- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

TIGARD, Ore. (AP) — When her son, Dylan, was just 6, Kristen Wahlmeier noticed that he had to be bribed to read: a surfing trip here or a pair of new shoes there before he would pick up a book.

As she watched him struggle, a gnawing fear crept into her stomach: Her only son, with big blue eyes and a love for “Star Wars,” might be headed for a special-education classroom.

Instead, teachers at his suburban Portland school intervened immediately, tutoring him in reading and vocabulary every day before school. It paid off.

Now, officials in districts across the country are rapidly adopting similar early-intervention programs, hoping that steering a child away from expensive special-education classes will pay off for them, too, in cost savings.

These programs are being adopted at a time when districts try to avoid “overidentification” — too many poor and minority children shunted off to special-education classes where they don’t need to be.

Not everyone is pleased about the early help, known as “response to intervention” or RTI.

Some parents worry that children with learning disabilities will have to wait too long to get the intensive help they need. Academics and administrators fear the trend is taking off too quickly, without enough research to back up its surge.

“RTI is a runaway train; it’s an explosion right now in the entire field of education,” said Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas.

Children traditionally haven’t been identified for special education until third or fourth grade. Their education ends up costing roughly twice as much, or about $12,000, compared with that of average students, including about $11 billion in federal dollars every year.

But researchers, including some who are influential with federal education officials, have long argued that students were getting stuck in special education not because of biological disabilities, but because of environmental factors.

They say their parents might not have read to them enough or allowed the children to stay home from school too often.

RTI was started as a response, finding a foothold nearly a decade ago in school districts in Oregon and Iowa.

Many parents, however, are worried about all the questions they say have gone unanswered, as school districts have rushed to adopt RTI.

It will take the average school about three years to establish an early-intervention system, Mr. Sailor said, including intensive training for classroom teachers who need to learn how to evaluate and identify students who need help.

In the end, he said, it might not save schools much money, since they will be spending more on early interventions, even if fewer children wind up in special education down the line.

For the Wahlmeiers, at least, the program worked.

“Before, he was definitely avoiding reading; he’d do anything to get out of it,” Mrs. Wahlmeier said. “Now, in the evenings, he’ll just pick up a book.”


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