Special ed teaching under the microscope
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The state Department of Education is changing the way it identifies students with learning disabilities to make sure they belong in special education classes.
New federal rules recently issued by the Bush administration require schools to give struggling students intensive instruction before labeling them as "special ed."
The approach, called response to intervention, recommends giving targeted instruction of increasing intensity in the subjects students are having trouble with.
The goal is to separate students with learning disabilities from those who can't keep up with their peers because of inadequate teaching in previous years.
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Hawaii education officials are rethinking, under new federal rules, how they identify students in need of special education.
The new policy is aimed at intervening early with intensive teaching to give struggling students a chance to succeed in regular classrooms and escape the "special ed" label.
States, including Hawaii, have largely relied on a 1970s-era method that looks for disparities between a child's IQ and achievement scores to determine whether a child has a learning disability.
But under new guidelines issued by the Bush administration in October, states now also need to observe how well children respond to intensive instruction in the subjects where they're having problems.
The goal is to determine whether students may be falling behind not because they have a learning disability, but as a result of poor instruction in previous grades, said Debra Farmer, administrator for special education with the state Department of Education.
"Is it because the teachers didn't teach them, or do they really have a learning disability?" she said. "If it was lack of instruction, then it cannot be a learning disability. You have to go back and instruct them."
The approach, called "response to intervention," recommends giving targeted instruction of increasing intensity. Those students are then monitored and tested frequently to see how they respond. Failing to improve academically at an adequate pace could indicate a learning disability.
Farmer said schools' staff were recently trained on the new guidelines. Officials will look at data to see whether the focused instruction helps students headed for special education to stay in regular classes.
"In about a year we'll be able to tell," Farmer said. "It was a rough start to get people to change the way they look at things, change the way they identify kids for learning disabilities."
About 5 percent of the more than 180,000 public school students in Hawaii are in special education. About half of them have a learning disability, while the remainder could have everything from autism to blindness, Farmer said.
For more than a decade, ending in 2005, Hawaii's schools were under a federal consent decree to improve services for disabled students. It resulted from a 1993 lawsuit filed on behalf of special needs student Jennifer Felix and others, who alleged that the state was violating federal law for failing to provide appropriate mental health and education services to children with disabilities.
But Farmer, citing a recent study, said Hawaii is now among only nine states meeting federal requirements for educating students with disabilities.
"That was a big thing for us," she said.
The new federal rules also allow schools for the first time to use up to 15 percent of their special education funds to provide the required early intervention.
Isle schools last year got $36 million in federal money out of roughly $11 billion a year the government provides for special education.
Alexa Posny, director of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Special Education Programs, said not everyone likes the new rules -- particularly parents of special ed students who object to money earmarked for their children being used for students who are not disabled.
Another concern about the method is that children who are eventually diagnosed as learning disabled could lose key care while receiving the intensified instruction, said Susan Rocco, a staffer at the Special Education Advisory Council in Hawaii.
"Possibly, in using these interventions, you might delay having a child receive support," said Rocco, whose 26-year-old son developed significant retardation after having surgery as a baby. "If the kid is struggling and you try to apply these research-based interventions, how long are they going to be tried before you refer the child for actual testing?"
The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter Alexandre Da Silva contributed to this report