An Interview with
The Civic Caucus
2104 Girard Ave.S., Minneapolis, MN 55405 June 14, 2013 Control the cost of
special education by strategically reducing the need for it
John Adams, Dave Broden, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Amir Gharbi, Paul
Gilje (coordinator), Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (chair),
Tim McDonald, Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, Bob
Wedl, Fred Zimmerman. By phone: Audrey Clay, Randy Johnson.
: Bob Wedl, senior associate
of Education|Evolving, says the best way to save on special education
costs is by not having to provide it in the first place. He explains
that a new model called Response to Intervention (RtI), used in a few
innovative Minnesota school districts, can reduce the number of
students being referred to special education as learning disabled by
up to 40 percent.
Wedl calls the RtI model a three-tiered
framework that includes the regular classroom, remedial support
programs and more in-depth programs. It uses analytic testing
three times a year to determine which students need interventions in
order to be proficient in reading or other skills. Grade-level teams
of teachers decide on interventions for individual students. One- to
two-minute "tests" are used weekly to see if the interventions are
working. If not, the interventions are changed. While the RtI model is
used primarily for reading, Wedl says it also can be applied to math
and some behavior problems.
He sees technology as a powerful
intervention tool in the regular classroom for students having trouble
with reading, math or other subjects.
: Bob Wedl is a senior
associate of Education|Evolving, a joint venture of the St. Paul-based
Center for Policy Studies and Hamline University. His career in public
education includes experience in district and chartered schools,
Minnesota Education Department leadership and higher education. He
served as Minnesota's Commissioner of Education in the late 1990s,
leading Minnesota's innovative standards and measurement initiatives,
electronic data collection systems and new finance models, including
having revenues following students to the sites they attend. In the
late 1980s and early 1990s, while serving as deputy commissioner of
education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota's
educational choice policy, including open enrollment, postsecondary
enrollment options, "second chance" programs and the nation's first
charter school law.
Wedl also served as the executive director
of planning and policy for the Minneapolis public schools, where he
led the development of new models for serving students. He expanded
the Response to Intervention (RtI) model and helped develop a
"value-added growth accountability model." He also provided direction
to the district's nine chartered schools and 33 contract alternative
He has published numerous articles on
education and is finalizing a book titled School Boards Have
Choice Too. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint
Special education students are primarily
regular education students.
According to Bob Wedl, senior associate of Education|Evolving, the
vast majority of most special education students' time is spent in
regular classes. While special education services for some students
may be only 20 minutes of speech therapy a week, children at the other
end with profound disabilities may require extensive services. But
most students are receiving special education services because they
don't read and/or do math well.
The best way to save on special education
costs is not having to provide it in the first place.
Wedl said that when reviewing the March 2013 Legislative Auditor's
evaluation report looking at the costs of special education, he did
not see that the audit looked at different models that resulted in
kids not needing special education services as a way of controlling
costs. (See Civic Caucus April 5, 2013, discussion with
Wedl and colleague Curt Johnson consulted on
a 2011 report prepared by a number of Minnesota's foundations titled
Beyond the Bottom Line
(see chapter 5, page 29), which addresses prevention strategies in
special education as a way to improve outcomes and lower costs.
According to Wedl, a key part of controlling the cost of special
education is a prevention model, as well as a direct service model,
called Response to Intervention (RtI), which is being used in a few
innovative Minnesota school districts. While the model is most widely
used for reading, it is also being applied for mathematics and
behavior. RtI recognizes that the most important part of the model, in
terms of prevention, is what goes on in the regular classrooms.
The report states that initiating an RtI
prevention model has demonstrated up to a 40 percent reduction in
students classified as "learning disabled." It says that current
Minnesota law provides options in the ways districts can identify
special education students. "Ironically, most continue to use outdated
and expensive models which require that 'students fail,' before they
can be helped," according to the report.
