Rethinking literacy for special education students

As school districts across Idaho try to reach the literacy goals they crafted earlier this year, one group is often left out of the conversation: special education students who likely won’t read at grade level by the end of spring semester, if ever.

Literacy logoOn average, 5 to 20 percent of students in any given school have special education needs beyond what typical classroom interventions can effectively address. With the right instruction, most special education students can increase their literacy. The question remains, though, whether schools have the resources and knowledge to provide those tools.

Literacy lessons from special education

There are a number of reasons a student might qualify for special education services — autism, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, hearing impairments or limited English skills. Special education students may qualify for an Individual Education Program, or IEP, which may or may not require them to take the Idaho Reading Indicator, or IRI.

Much of what educators and researchers know about effective literacy instruction comes from the special education field. When professionals understand why the learning process breaks down, they can better understand learning for everybody, said Dr. Evelyn Johnson of the Lee Pesky Learning Center, an independent nonprofit based in Boise.

Johnson said there are four foundational elements for effective literacy intervention:

  • Data-driven instructional decisions.
  • Evidence-based instruction.
  • Highly trained teachers.
  • Infrastructure (think time, duration, and frequency of instruction, as well as  student-to-teacher ratio).

Johnson describes children as falling into three categories: Tier 1 students, who read at grade level or better; Tier 2 students, who aren’t at grade level but can get there with intervention; and Tier 3 students, who need intensive help. The Pesky Center focuses largely on Tier 3 students, working primarily one-on-one with children who have significant learning and attention challenges. (Employees affectionately call the approach The Pesky Way.)

Literacy isn’t just about doing well on standardized tests and assessments, Johnson pointed out. While the IRI is a useful test, it’s only one measure of literacy. Though some special education students may never read at grade level, they might be able to improve their reading and comprehension skills with proper interventions.

The Pesky instruction is effective, Johnson said, but realistically, the center can’t work with every student in the state. To reach more children, the Pesky Center provides professional development to teachers, counselors and administrators throughout Idaho. That development allows educators to take skills taught at the center into their own classrooms. While it’s targeted to assist kids who are on that spectrum of learning needs, it also makes overall classroom instruction more accessible for everyone, Johnson said.

As the literacy and counseling field is still expanding, so is the Pesky Center’s research in collaboration with Boise State University.

At Sacajawea Elementary School in Caldwell, Johnson is working with teachers to adapt the Pesky Way for small groups in an attempt to improve literacy. And at Desert Springs Elementary School in the Vallivue School District, counselors trained teachers how to teach their classes self-regulation — breathing or physical exercises to calm down and refocus — and to identify students who have high levels of stress and anxiety.

Teachers work with children on those skills before tests or big assignments, said Desert Springs principal Lisa Boyd. It’s too soon to tell whether that work is improving test scores or academic performance, Boyd said, but so far, she appreciates her school’s partnership with Pesky.

“I think teachers are liking it as one more way for them to help kids get refocused without having to say ‘Pay attention,'” Boyd said. “It’s a more positive way to redirect some kids.”

Reaching the entire population

Much of the Legislature’s literacy initiative focuses on children who aren’t reading at grade level, but will be able to with the right classroom instruction.

“Sixty percent of our kids are going to learn to read no matter how you teach them,” said Maggie Chase, associate producer at the Department of Language Literacy and Culture at Boise State University. Of the remaining 40 percent, about half will need a more structured, intentional approach within the classroom, and the other half needs intervention.

In that last group, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Chase compared it to having a medical issue. For minor illnesses, going to a doc-in-the-box usually works, she said. But for a serious complication, she asked, would you want to go to a general urgent care provider, or would you want to go to a specialist? That’s how teachers need to approach special education and literacy interventions for that last group of students, Chase said.

McCall-Donnelly School District Superintendent Jim Foudy, who has worked with the Pesky Center, said he thinks about his special education population, even if they’re not spelled out in his district’s literacy goals.

“We set realistic goals, but in the back of my head, we’re always going after 100 percent. How do you get to 100 percent?” he said. “Sixty percent were going to learn to read anyway, but the 40 percent, that population, they’re critical as well.”

Foudy points out it benefits the entire community to take care of struggling students.

“The one student that doesn’t graduate from high school and either find a professional-technical route or a pathway to college, they’re going to cost taxpayers a significant amount of dollars over the course of their life,” he said. “I’ve seen estimates as high as half a million dollars that one person is going to cost taxpayers, because they weren’t becoming contributing members of society in a way that they’re paying taxes and they might even be taxing society through social services or the penal system. So we have a vested interest in reaching every student. It’s a big deal.”

Bang for the buck

The literacy initiative isn’t the only source of funding for interventions. Districts draw on Title I dollars, grants and other pools of cash for intervention programs, literacy software and money for paraprofessionals. But with per-pupil spending consistently ranking near the bottom nationally, and with the majority of Idaho districts relying on supplemental levies to shore up their funds, districts are tasked with getting the most bang for their relatively meager buck.

At the Pesky Center, students get extended one-on-one time with employees. Everyone who works with the children is highly trained, and most have a master’s or doctorate degree, said Heather Mueleman, development director at the Pesky Center.

In contrast, a number of school districts put their literacy money into hiring part-time paraprofessionals. While those employees work hard, Johnson pointed out they’re not required to have the same level of education and literacy training as teachers, and they spend a significant amount of time with students.

But tapping Pesky-level professionals isn’t realistic for most schools. So how should districts spend their money to improve literacy?

There is no blanket solution.

“Districts need to evaluate the strength of their literacy instruction according to these elements, and then invest as needed to get all four solid,” Johnson said. “No shortcuts.”

Melissa Davlin is co-host of Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports,” which collaborated on this week’s literacy series. “Idaho Reports” producer Seth Ogilvie contributed to this report.

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