Keynote Speaker: Alexa Posny, Ph.D. - Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Service, U.S. Department of Education

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


Well thank you. This is going to be an opportunity for me to kind of do just a little history if you don’t mind and I do have a PowerPoint that I do want to share for those of you who know me it’s almost as if I can’t do anything if I don’t have a PowerPoint to go along with it. When I think about, [beeping noise] okay, when I think about the context and I think about what it is you’ve been working on all day and I wish I could have spent the day with you because it’s a great conversation. When we celebrated the 35th anniversary of IDEA just a few weeks ago on November 29th and you know several of you were there at that time. President Barack Obama released on November 29th a statement in relationship to the importance that this law has put, has made across this country. And one of the comments he made is exactly this, he said

“In America we believe that every child, regardless of class, color, creed, or ability deserves access to a world class education” that is what we want for every single child in this country and we can’t ever forget that.  When I think about the anniversary that we celebrated, we have to remember what’s occurred over those last 35 years.  It’s hard for me to remember sometimes that it has been 35 years because, yes, I will date myself.  I have been in this prior to 94-142 so it gives me that great historical perspective on what we’ve done.  But what I know is this.  Is that RTI will absolutely contribute to the field if it has not already.  I have said it over and over again, RTI and EIS and, yes, and you guys all know what I’m talking about when I say that, but when I think about it it hasn’t changed special education. It has changed education and will continue to do so.  It is where we need to head in the future.

Let’s go back to where we were, you know, in 1974.  At that point in time we had 1.75 million children with disabilities in this country who had no access to public education whatsoever.  They never even entered a school door.  And think about it.  35 years later we now serve over 6.6 million students with disabilities in this country and think about this—that 60%, almost 60% of our students with disabilities are in general education more than 80% of the day.  Who are the primary educators of our kids that are identified?  It’s general education.  And I’m so glad that Michael is here with me and as many of you have said, this is a general education initiative.  And the one thing I want to mention is that students with disabilities are general education students first and foremost.  And that’s again what makes this so critically important as we think about it.

When we think about what happened and I think about the number of roles that I have played over the course the years, in the early 1990s and Daryl you should remember this, in the early 1990s, I worked for a Title I technical assistance center.  And I’m the one that represented students with disabilities as part of that.  And I remember having meetings with Judy Shrag and Mary Jean LaTond(?).  Some of you may not remember those names, but that’s when we talked about the importance of ESEA and IDEA working together.  And I’m looking at Daryl because we did a paper together that talked about how we needed to assess kids.  This has been going on for a long time.

In the l990s this is when we changed the movement from just ensuring access to general education to making sure that we were really and truly improving results for all kids.  And that kids with disabilities had meaningful access to the gen ed curriculum and not just you know on paper.

When I think about it, and I’m going to go back to my history in Kansas now because that’s where I spent prior to my couple of stints here in DC, this where I spent like the last 22 years.  It was in the early 1990s that in Kansas we really took a look at alternative ways to identify kids and that’s thanks to you, Mr. Tilly, you know cause I looked at Iowa in terms of what was happening.  Yes, he knows.  He’s shaking his head, but yes, we worked with them.  He was working on the problem-solving model.  And Dawn, I’ve got to credit you.  You spent the major part of your time working and developing the student improvement teams which were such an important part of where it led us in terms of our Kansas regulations.  And when we re-authorized our regs in Kansas in the early 2000s, that’s when we got away from the discrepancy formula and went to the general education interventions.  It was at that point in time that I became the local director of special ed for the Shawnee Mission School District.  So where did we go to at that point in time?  Very clearly we made the movement early on before we even re-authorized at the federal level.  We very clearly took a look at the discrepancy model versus the response to intervention model.  We know that there was a clear line…that is no clear line of demarcation in terms of a discrepancy model and yet that was the basis of it.  Now we know that multiple indicators are needed in terms of looking and identifying kids.

Promoting the sole use of IQ scores was not something that we knew was beneficial so we know that we need multiple and varied assessments.  We also know that the discrepancy model had a wait(?) to fail and we cannot and have no time to fail any of our kids, and we need to provide interventions as quickly as possible.  The focus was always on disability rather than looking at the interventions that we needed.  So very clearly we were early, early on the bandwagon in terms of response to intervention.

Following my stint at Shawnee Mission, I became the state director of special ed and that’s when we really took a look at what we needed to do in the law. Response to intervention was very clearly what we needed to do, that we knew that early on every single child needed to be identified who might be at-risk and who needed to be provided those intense supports no matter what and monitor their progress whenever we could  This clearly made a difference in terms of the state.

When we took a look at what success would look like, we knew that we needed to have the highest quality interventions we possibly could.  That the intensity of services we provided had to be there for every single child, that it wasn’t just academics but we had to have the full continuum.  Academics and behavior were critically important.  We had to have a focus on continuous monitoring and of course the fidelity of implementation is absolutely critical.