The RtI model has three tiers:
is the core instruction
that all students receive. A quality core instruction program should
result in around 80 percent of students on-track towards grade-level
supports are supplemental
to the core instructional program. The goal is to have 15 percent or
fewer students needing supplemental instruction. Usually, these
interventions will be provided by a Title I teacher, a learning
disabilities teacher or other staff.
involves more intensive
services uniquely designed to meet the instructional and/or
behavioral needs of a few students, usually three to five percent.
These students are served by teachers with expertise in different
curriculum and instruction models.
Tier 1 is very important in a prevention
model. Wedl said most districts tend to use the same curriculum in all
classrooms. "A one-size fits all model guarantees failure for 25
percent of the kids, because not all kids learn the same," he said.
"The regular classroom curriculum must be tailored to the students.
For example, the reading curriculum used at sites where most students
come to school at kindergarten as fluent beginning readers will be
much different than the curriculum used at sites where students who
walk through the schoolhouse gate for the first time don't have a clue
as to what those squiggles on a page mean.
RtI uses a screening mechanism that tests
all kids in the fall, winter and spring.
In Minnesota, one of the most frequently
used tools is a test called Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).The
MAP test is an electronic tool that measures the performance level of
students in reading and math. It is a "levels test," meaning that for
students who continue to answer items correctly, the computerized test
continues to add more difficult test items. For students who are not
able to provide correct responses, the computerized model adds less
difficult items until the student is providing the appropriate
responses. The data are then analyzed and the results provided
immediately to the teacher, not months later as is common with
"With MAP, we know which kids are not on
target to be proficient in reading and math in the fall, winter and
spring," Wedl explained. "Then we help those kids immediately, either
by having the classroom teacher provide interventions in the classroom
or, where more significant needs are evident, having a remedial
program provide the interventions. The RtI model provides assistance
to students who are even a tad below target. It is individualized for
every single student at the site."
The RtI model assumes that if learning is
not occurring, it is not because of a problem "inside the student."
Rather, the problem lies with the instruction, Wedl said. Therefore
the instruction continues to change until learning results. The
testing is "formative," which teachers fully support, because it aids
them immediately by informing them of the impact of the instruction
they are providing. While the RtI model is most frequently used with
reading, a number of districts are using it in other areas, such as
mathematics and behavior management.
A growing category of special education is
Wedl suggests that while the RtI model is effective in terms of
preventing behavior issues from becoming chronic, sometimes student
behavior is in response to their learning environment. In other words,
frequently students need a more individualized instruction
environment, perhaps one that is project-based and most often has far
fewer students. Rather than labeling these students as having a
disability of "severe behavior problems," school districts should
develop school-within-a-school or, even better, alternative programs
located away from the mainstream school that use different models of
instruction, such as project-based learning.
In Wedl's experience as an administrator of
an alternative school, as students walked through the doors to
alternative schools, most left their behavior problems behind. "They
were behavior problems because of the environment they'd been in," he
said. "That's an example of what could be done to give a much better
education to those kids at a huge cost savings. It would also relieve
regular classroom teachers."
The model used by many districts (the severe
discrepancy model) does not provide interventions until students are
The literature calls this the "wait to fail" model. "If kids are
receiving special education academic services in fourth grade using
the severe discrepancy model, they most likely will be there for the
rest of their school lives," Wedl said. "That gets very expensive. But
the important question is why let that happen?"
All of the schools in the St. Croix River
Education District (SCRED) use the RtI model.
SCRED is operated by six school districts in
East Central Minnesota: Chisago Lakes, North Branch, Rush City, Pine
City, Hinckley-Finlayson, and East Central School Districts.Those
districts have been using RtI in all of their schools for over 10
years, Wedl said.
The research on the RtI model was first
conducted in Minnesota in the 1990s, led by researchers at the
University of Minnesota (Stan Deno), SCRED (Gary Germann) and the
Minneapolis public schools (Doug Marston and David Heistad). The
"Center for Learning Solutions," based in Minnesota, worked with state
Senators Gen Olson and Kathy Saltzman, along with Representatives
Mindy Grieling and Tim Faust, to get Minnesota laws changed to permit
the use of the RtI model. The model is now being used by hundreds of
districts around the United States.
