Kim Gibbons, Executive Director, St. Croix River Education District (SCRED)
An Interview with
The Civic Caucus
2104 Girard Ave.S., Minneapolis, MN 55405 July 12, 2013 Fix special
education not with more money, but by reforming regular education
Dave Broden, Janis Clay, Kim Gibbons, Joe Graba, Lars Johnson,
Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Paul
Ostrow, Dana Schroeder. By phone: Amir Gharbi, Paul Gilje
Summary of Discussion:
Kim Gibbons, executive
director of the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED), believes
that special education is a broken system. She says the way to fix
special education is not by providing it more and more funding, but
by reforming the regular education system. She argues that school
districts in Minnesota and elsewhere should be using the Response to
Intervention (RtI) framework, which ensures the provision of
high-quality, personalized instruction and interventions that are
matched to the needs of students requiring additional academic and
behavioral supports. Through RtI's regular use of screening
assessments and earlier interventions, Gibbons says, school
districts can reduce the number of children struggling with reading
who are identified as having specific learning disabilities and are
then referred to special education.
To increase the use of RtI statewide, she advocates that Minnesota
consider doing four things: providing incentives to districts for
implementing RtI; giving educators access to high-quality
professional development and coaching around RtI; becoming a
mandated RtI state, as 11 other states have done; and continue
providing funding for positive behavioral interventions and support,
which is part of the RtI framework.
Gibbons states that successful implementation of RtI strongly
depends on a school district's leadership, especially the
principals. But, she notes, while a number of districts have
struggled with teacher resistance to RtI, in some districts,
teachers have taken the lead in implementing the system.
Kim Gibbons, Ph.D., has worked with the
St. Croix River Education District (SCRED), located in Rush City,
MN, since 1995. She has served as the Executive Director of SCRED
since 2006. SCRED has earned national recognition for its use of the
Response to Intervention (RtI) framework. This framework ensures the
provision of high-quality instruction and interventions that are
matched to the needs of students requiring additional academic and
behavioral supports. In 2007, SCRED received a legislative
appropriation that funded a statewide Minnesota RtI Center for two
years, from 2007 to 2009.
Prior to her role as executive director,
Gibbons worked as a director of special education, staff development
coordinator and school psychologist. In addition, she has been on
the faculty at the University of Minnesota as an instructor in the
Department of School Psychology.
Gibbons obtained her doctoral degree in
school psychology from the University of Oregon. Her research and
professional interests include school-wide organization to support a
multi-tiered system of instructional supports, assessment linked to
intervention, alternative service delivery models, evaluation of
psycho-educational services, and intervention and assessment of
basic skill areas.
She has authored three books, most
recently (with Matt Burns), Implementing
Response-to-Intervention in Elementary and Secondary Schools:
Procedures to Assure Scientific-Based Practices - Second Edition.
She is a sought-after consultant, who has presented numerous
workshops throughout Minnesota and nationally.
The St. Croix River Education
District (SCRED) has been a leader in the implementation of a
framework aimed at improving instruction for all students, Response
to Intervention (RtI). According to SCRED executive
director Kim Gibbons, the six school districts in East Central
Minnesota who operate SCRED (Chisago Lakes, North Branch, Rush City,
Pine City, Hinckley-Finlayson, and East Central School Districts),
have been long-term implementers of this model, starting in the
1980s. They've been formally using the model since 1995.
Gibbons said SCRED has received a lot of
national recognition for its work with RtI. In 2007, the Legislature
provided SCRED with $1 million to form a statewide RtI center to
provide assistance to school districts around the state. The center
worked with over 50 school districts, but the funding ended after
two years. "There's been a great void in Minnesota in terms of
professional development and technical assistance to districts,"
School districts in Minnesota are using
about 33 percent of their general funds to pay for the portion of
special education not funded by the state or federal governments.
"We're all aware of the amount of money going into special
education," Gibbons said. "The country spends $500 billion on public
education and it costs twice as much to educate students with
disabilities as it does for their typical peers."
Nationally, 12 percent of students are
identified as needing special education services. So, as a country,
we're spending about 25 percent of education dollars, or $125
billion, on special education. The majority of that funding, Gibbons
said, is coming from state and local sources.
Students with learning disabilities amount
to about 50 percent of those receiving special education services
According to Gibbons, of the students who
qualify as specific learning disabled (SLD), the majority qualify
because they can't read. A number of researchers have
speculated that many students receiving services because of reading
difficulties probably aren't disabled. These are students who
haven't been taught to read well using the science of reading
"There are volumes of research over the
past 20 years," Gibbons said. "We know how to teach reading; there
is a science behind it. The field of education hasn't caught up with
the research on teaching reading. Lots of students are receiving
inadequate and inappropriate instruction. That's resulting in large
numbers of students needing special education services. In fact, if
they had been taught to read adequately at a young age, we could
The RtI model can reduce the number of
children classified as learning disabled, who require special
education services, by providing earlier interventions in the
regular classroom for students who are at risk of not meeting
"RtI is trying to prevent many
students from needing costly special education services," she said.
