State Requires New Screening for Struggling Readers

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Elementary schools in New York State must screen their students for literacy problems in a new way, beginning this month. The goal is to get students the help they need as soon as possible, but the city's Department of Education also hopes the program will reduce referrals to special education.

The program is called Response to Intervention, or RtI, and it's been gaining momentum across the country. It lays out very specific ways of helping students with reading problems, gradually giving them more intensive instruction to see whether they respond.

New York State's Education Department required districts to begin using it as of July 1.

The process consists of three steps. First, elementary-school teachers screen all students to assess whether they're on track in reading. Then, they notify the parents of those who are struggling and offer appropriate instruction within the classroom or in a separate room. Finally, those students who still aren't progressing are given more intensive interventions.

New York City's chief academic officer, Shael Polakow-Suransky, said many schools had already been doing something similar. By making it more systematic, he said, the program could help more students "in real time" with their reading troubles and potentially lead to fewer special education referrals.

"For a long time our struggling students have often been rushed through processes in schools that have put them in a special education class when what they actually needed was a much more targeted set of instructional supports," Mr. Polakow-Suransky said, explaining that teachers sometimes confuse a gap in a child's learning with a disability. Educators also believe the program can help English Language Learners.

While he welcomed this change in approach, he acknowledged it also came at a time the city school system was gearing up for other huge challenges: namely, the expansion of Common Core standards, and special education reform.

The state isn't providing any additional funding for districts to use Response to Intervention. In New York City alone, thousands of elementary teachers need training because they will have to assess all of their students and then determine who needs what type of help.

The teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, says it is planning to meet with Education Department officials in the weeks ahead about professional development and other concerns. The union representing city principals also seems wary.

"To the best of our knowledge, nobody has been trained on how to implement RtI," said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for that union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. "We certainly hope that significant professional development is going to be provided prior to implementation and will continue during a phased-in rollout."

The concern is shared by parents, too.

"This type of training cannot take place in a few days," said Ellen McHugh, an associate director of Parent to Parent of New York State, which advocates for children with disabilities. She noted that while schools were supposed to try Response to Intervention's many different reading strategies before referring a child to special education, that didn't mean the program should be a new barrier to getting the services. Parents can still ask for them at any time.

Her concern was echoed by Kim Sweet, executive director of the group Advocates for Children of New York. "With so much going on in special ed reform, this seems to have been lost in the midst," she said of the new screening system. "I worry schools will interpret the instruction on RtI as a directive to reduce referrals to special education without implementing the alternative interventions that the children need."

Mr. Polakow-Suransky, however, said many schools were already familiar with ways of assessing children in literacy that will meet the demands of the new program. He also said network leaders would offer support, and the city's Response to Intervention program would have its own director by the end of the summer.