The school districts in SCRED have shown
that the RtI model can reduce by 40 percent the number of students who
will ultimately need special education learning disability services.
This is significantly fewer students when compared to the schools in
Central Minnesota and statewide, as well. "But as important is
that when SCRED applied this model," Wedl said, "the performance of
all students as a cohort improved, both because of the attention paid
to the regular classroom curriculum, as well as the immediate
intervention provided when students were not on track to proficiency."
"The RtI model alone is just another model,"
Wedl noted. "What is important is that screening with tools having
predictive validity provides quick and reliable data as to which
students need assistance. Interventions taught by competent
individuals are key. Organization of the school day must permit
teachers to convene to review the data, select the interventions
likely to be of greatest assistance to individual students, determine
whether the instruction is working and, if not, to change it.
It's difficult to analyze savings from
students you never serve with special education services.
"If kids are being helped and don't need special education
services, you don't evaluate them, and you don't have paperwork that
teachers express so much concern about," Wedl said. "That would never
show up on a review by the Legislative Auditor." Several Wisconsin
school districts with enrollments of 3,000 to 4,000 students concluded
that they saved 4.5 full-time teachers in a year in each district by
using the RtI model, partly because the paperwork is much simpler.
A key premise of RtI is that regular
assessments mean teachers always know where kids are academically.
Data from the MAP tests correlate highly with the Minnesota
Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), required by the state to show
whether students are proficient academically at various grade levels.
MAP data show where kids need to be in the fall, winter and spring to
meet the proficiency targets on the third-grade through eighth-grade
"The MAP tests are diagnostic tests," Wedl
said, "while the MCA is an accountability tool. Because the MCAs are
administered at the end of the year, the data are not provided to
schools until long after the test is administered, so it is not very
helpful for instruction. That is why districts enrolling about 80
percent of the students in Minnesota use the MAP. It is useful
for instruction, which ought to be the primary reason for gathering
Short diagnostic tests are used to monitor
whether interventions with individual students are working.
In response to a question about how the teacher analyzes the data
day-to-day in order to provide the needed direct intervention, Wedl
said the MAP tests are used analytically and are very sensitive to
measuring growth. If a student is not on target, a grade-level team of
teachers can select the appropriate interventions, depending on the
needs of the student. When a student is being provided a reading
intervention, one- to two-minute weekly reading samples monitor the
student's progress. If there is no progress within a week or two, the
intervention is quickly changed until one is found that works.
Depending on the type of intervention, it is provided either by
special education teachers or by classroom teachers.
The Minneapolis school district has some of
the leading researchers in the country on the RtI model, but not all
schools in the district are using the model.
Wedl said he
believes the Minneapolis "Beat the Odds" schools are all using the
The RtI model is mainly used for students
with moderate to mild disabilities.
Wedl said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson and Special
Education Director Mary Clarkson, in their May 10, 2013,
with the Civic Caucus,
were really talking more about kids whose special education services
cost $40,000 to $50,000 per year. "The RtI model won't suddenly bring
students with severe and profound disabilities to proficiency," Wedl
"The points Carlson and Clarkson raised are
right on," Wedl argued. "Lack of increased general education revenue
over the past number of years resulted in a significant increase in
the amount of general revenue needed to support special education
Some districts don't use the RtI model
because it requires significant change that begins with the regular
An interviewer asked what is preventing districts like Minneapolis and
St. Paul from implementing the RtI model. Wedl responded,
"Nothing. Much of the answer is because 'We don't do it this way and
we don't change easily.' I believe that if we permitted school
sites to do it, more would. But principals are told, 'This is the
curriculum and the model we use in this district and it is your
responsibility to follow it.'" He said, though, that schools like
Lyndale, Loring, Kenny and others in Minneapolis continue to beat the
odds. Strong site leadership is key, he said.
