial grouping decisions. Because it is just Adam that she needs to assess, she conducts it as an interview in order to learn some other things about him as well. During the course of administering the MSI, she learns that Adam is friendly and has good oral language skills. He sometimes prefers to chat rather than answer the questions, but he is good-natured about finishing the interview. When Ms. Riley analyzes the results, she learns that her new student is good at self-questioning but has difficulty drawing on his background knowledge and verifying his predictions.
She knows that the next round of benchmark testing will occur in a few weeks, and this will offer a better opportunity to measure Adam's reading ability. However, given that she already sees some early signs of difficulty, she uses the Qualitative Reading Inventory-4 (QRI-4) informal reading inventory to delve deeper (Leslie & Caldwell, 2005). The word list and subsequent passages help her determine that Adam is reading at a late 3rd grade level. During the assessment, Adam has difficulty answering implicit comprehension questions but does better on explicit ones. Ms. Riley appreciates the usefulness of QRI-4, a tool that one of the special educators in the school's RTI2 work group shared with the 5th grade team.
Ms. Riley places Adam in a reading group with four other children at similar reading levels. Using text matched to their instructional level, Ms. Riley meets three times a week with this guided reading group and always devotes one reading to science content so Adam can catch up on content he missed. There are other groups who read at higher levels; she meets with them only once or twice a week. "I didn't always do that," she says. "I used to think it all had to be 'fair'—you know, equal. At some point I realized that the fairest system is when everyone gets what they need."
In the meantime, the results of the benchmark assessment are clear— Adam is reading well below his peers. Fortunately, the elementary school has invested in a Response to Instruction and Intervention initiative. Ms. Riley consults with Ms. Leung, the speech-language pathologist at the school, and describes her initial findings about Adam. Ms. Leung agrees that Adam might benefit from additional language instruction on asking metacognitive questions. Ms. Leung is in Ms. Riley's classroom once a week to meet with two other students who qualify for language services. After one of her sessions with the students who have identified disabilities, she listens for a few minutes to a guided reading lesson that Ms. Riley leads with Adam and a few others. Based on her observations, Ms. Leung shares a self-inquiry strategy that Ms. Riley begins to use with Adam's group: after previewing the story, give each student in the group a key question on a card:
The students answer their questions, and then each adds information to these initial responses. Ms. Riley records this information on her laptop so students can review their answers after they have read the story.
In addition, during one lunch hour a week, Adam meets with a book club hosted by the school's reading specialist. Called the Lunch Bunch, students in 4th through 6th grade who are experiencing reading difficulties due to motivation and interest are invited to participate in this club. Adam reads items of his choosing from a list developed by the reading specialist. Adam likes professional wrestling magazines. He talks with other students who are reading the same magazine, and the reading specialist listens in on the conversation and brokers discussions about lucha libre (a style of wrestling) in general and Rey Mysterio (a popular wrestler) in particular.
Adam also participates in more formal Tier 2 supplemental reading instruction. The Title I teacher, Mr. Alonzo, works in Ms. Riley's classroom once a week during the reading block and provides additional small-group instruction for several students. He assessed Adam's phonics knowledge early on and learned that Adam had difficulties with phonics skills. Based on plans developed with Ms. Riley and consultations with the reading specialist and speech pathologist, Mr. Alonzo focuses on developing these skills in conjunction with written summaries of the material that Adam and the others read in class. Using both holistic and analytic measures, including conventions, words written, and the number of words per sentence, Mr. Alonzo collects data on Adam's writing samples every two weeks. Adam also takes part in scaffolded writing instruction activities such as modeled writing, Power Writing, generative sentences, and writing models (Fisher & Frey, 2007b).
After 20 weeks of Tier 2 supplemental instruction, Adam's responsiveness rate still concerns his teachers. Once again, the team meets with Adam's parents to discuss his progress and develop new supports. They examine data on Adam's work and look at comparative data from randomly selected, unidentified classmates. Based on his continued difficulties applying metacognitive strategies and creating summaries, the team agrees that Adam would benefit from Tier 3 intensive intervention support. As part of this process, the reading specialist, Ms. Robertson, will work directly with Adam.
