Panel 3 Speaker: Dawn Miller, Ph.D. - Shawnee School District (KS)

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


All right.  That will be fun to follow.  Good afternoon.  Today has been very fun and I’m very grateful for being here.

I have had the good fortune in Kansas to be addressing the issues around the identification of students with disabilities really in a much broader context than just students with specific learning disabilities.  And for us that happened in 1993 when I was working at one of two sites that was granted a waiver from our State Department that had in our regulations very prescriptive IQ achievement discrepancy and other prescriptive criteria tagged on to how students were identified. And at that time we asked to be waived from that and instead we’re looking at the viability of the use of data-based decision making model in a problem-solving process to really look at the improved student outcomes.

Now, the district that I’m in now has been out from underneath that since 1997 when our state regulations were changed.  What we didn’t have though in 1997 that RTI has really helped take us to was really what I think of as kind of having the legs underneath the system.  At that time we were still working on an individual student problem-solving basis, so it was individual student by individual student as opposed to having the framework for thinking about the system differently.  So when I read Dr. Fletcher’s paper and in thinking about this response, I guess the magic number of 3, I framed it around three areas.  And ones that I think are worth attending to, and I’m going frame it from kind of a prior-to RTI, what I’m seeing now, and as well as thinking about our next, especially those areas that I think have policy or guidance implications.

So the areas are data-based decision making that’s inclusive, meaningful, focused on student outcomes.  The second one is actually all the panelists so far have really latched onto which is that issue around having a very strong and robust core approach.  And then the last area is to re-visit the belief system underlying students with disabilities and I’m really finding I’m attending to more and more.

So the first area is data-based decision making that’s inclusive, meaningful and focused on student outcomes.  I think that for us the school improvement model that in Kansas in the early ‘90s really started focusing us on student outcomes and not how many library books we had and how many certified personnel we have, was a great start.   The degree to which we truly included students with disabilities in that accountability framework again a great leap forward.  I think now we’re really positioned to be thinking about how we use our data to demonstrate a school improvement process that is far more dynamic than I think that it was originally conceptualized, and how we’re able to look at our data at a building level, at a grade level, at a classroom level, as well as at an individual student level.

I think our next is to be able to really demonstrate how that works, and one of the panelists early this morning—I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten who it was—talked about the need to be able to look and illustrate what that looks like at a district level.

I think related directly to the identification of students with learning disabilities, we’ve gone from a system that relied, and David you referenced this, from a teacher-referral system which was problematic for a number of reasons not the least of which there wasn’t really consensus on what constituted a referral.  So oftentimes I found that it was not as much related to student outcomes as it did to what paperwork was involved, what the perception of help would have been, and now at least have a more accountable system referral.  We have structures in place for a team at a building level and a grade level to be reviewing each student in that building at least 3 times a year and having the dialogue we need to have around the implications for core instruction to meet needs.  We also have our in-between system level problem solving that occurs for individual students who are or are not showing adequate progress.  I think this makes the child really become the systems, excuse me, the system overlooking…or not overlooking…making sure that they’re attending to each individual student as opposed to it being each teacher’s kind of give or take as to whether or not they bring forth a concern.

Related to the referral for our comprehensive evaluation, I really think it’s imperative that we write our policies and our guidance not just from the standpoint of not responding to intervention.  I’m seeing some states and I’m seeing some districts do that.  Because I think it keeps us in a more of a deficit-centered model and it doesn’t have us look at under what conditions is this child’s learning enabled.  And having us really attend to those particular pieces so that we could look to see, okay, if it’s taking this much to get this level of progress, let’s examine what that’s taking and is that beyond what we can expect from general education.  And really I think then it defines specially designed instruction, which I don’t think we’ve done a very good job in the past.

I think while our evaluation process has been changed for some time now, I think that the most disconcerting part, and, David, you already alluded to this was that the data, that time and energy would be spent on data that had if any direct implications for instruction.  What were we going to do differently with this student?

It also wasn’t very easy for a team of people to wrap their head around.  So we had people at the table where we had a group of individuals but we really didn’t create a team.  Oh, I’m in the same position you are (unclear).  Okay.

So while I think we’ve worked hard to have our education process focus now on questions of understanding student level of performance, change over time, related under different conditions, understanding very importantly not a person or a place but truly what is needed for this student to have access to and progress in the general education curriculum.  I think that’s been the next step.  I think though in terms of maturing the process, I think it’s really important for all of us to ensure that our evaluation process always end up with a viable learning plan for a student.  We can’t have the situation where a team of people say No, I’m sorry, this child is not eligible.  Our evaluation process would add value in saying this is what we’ve learned, more in-depth about this student, therefore, this is what seems like what we should try next.

Likewise if it’s a student that the team does find is a student with a learning disability, that plan should be of specifics of saying this is what seems to be our next step and not kind of a vague language that sometimes gets written into IEPs.

I think that piece around the RTI models depending upon strong instructional cores.  I think a lot of people have hit that piece.  I think now more than ever we have expectations of a clearly defined scientifically based core instructional time allocation that’s protected as well as the expectation to differentiate.  I just want to add the caveat that in terms of our next…I think there’s a really nice healthy pushback that we have to have with our general education colleagues if it’s very supportive of saying  How can we get to a level where people feel very confident and skilled at differentiating to meet a variety of needs?  And I, and really making sure that our teachers are, their first and front line teacher for that student, and with the themes in reauthorization and I don’t know what it’s going to look like around you know evaluation tied to student outcomes, I think now seems to be a really pivotal time that we put a lot of attention toward that so that that ownership isn’t disbursed and that’s probably one of the last areas that I want to cover, which is the belief system associated with the identification of students with disabilities.  And I’d like to say it was just historical.  It’s not.  There’s something that happens around that ownership that shifts when students are identified.  We’ve really got to ensure that that does not happen as well as the expectations of progress, and I heard it from our second parent panelist there.  That piece is so detrimental to this working.  I think now we at least have, we have the expectation of a shared ownership.  We have a process that’s set up to be supportive of each other so when progress is not satisfactory we have other minds around the table to wrap their head around.  The what next?  Have better diagnostic information.  But I think remaining a challenge for us is that we have three decades of a deficit focused model.  We have three decades of people focusing on what doesn’t work in order to get help, and that really goes very deep in terms of then, when we’re sitting in a progress monitoring review, progress is unsatisfactory and we say, Okay, then what are we going to do differently because what we have is people going Dawn, that’s why they were identified.  We can’t have that.  We don’t believe that things can change.  We’re a sunken ship.

And that’s why here, you know one of the things as I was thinking about these comments was when I think about where that shaping process begins, it starts with students’ own experience in school and how they see their school operate, see how their teachers respond to students’ learning differences, as well as and I’m grateful…I’m sitting at the table with David Prasse so it’s a nice reminder of people who are really taking on these issues at the higher education level.  So that that’s where the shaping process begins around ownership, around skills, and around the beliefs of who owns and is responsible for each child.  So I think I will conclude with that.  Thank you.  (applause)

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