"In Minneapolis the central office is very
strong," he continued, "although Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is
starting to change that. Even with the nationally recognized RtI
leadership in the district, neither the board nor the central office
was supportive of this model when I worked in the district 10 years
ago. It requires considerable change. RtI is far more than 'a special
ed model.' It requires district-wide change and, like any
organization, education doesn't change quickly."
Wedl noted that Governor Mark Dayton,
visited SCRED districts and publicly supported the RtI model during
his gubernatorial campaign.
There are some incentives in the special
education formula for districts to use the RtI model.
Only if a district uses this model, the state will pay the same
special education reimbursement on licensed teachers who are providing
students needed interventions, even those without special education
licenses. "In addition, federal special education funds can be used
for this as well. This gets extra money to help kids before they need
special education," he said.
Some school districts are using the RtI
model in their early childhood programs.
Wedl pointed out that SCRED districts implement the
age-three-to-grade-three program, using the RtI model. The Rush City
district has the most experience with this model. He said the
Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program, trains its members in
pre-kindergarten and K-to-grade-three interventions and measurements.
They are placed in Head Start programs and in district
pre-kindergarten programs only in school districts that accept the RtI
"Some people say pre-kindergarten programs
don't work because, as students go through school, they don't hold on
to the progress they made in those programs," Wedl added. "But I
suggest that's really because while the kids are ready for school, the
school is not ready for the kids. If these students had an
individualized learning program waiting for them, regression would not
At least one chartered school sponsor,
Innovative Quality Schools (IQS), requires the schools it sponsors to
use the RtI model and provides training to the schools' staff members.
State Department of Education staff could be
more supportive of RtI.
In response to a question, Wedl said, Commissioner Brenda Cassellius
is a supporter of the RtI model. "But," he said, "we really need to
come up with a new way to provide state assistance. At one time,
'state assistance' meant assistance provided by the state agency. That
needs to change. 'State assistance' ought to mean assistance provided
by organizations best able to provide it. Here Minnesota sits with the
very best RtI researchers and practitioners in the nation. Why isn't
'state assistance' provided by contracting with SCRED and Minneapolis?
That does not mean state department employees are not good at what
they do. That is not the point. We must change how we use resources at
the state level and this is a good example of how the role of 'state
assistance' might be provided differently.
Minnesota school districts have met the
Civil Rights objective of educating all students.
Wedl said special education laws were put into place in the 1970s,
because districts weren't serving all children with disabilities.
"Parents of children with disabilities took districts to court,
because educators weren't doing their job," he said. The courts agreed
with the parents and, as courts and lawyers do, they wrote orders in
legal and procedural terms. But perhaps there are three things
we need to do:
"First, maybe it's time to say, OK, we've
met the Civil Rights objective," he said. "All kids are now able to go
to school. Students are getting the kinds of services they need. Now
let's all sit down together and see how we could more reasonably do
"Second, Minnesota laws and regulations
extend beyond what is required by the federal laws. There are certain
areas where that is good policy, such as in serving children from
birth. But for the most part, Minnesota ought to abide by the federal
definitions and procedures," he said.
"Third, Minnesota should not label students
with behavior problems as having a disability," Wedl added. Rather
than putting all the kids with behavior problems in special education,
districts should come up with school-within-a-school or alternative
learning programs. Many students need a change of environment.
Use of technology can be a powerful
An interviewer asked how useful technology is in schools today. "It's
huge," Wedl said. "The teacher is often driving instruction aided by
technology. The real breakthrough is when the technology becomes the
teacher." He gave the example of a computer game that pushes kids to
read faster. The computer has words go by on the screen, but won't go
any faster than the student can go.
"Those types of interventions are very, very
powerful," he said. "The digital platform is the world of today's
students. It isn't new to them. They grew up with it as a part of
their daily lives. Yet we treat it as an add-on when it comes to
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
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