A major principle of the RTI2 program at Adam's school is that both supplemental and intensive interventions are paired as closely as possible with classroom instruction. Therefore, Ms. Robertson consults with Ms. Riley to discuss the social studies and science content that the class will cover. Ms. Robertson locates readings that align with the content in their textbooks, allowing her to preteach and reteach content that Adam will learn in his classroom. In addition, she uses reading passages on these same topics as a vehicle for reading comprehension instruction, as well as a basis for targeted phonics work. Importantly, a writing component is included in each lesson. Ms. Robertson notices that Adam seems to write more when he uses a laptop computer, so she encourages him to use one in their work together. She also makes a point of sharing this successful accommodation with Ms. Riley, as an analysis of Adam's writing samples shows that he writes longer and more complex summaries on a laptop than he does by hand.
During the 12 weeks of Tier 3 intensive intervention and support, Adam's grades in all subject areas improve. Though he is not at the top of the class, Ms. Riley and Adam's parents are pleased with his solid B
average. This school has also established a mechanism for analyzing support results and advising next year's teachers. The school's RTI2 committee meets monthly to look at data for individual students in Tiers 2 and 3. They also compare incidence rates by grade level and discuss possible Tier 1 refinements to core instruction for students who receive intervention services. In fact, many of the instructional practices used with Adam, including assessment instruments, grouping strategies, and leveled readings, are the product of previous work by this committee. Ms. Riley, a member of the team, says, "I have a more solid classroom now than I did five years ago. I've always been a good teacher, but now I'm a more responsive one."
The last two meetings of the year also include designing continued support for students advancing to the next grade level. Because Adam will be entering 6th grade, the committee's grade-level representative and Ms. Riley discuss possible support for Adam. Ms. Riley shares successes (using a laptop, previewing content in advance of the class, receiving extra support to complete longer assignments, and having high-interest independent reading material). The 6th grade team has implemented an academic recovery period once a week so that assignment support is available to any student who needs it. The committee recommends that Adam attend the extended school year program to keep him engaged in reading and writing and to avoid the summer slide during which achievement levels decline from a lack of instruction or engagement (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olson, 2007).
In contrast to traditional summer school, the extended school year program provides extra days for students to master content standards from the regular school year (more information on extended school year programs can be found in Chapter 4). Adam's family agrees that this is a good plan. Adam, who has had a positive experience with his new school, has a good attitude about himself as a learner. "The best thing about this school," he says, "is that they don't let you fail."
Figure 1.1 contains a summary and synthesis of the actions taken by the teachers and the school in each of the three possible scenarios. Admittedly, deciding where to place Adam is a rhetorical dilemma. We can't imagine that anyone reading this book would choose the first scenario. However, we do expect many readers to nod their heads in sad recognition of their own personal experiences as educators, parents, or students. In the past, special education prereferral processes were regarded as a foregone conclusion for struggling students. Unfortunately, there has been a long tradition of thinking, "There's something wrong with this kid, and whatever it is, he doesn't belong in my class."
The Traditional School
What's wrong with Adam?
The RTI School
How can we help Adam?
The RTI2 School
How can focusing on Adam help the system improve?
Remedial reading group with paraprofessional
Student Study Team
Special education testing
Informal classroom assessments
Tier 2 intervention, assessment, and progress monitoring
Commercial Tier 3 intervention program, assessment, and progress monitoring
Student Study Team with parents
Instructional plan developed by classroom teacher
More informal classroom assessments
Differentiated reading groups with increased time
Consultation with special educator
Lunch Bunch book club
Tier 2 intervention with consultation (special educator, Title I teacher, reading specialist, and classroom teacher)
Tier 3 intervention aligned to classroom instruction
Tier 3 feedback loop to classroom teacher
RTI2 committee to examine school improvement
Grade level meetings to design continued support for the following year
The second scenario is a more enlightened one that is commonly seen in many education communities as states implement RTI plans, and well-meaning teachers and administrators follow guidelines to examine a student's responsiveness to intervention. When the student fails to respond positively, the process for special education testing is initiated. However, we believe that there remains a largely untapped potential to improve this process by capitalizing on the collective wisdom of educators and families, which explores the spirit of the law while operating within its guidelines. We have all witnessed what committed educators and families can accomplish when the artificial barriers set up by strict role definitions are intentionally blurred. Response to Instruction and Intervention seeks to expand the lens so that both the classroom and individual students benefit from this collaboration. To this end, we intend this book to serve the following purposes:
At the end of each chapter, we will reiterate key points in a feature we call "The Takeaway." This short bulleted list is meant to be both a summary and a means for you to check your own understanding of the information we have presented. In this chapter, we addressed the following ideas:
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