Panel 3 Speaker: Doug Fuchs, Ph.D. - Vanderbilt University (TN)

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


I want to thank NCLD and Kathy Whitmire and everyone else involved in this event.  I think it’s a very important one because it brings together people who have different points of view, sometimes very different perspectives, and this happens too infrequently.  And I think that sort of like in the spirit of Don’s kumbaya—I’m from New York.  We don’t talk about kumbaya—but bringing people together to talk honestly and openly and candidly I think is extremely important to the success of RTI.

Okay. Next.  I’ve got less than 10 minutes.  Jack’s paper, unlike Texas, covers a lot of territory as it should, and it’s a good paper.  I encourage you to read it.  What I’d like to do is to try to discuss three issues and I’m going to have to stick very close to my script so that I get as much of it in as possible.  I want to talk a little bit about exclusionary…and these are themes.  Not the only themes, but themes I think important themes from Jack’s paper that also reverberate throughout the community.  Exclusionary factors, evaluating students, instructional response, and importance of cognitive factors.  Next.

In Jack’s paper he writes that not every child needs to be assessed for every potential problem in an RTI model.  There should be hypotheses about the basis for the achievement problem that would lead to in my words “child specific assessments.”  For me, this quotation is an expression of a position that’s against the routine use of intelligence tests in comprehensive evaluations.  I think he would agree that I am accurately describing this particular point.  Implicit in this position are at least two important assumptions that I’d like you to consider.  The first is that LD may be distinguished from intellectual disabilities or mental retardation by most teachers most of the time without the use of intelligence or other cognitive tests.  Second, practitioners will indeed administer such tests when they cannot decide between the two designations.  I’d like to suggest that this second assumption is as dubious as the belief appropriately questioned by Jack and his colleagues in a 2004 paper, that equal opportunity to learn is guaranteed by the IDEA exclusionary clause that reads in part, “A child shall not be determined disabled if the determinant factor is lack of instruction.”  Fletcher et al. wrote, “Without some RTI activities in place, this component of IDEA is merely surmised and not measured.”  Absolutely correct.  One of the reasons why I support RTI.

But similarly, without the required routine use of some measure of cognitive function, are you kidding?  Five minutes?  Ummm, without the required routine use of a measure of cognitive functioning, the component of IDEA requiring an explicit separation of LD from intellectual disabilities may be merely surmised and not measured.  So if we care about this distinction between LD and intellectual disabilities, we cannot, I suggest, we cannot leave it to the hands, or in the hands, of practitioners.  Next.

So what’s so important about the distinction between LD and mental retardation?  In 2007 a doctoral student Erin Caffrey and I reviewed 8 interesting studies involving 639 students between the ages of 6 and 20.  Each of these 8 studies compared these two groups within the same design using the same teachers, the same instruction, the same dependent measures.  They were teaching, trying to teach both students with LD and with mild mental retardation inductive reasoning tasks, guided inquiry tasks, or response to reading and math instruction.  Next.

So what did we find? We found that students with LD statistically significantly outperformed students with mild mental retardation on both inductive reasoning and guided inquiry tasks.  They made reliably greater gains following interventions in reading and math across all learning tasks and contexts.   The students with LD displayed greater consistency transferring and applying conceptual knowledge to new tasks.  Next.

So, how, if we do not make this distinction, if we are not vigilant about making this distinction I submit to you that we blur what we historically knew to be learning disabilities, and equally importantly we affect the composition, the nature and composition of our instructional groups.  How heterogeneous do we want our instructional groups to be keeping in mind the pedagogical truism that the more heterogeneous the group, the harder it is to teach effectively.  I submit that if we permit, if we start teaching—well, it’s not start.  We’re already doing this in non-pedagogical places, but the greater the range of abilities and let’s say achievement levels, the harder it is to do justice to children with intellectual disabilities and children with learning disabilities.  Let me move on to, let me skip this one and go to No. 3 because I’m afraid I’m not going to have time.

Cognitive processes.  Jack talks rightly about cognitive processes as an important issue in the community.  And Jack writes on page 8, “cognitive processes are related to learning disabilities, but there is little evidence that assessment of these processes adds information beyond that obtained from assessments of achievement.”  In a paper in press with the Journal of Learning Disabilities, my colleagues and I conducted a study involving a sample of 195 first graders who were selected for poor reading performance.  We explored four cognitive predictors of later reading comprehension and reading disability status.  In fall of first grade, we measured the children’s phonological processing, rapid automized naming, oral language comprehension, and non-verbal reasoning.  Our 4 cognitive measures.  Throughout first grade we also modeling the students’ reading progress by means of weekly tests to obtain December and May intercepts.  We assessed their reading comprehension in the spring of grades 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.  So we were following these kids across five grade levels.  With the 4 cognitive variables and the December intercept as predictors, 50.3% of the variance in 5th grade reading comprehension was explained.  51% of this 50.3% was unique to the cognitive variables.  All 5 predictors, the four cognitive and the one reading were statistically significant.  Logistic regression indicated that the accuracy with which the cognitive variables predicted end of 5th grade RD status was 74.9%, about 75%.  Neither the December nor May intercepts reliably contributed to the prediction.  We have…so this study suggests that cognitive factors in fall of first grade do a reasonably good job of predicting end of 5th grade reading comprehension scores and their disability status.  There’re other studies that we’re involved in that I don’t have time to get into which also suggest a role for cognitive assessment.  I agree with Jack.  There’s lot of issues, there’s lots of problems, there’s lots of claims made without substantiation and I deplore those as much as Jack does, but I would say that there are data to indicate the importance of cognition to children’s performance and disability status.

I don’t really have time, do I?  One part of the paper that I really strongly, strongly agreed with Jack on was evaluating instructional response.  The quality of the core instructional program must be supplemented with assessments of fidelity and monitoring of the child’s progress.  Curtis, I’m sure I’ve lost you. I think that it’s important…okay, I’m going to stop in 30seconds.  Cats.  Remember, I’m a cat.  (laughter)  We really need to think I think more seriously about the nature and purpose of instruction in Tiers 1, 2, and 3.  The way I think about it, and I think many people think about it, the nature and purpose of instruction here is very different.  And in Tier 2 I believe that I and others see instruction as a test and how well a child responds to that instructional test determines not just whether the child moves up or down in an RTI framework, but it also helps practitioners understand the effectiveness of the treatment that they’re using at Tier 2.  The reason why people I think rightly argue for standard treatment protocols is because it is a well-defined instructional protocol and a test.  If we give different kids different instruction at Tier 2, and we hope to compare a given child’s performance on the instruction that she receives at Tier 2 to other children, it’s an impossibility.  And yet there are a lot of people who look at standard protocols as you know just a horrible, horrible thing.  My good friend Rich Long is sitting right in front of me.  I’m reminded of one of my favorite organizations, International Reading Association, many of these people are strongly constructivists in their orientation.  They are going to reject standard treatment protocols.  So the use of evidence-based curricula and standard curricula I think faces an uphill struggle.  Thank you. (applause)

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