So in terms of Kansas, what we did is we put many structures into place.  First of all, we required an integrated intervention support system.  You’ve talked about it and heard about.  This is all of us working together.  This is not special ed, this is not just general ed.  We also know that we need to intervene and provide anything for any child at any point in time when he or she is struggling.  We do not have to wait to apply a label.  We also know that we need multiple or tiered levels of support.  Kids have different needs at different points and times.  We also know that there is a continuum of increasingly intense interventions that need to be provided.

As part of this, we also knew in Kansas that we had to have the continuous, on-going progress monitoring.  We have to do that all the time.  There is a study that just came out that was just released today. It’s the McKinsey study and I know I’m going to be using the data.  And I’m going to be talking about that because it talks about and validates everything we’ve been talking about in terms of what’s in RTI.  And this is a report that looks at and provides for you the, across the world what makes a difference in terms of reform.  I encourage you to read that report because this will become the basis for what we have tried to accomplish in RTI.  We know that all children can achieve to high expectations and yes, every time I hear these studies that talk about how, you know, 40% of our teachers don’t even believe that all kids can learn, I find that not just disconcerting, I find that really you know, that troubles me a great deal.

We also know that all teachers need to teach students to the highest standards, and we need to give them the conditions that allow them to be successful.  When we look at the laws that were put in place then in the year 2000, at that point in time I then became the deputy commissioner for the great state of Kansas and got to work on both sides of the continuum which was great.  So I was able to take a look at both of the laws, both No Child Left Behind and the re-authorization that came about.  Take a look at what we put in those laws at that time and to begin to see the connection that has been made between them.  We know that we need to provide more options for everyone.  We have to work with parents.  This is a partnership with everyone.  Parents, I want you to understand, you are critical to the success of your child and what happens in schools.  We increased flexibility and I know you find that hard to believe from the Feds but we absolutely tried to increase flexibility.

The major piece, and the major change that occurred, was the clear focus on accountability for results.  And accountability for what results?  For kids.  No longer was it on the process and the inputs that were reporting(?) into the system.  It has to be are we making a difference for our kids in terms of what we want.  One of the other things, and then from there you know I’ve moved on so much I came here to Washington, DC, and was able to be part of the regulations that came out of the re-authorization in 2004 of IDEA.  Early Intervening Services.  Another critical aspect of what we’re talking about that I believe makes RTI so successful.  We have to intervene as early as we possibly can and what was monumental about this particular aspect is for the first time we could use 15% of the federal IDEA dollars to provide services and interventions for kids who were not yet identified.  That was monumental.  And know that I’m going to be coming to each and every one of you as we look at re-authorizing IDEA again, because I’m going to need the evidence to show that this made a difference when I go and talk to members on the Hill.  Critically important that we say that this is important and it’s been very successful.

So we have a lot of different things.  One of the things that we knew and as I worked in Kansas and worked at the federal level and you know I’ve been at the local, the state, and the federal level, the earlier we can identify students’ difficulties, the quicker and less expensive it is.  We no longer can wait for the kids to fail.  As soon as we know they’re struggling, we need to provide them with what they need.  And the longer a student goes without that assistance, the longer the remediation time and of course the more intense the services must be.

But it’s the key bullet.  The last bullet down there that I think has driven me more than anything else.  There was a study that was done of a little over 400 kids and they found that almost ¾ of the kids whose difficulty in reading was first identified at 9 years of age or older continued to score in the lowest quintile throughout the middle and high school years.  Can I tell you who might be the future dropouts?  I absolutely can.  A dropout does not decide to do that overnight.  This occurs all, from the beginning.  When in 4th and 5th grade, if a child is struggling to learn to read I can tell you those are the ones that we missed the boat because we didn’t provide what we needed.

In terms of the model that was put in place, and Steve, you know, Steve Kukic has worked with us on this throughout the whole thing.  This is the model we put in place in Kansas, referred to as the multi-tiered system of supports.  Take a look at the infamous triangle that we talk about.  It’s in the middle of this particular … I know, this one’s, yeah.  You know how we struggled with this one to come up with this.  But the triangle is in the middle where we talk about all, some and few.  But we cannot do that just alone.  We knew that there were other parts to the system that had to play into it.  You’ve heard it over and over again.  What’s the most important element?  It’s leadership.  You’ll see that on the outside and going right along with that is the professional development that is critically needed not just by special ed, but it has to be part and parcel of general education and they must be empowered.  Every teacher.  Every administrator.  Everybody must be empowered including parents to make this happen.  And we cannot do this if we do not make the critical pieces of curriculum instruction and assessment a major part of this particular piece.

What we’ve done is we’ve moved from a system to identifying which students needed help to what help does each student need.  Definite difference in terms of the question we’re trying to answer.  And the system—rather than looking at and focusing in on the categorical programs and the people we have available within those categories, we know that we must have an intentional design that’s based on services and resources that are needed by any child at any point in time.  Critically important.

