(Editorial Note — See also follow-up post here)
Like many well-meaning instructional reforms, Response to Intervention (RTI) is likely to fail if it is not coupled with other reforms that address the perverse incentives blocking its proper implementation.
The idea behind RTI is that we could avoid placing many students in special education if only we provided them with well-designed instructional approaches in the early grades. The huge increase in special education enrollments consists almost entirely of growth in Specific Learning Disability (SLD), which is an ambiguous category that is difficult for practitioners to diagnose properly. Almost any student with a normal range IQ but sub-par achievement could be labeled as SLD. But of course, students may lag in their achievement because they have been poorly taught, not because they have a problem processing information, as is characteristic of a true SLD. Schools have a variety of incentives to discount the former explanation and instead push students into special ed.
RTI is a federally-backed program that attempts to address this problem by allowing schools to divert 15% of their special education money into well-designed instructional programs for the early grades. If students are taught well, they won’t be lagging academically and so will not end up being identified as disabled.
This all sounds great, but it is almost certainly doomed to failure if we do not also address why schools were not previously providing well-designed instruction in early grades or why they are so motivated to identify students as disabled. Essentially, RTI frees-up money to get schools to do what they presumably should have been doing already — providing well-designed instruction in the early grades. Unless we think that the main impediment to well-designed instruction was that schools lacked the funding to do it, diverting 15% of special education money to early-grade instruction will not get them to do anything significantly different from what they were already doing. Even if we thought that the problem was that schools were unaware of the effective approaches that RTI offers, we have no reason to believe that schools will truly adopt or effectively implement those strategies.
It is a a seductive but entirely mistaken reform approach to believe that schools are eagerly awaiting to be told by the federal government or philanthropists how to teach effectively but are just lacking the critical resources and knowledge to do it. Schools already hire certified professionals who have been exposed to countless hours of pre-service and in-service training. Why would we think that the only reason that they are failing to employ an effective technique is because they are unaware of it? And with school budgets increasing every year, why would we think that the next bit of money is the one that they finally need to pursue effective strategies?
Instead, we have to recognize that educators have reasons for doing what they are doing. They generally believe that the techniques they’ve adopted are effective, even if they aren’t. Getting them to switch to something else takes more than just offering it to them. This is especially the case when they’ve seen untold failed instructional fads come their way. They’ve learned to tuck their heads down and do what they think works based on their own limited experience and inertia.
RTI does nothing to address these barriers to instructional reform. In addition, it does nothing to address the incentives that schools have to place students in special education. In most states schools receive additional funding when a student is identified as disabled. If a student is lagging academically and the school would have to devote some resources to helping that student catch-up, the school could either choose to say “my bad” and pay for those extra resources out of their existing budget, or they could say that the student is disabled and get additional money to help that student catch-up. Of course, they have strong financial incentives to choose the latter explanation. Research that I’ve done with Greg Forster and that Julie Cullen at UC San Diego has done, confirms that these positive financial incentives play a large role in the growth of special education. That is, special education is growing, in large part, because we reward schools financially for increasing their special ed enrollment.
I know that many people claim that special education is a horrible financial burden on schools because it costs far more than the subsidies they receive. But people who say this are either simply advocating for more subsidies or don’t properly understand what a “cost” is. A cost is an expenditure that one would not otherwise make. Simply showing that more is spent on special education students than subsidies received does not prove that the subsidy is less than the cost of identifying a student as disabled. More is spent on students lagging academically whether they are identified as disabled or not.
The positive financial incentive for identifying students as disabled exists when the subsidy is greater than the expenditure required by the special ed label beyond what would have been spent on that student anyway. Because proper accounting is almost entirely absent in education, it is difficult to measure these additional costs directly. But from the research showing the response to financial incentives, we know that there is often a financial reward for putting students in special education.
I don’t mean to suggest that educators are cynically gaming the school finance system or are even aware of its details. My point is that the systems that school districts have adopted for the evaluation and identification of disabilities are shaped by these financial incentives so that even well-meaning practitioners will tend to over-identify disabilities when there are financial rewards for doing so.
Of course, RTI does nothing to address these financial incentives for increasing special ed enrollments. In fact, it may contribute to those perverse incentives because schools are rewarded even more by placing more students in special education because they now get to divert 15% of that money for general education, which is essentially fungible. And to make matters worse, diverting 15% of special education money away from disabled students may short-change truly disabled students who need those resources.
I’m sure that the people backing RTI are completely sincere in their confidence that we could prevent disabilities (and save money) if only we had proper instruction. But wishing does not make that happen. Reformers need to stay focused on combining promising instructional reforms with fixing the perverse incentive systems that undermine those instructional approaches.
The incentive reforms should include changing the process by which we provide financial subsidies so that there are not strong rewards for over-identification of disabilities. One way to do that is to provide vouchers for students with disabilities equal to the full value of what is spent on them in public schools. That way schools would have to think twice before identifying a student as disabled. Sure, they’ll get extra resources if they put a kid in special ed, but they also risk having that student walk out the door with all of his or her resources. It places a check on perverse financial incentives.
RTI with special ed vouchers could be a winning combination. RTI by itself is just increasing federal subsidies for the status quo.