"My passion is how to set up good systems in regular education to
prevent so many students from needing special education."
Gibbons described RtI as "Really Terrific
Instruction" where teachers work collaboratively as teams; use data
to determine which students are on track, which are exceeding our
expectations and need more differentiation, and which are not
meeting our expectations; and figure out how we can set up systems
to support students based on their needs using research-based
The underpinnings of RtI came from the
University of Minnesota in the early 1980s. Dr. Stan Deno and
colleagues developed formative assessment measures to track student
progress in basic skill areas (Curriculum Based Measurement). SCRED
was the pilot site for testing the RtI measures in the 1980s.
The RtI framework has three components:
1. An assessment system, which
(a) Screening all students three
times per year with short tests to determine which students
are at risk of not meeting the Minnesota Comprehensive
Assessment (MCA) test proficiency standards;
(b) Progress monitoring for students
at risk, from once a week to once a month, depending upon the
severity of the problem;
(c) Diagnostic information for some
students to figure out why they are behind in reading or math.
2. Instruction across tiers of
Tier 1. Good core instruction
for all students that is aligned to state standards and
involves teachers using research-based strategies to teach.
The system aims for 80 percent proficiency with core
Tier 2. Supplemental support for
students who are below grade-level expectations and need an
extra boost. In addition, supplemental support can be
provided to students who exceed grade-level expectations.
Tier 3. More intensive and
individualized support for students who do not respond to Tier
2 interventions or those students who are significantly below
(or above) grade-level expectations.
3. Problem-solving and school-wide
organization to set up collaborative teams of teachers, who
review data and use
it to change instruction.
Prior to the use of the RtI framework,
Gibbons said, there were generally only two options for students:
general instruction or special education. There were not a lot of
options for the students who needed additional support within
Students with disabilities drop out at
twice the rate of their peers.
Dropping out is highly
correlated with academic achievement, Gibbons said. "If we can work
at engaging students and meeting their needs at young ages, from a
policy perspective, that will pay off for us tenfold in the long
run." She said conservative estimates show that if all the high
school dropouts from 2007 could have earned a diploma, our economy
could have benefitted from an additional $330 billion of wages over
these students' lifetimes.
The most recent Minnesota Comprehensive
Assessment (MCA) tests show that around 62 percent of students
statewide are proficient in math; 76 percent of students are
proficient in reading.
But Gibbons reported that there is
an achievement gap for students of color and students with
Only 33 percent of students of color are proficient in math
and only 53 percent are proficient in reading.
Only 34 percent of students with disabilities are proficient
in math and only 46 percent are proficient in reading.
According to Gibbons, special education is
not the answer for reaching the 38 percent of students not
proficient in math and the 24 percent of students not proficient in
reading or for solving the math and reading achievement gap for
students of color and students with disabilities.
"Special education as structured now is
not overly effective," she said. "Outcomes are not good. It's a
broken system. Special education teachers work hard, but they serve
students after years and years of failure. It's hard to remediate
problems at that point. Only five percent of students who receive
special education services ever exit special education."
The way to fix special education is not by
funneling more and more money into it, but by reforming regular
"We need to make sure we've got a multi-tiered
system, where special education is not the only answer for getting
assistance for students who need help," Gibbons said. "We have to
have a range of options and that's where RtI comes in."
She noted that when she gives talks and
workshops around the country, she doesn't talk about RtI as a new
initiative, but as a framework for good instruction. "This is about
collaborating, using data, using the research to guide your
instruction," she said.
Studies show that RtI has a desirable
effect that advances student achievement by two to three years in
In 1995-1996, the average reading proficiency for
SCRED students using only core instruction was 20 percent. Now,
Gibbons said, the reading proficiency using RtI is around 80 percent
at the elementary level and somewhat lower than that at the middle
school level, where it is still far above the earlier 20 percent
Gibbons stated it's harder to keep focused
on reading in middle school, because a lot of people think formal
reading instruction stops in sixth grade. "We've had to work hard to
keep reading instruction alive and well for students who need it,"
she said. "We still have more growth to make. I'm encouraged by the
growth the students are making in a year. It's much higher than when
Using RtI, SCRED has decreased the
percentage of students receiving special education services for
specific learning disabilities from 4.2 percent in 1994-1995 to 2.3
percent in 2012-2013, considerably lower than the statewide level of
"A lot of students are getting the help they
need without requiring special education services," Gibbons
Data from the RtI process can be used to
see whether a student meets the criteria for receiving special
education services for a specific learning disability.
said the old way of determining if a child met the specific learning
disability criteria was to give each child an intelligence (IQ) test
and an achievement test. In order to qualify for special education,
the child had to have a big discrepancy between the two tests.