So this is what it looks like in terms of what’s in place in Kansas.  Oh, we’ll get there.  There we go.  Now this is the triangle and this is it.  But what I want you to notice is the fact that, yes, we have the three different tiers and there could be more…it’s not important how many tiers there are.   But take a look at what’s on the left hand side of this triangle.  RTI.  The focus on academics.  Knowing that we are intervening and providing that as well, but we could never leave out the right hand side in terms of the positive behavioral interventions and supports.  I often share with people my very first teaching job was teaching emotionally disturbed middle school kids.  I don’t know about you, but I think all middle school kids are emotionally disturbed (laughter).  So it’s always been an interesting proposition but working with that population I knew I couldn’t teach academics or content until I did what?  Until I knew the social affective and I established a relationship with those kids.  I have to and we must pay attention to that side.  It’s just as important as the academics.  And undergirding all of this is the universal design for learning in the early intervening services.  This is what makes up the multi-tiered system of supports.

Now I just want to share with you just some of the results that we’ve seen in terms of what occurred over the course of the last 8 or 9 years in Kansas.  Take a look at two of the toughest populations we had to work with Kansas, and knowing we put this in place.  Students on free lunch in the year 2000 were at 40% at proficient and above in terms of reading.  In the year 2009, we’re at 77%.  But take a look at the students with disabilities.  There is an actual 51% gain in terms of the number of students who are at proficient and above.   And if you take a look at it in terms of math, you’ll see the exact same thing occurred as well.  And there we had an actual 48% gain and realize that these are the same kids. And the fact that halfway through this particular trajectory as we did this, we only assessed prior to in the first five years of this, we only assessed three grade levels.  We now assess 7 grade levels.  And what usually happens when you assess more kids?  The scores go down.  And yet the scores went up.

I want to share with you in terms of Junction City, when they put MTSS into place, and I want to share why Junction City, 10th largest district in the state—for some of you that’s not very big—but there’s something very important about it.  It’s because that’s where Ft. Riley is based.  This is the Big Red.  Now think about that the majority of kids in this particular school district have one or both parents serving over in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Think about what they’re dealing with every single day. They don’t know if their parent is going to come back alive or not.   They also have mobility that none of the rest of us could ever imagine.  They often bring in ten students every day, coming in and out their door.  And what I want to share with you is what they did.  And the thing I want you to notice is this is not the elementary school data, this is not the middle school data.  This is high school data.  Take a look at the percent of kids who are at proficient and above in terms of math scores, and take a look at the very last column because those are students with disabilities.  MTSS has made all the difference in the world.  And this is what happened in terms of reading as we take a look at the outcomes.   So you can really tell that they have made a difference.

Hillsboro, Kansas.  I want to share that with you.  A typical rural district.  In 2003, Hillsboro found 28 students to be eligible for special education services, and I’m talking about a school district that probably has about 400 kids all total.  That’s a lot of kids.  After they put MTSS into place, in 2008 they found one student to be eligible for special education.  In Kansas just across the board, in 2005 the number of students with disabilities was 56,328.  After putting MTSS into place, the numbers have gone down and they will continue to go down.  And think about this:  they’re doing the right thing for kids even though they know they’re losing state money as a result of not identifying kids.  And what happens in terms of the PBIS, and this is Westridge, one of the middle schools that’s in Shawnee Mission, Kansas.  After putting PBIS into place, look at what happens with the number of expulsions and suspension rates within this particular school.

What we know is critically important to the success of all of this is the communication that we have.  The communication at the local level, the state level, the federal level, and everywhere else.  When I came back to Kansas after serving as the OSEP director here and became the commissioner, we held for the first time an RTI summit.  We were hoping we would get 200 people to come to the summit.  We had to stop enrollment at 800, and we had a waiting list of over 800 more people who wanted to come.  It was such a need and such a, it’s such, you know, a want from the area that we knew that it was critically important.  We know that OSEP has put in a considerable amount of money and the RTI center is funded at an investment of a little of 11.3 million dollars in order to make sure that RTI is really successful.  We believe that this is critically important to the success of what we want to do.  But I want to come back to this:  students with disabilities are general education students first and foremost.  We could never forget that.  We are an educational system and we in special education are a support to that particular system.

And I just want to say I think RTI is one of the major ways to do that.  I think Max DePree said it very well.  He said we need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity.  We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing and yes, inclusion, because these are the results that we want to continue to see for our population that we serve.  Over the past 10 years alone there has been an 8% increase in 4th grade reading of students with disabilities.  There’s been a 6% increase in terms of 8th grade math, and know that these are the NAEP scores so that we are looking at this across the country.  There’s been a 10% increase in the graduation rates and a 38% increase in post-secondary enrollment.  And last, 13% increase in kids with disabilities who are entering the 4-year college enrollment. We know that we’ve come a long way, but we also know that our mission is not yet accomplished, and that’s why we look to you to make sure that we continue to move ahead as much as we possibly can.  And we know that our rates, even in terms of graduation, are still too low and that we need more people and more students with disabilities who enter the 4-year cycle.

So I want to leave you with this thought as I look at Max and his grandmother took this picture.  We want everyone to begin their quest for the NBA, whether he makes it or not it’s kind of up to us.

Thank you very much.  (applause)Back To Top
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