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Disproportionality or the over and under representation of racial and language minorities in special education is an extension of the achievement gap in that we typically see high numbers of students of color, low-income students and English language learners in certain disability categories and we also see low numbers of these same groups when we look at indicators that are linked to academic success including gifted and talented programs, high school graduation, college enrollment and rates of proficiency on state achievement tests. So, similar to RTI, or Response to Intervention, it’s important to view disproportionality in the context of what supports are available in general education and not just looking at it as a problem specific to special education.

RTI becomes very important for educators to use as a tool for addressing disproportionality because of its focus on data-based decision making. Starting with a district by district, school by school review of data on special education referrals and identification we can drill down and identify specific groups of students that are at the highest risk levels for being identified as having a disability. The goal then becomes to make sure that these students have access to coordinated early intervening supports that can prevent the escalation of learning or behavioral challenges.

Now the use of early intervening supports for high-risk students extends to other components of RTI that we consider to be essential. Screening and Progress Monitoring allow teachers to identify any learning or behavioral challenges while students are still in the regular classroom setting and they also allow them to modify or differentiate their core curriculum to focus on the identified areas for improvement. The use of tiered interventions is part of a multi-level prevention system, which is also an essential component, provides teachers with the instructional resources to respond to student learning or behavioral challenges in a regular ed setting. This system of support then becomes an alternative to a quick or unnecessary referral for special education evaluation.

Finally the use of tiered instructional interventions that are evidence-based and culturally responsive ensures that the RTI framework provides students with supports that are appropriate for their learning or behavioral needs. All of the resulting data on students response to instruction or to intervention then becomes useful data that can help identify those students who need additional support from special education. In this way we reduce the number of students that are inappropriately identified for special education and reserve that level of support for those students that need it most.

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