"That's a wait-to-fail approach," she said, "because students often
don't have a large enough discrepancy to qualify for special
education until later in their school career, perhaps fourth or
To increase the use of RtI statewide,
Minnesota should consider doing four things from a policy
1. Provide incentives to districts for
2. Give educators access to high-quality
professional development and coaching around RtI.
"There has been a huge void in
this area," Gibbons said.
3. Consider becoming a mandated RtI
state, as 11 other states have done.
4. Continue providing funding for
positive behavioral interventions and support, which is part of
the RtI framework.
SCRED has implemented RtI largely without
According to Gibbons, it requires looking
at your existing resources and using them differently. "Lots of
people would argue that more funding is needed for RtI and I
wouldn't argue with them about professional development and
technical training," she said. "But you have to look at the big
picture of how much money you'll actually be saving in the long
There are several special education
funding provisions that can help pay for RtI.
school districts can use 15 percent of their federal special
education funding for early intervention services. And in Minnesota,
school districts can submit an Alternative Delivery of Specialized
Instructional Services (ADSIS) application to the state Department
of Education. If approved, ADSIS allows districts to obtain
special education funding for teachers to work with at-risk
students. The teacher doesn't have to work with special
education students, but can work with at-risk students where
interventions other than special education are being used.
Acceptance of RtI depends on the
leadership in a school district.
An interviewer asked why
RtI is not accepted in districts that really need it the most.
Gibbons responded that it starts with the leadership in the
district. "It depends on the principals and the superintendent and
the value they place on data and outcomes," she said. Principals are
key to implementing RtI. "If you don't have a principal on board,
the implementation speed of this is a snail's pace," she said. "You
need a principal who will be an instructional leader to really help
teachers improve their instruction."
When asked whether the Minneapolis and St.
Paul school districts are using RtI, Gibbons responded that St. Paul
is working on implementing RtI. Minneapolis, she said, has used a
problem-solving, databased decision-making model for many years. The
district was involved with the work out of the University of
Minnesota in developing the RtI framework.
Sometimes fear drives teacher resistance
An interviewer asked whether there has been teacher
resistance to RtI. Gibbons said in a number of districts,
teachers have actually been the driving force behind use of RtI,
bringing administrators along. Where there is teacher resistance,
she said, sometimes teachers don't want to be members of grade-level
teams. "But part of teaching," she said, "should be meeting with
your colleagues and looking at the data and talking about the
students in your grade level." RtI requires a lot of professional
judgment. "Resistance is sometimes fear; people are afraid that they
don't have the skills to operate in this framework," she said.
Perhaps providing incentives and shared
state funding would help implement RtI more quickly than mandating
One interviewer commented that RtI seems to be an area
where the experimentation is done and replication is beginning. "It
seems to cry out for some sort of policy adjustment," he said.
Gibbons responded that there is legislative support, "but it always
boils down to money." There are costs associated with implementing
RtI, including the cost of the screening measures, of the data
storage system, of the professional development programs and of
putting together grade-level teams.
The same interviewer continued. "This
offers the best promise of any approach for reading I've seen in 40
years." He said the state should think about a four-to-five year
program to provide incentives and shared state funding for
implementing RtI. "Maybe the state should help start RtI in
one-quarter of the school districts each year for the next four
years," he said. "Perhaps we should step back from a statewide
mandate and think about providing incentives instead.
RtI offers highly personalized instruction
for all students, if a school uses the proper screening measures.
Gibbons said a child at the 99 percent level, but making no growth,
needs assistance as much as a child in the bottom five percent.
RtI is very appropriate at the high school level, but it's more
difficult to schedule the interventions. "We started RtI in
high school in 2001 or 2002," she said. "There are still a lot of
students at that level not proficient in reading or math and lots of
students with behavioral problems who aren't engaged in school."
She said it's harder to find flexibility
in scheduling the extra help time in high school than in elementary
school, so support is usually offered as an elective course with
credits. One problem is that sometimes students can't take a
different elective course they'd prefer
More schools of education are interested
In response to a question, Gibbons said college and
university schools of education are "definitely coming on board."
She said when SCRED led the RtI center from 2007 to 2009, they did
meet with higher education institutions to help teach them about RtI.
She recently led a daylong RtI workshop for all faculty and students
in the education school at North Dakota State University (NDSU).
"RtI really is a framework that, if implemented well, will bring
large increases in achievement for all students, especially for
students who are struggling," Gibbons said. "It can keep large
numbers of students out of special education later on. We must keep
working with teachers on how to work collaboratively, how to use the
research-based models of instruction and how to use the right data
to guide their instructional decisions."
View other recent Civic Caucus discussions on special education with
senior associate of Education|Evolving (June 14, 2013); with
Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson
and Anoka-Hennepin Special Education Director Mary Clarkson (May 10,
2013); and with Jody Hauer,
principal evaluator in the Office of the Legislative Auditor (April
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
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include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
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David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and