Small district, big results: Specially designed instruction
LOGAN – It wasn’t long ago when Mary Michael would have to guess what her student’s academic deficiencies were. And the interventions? Yep, guess work. And any improvement in a child’s academic performance was based on sheer determination and, frankly, luck.
It was that guess work that prompted Melanie Andersen to flee her special education class for the comparatively predicative nature of the general education class.
And then something happened at Logan-Magnolia Community School District located in western Iowa. The district moved to an aggressive approach that is designed to close the education gap that exists between students with disabilities and their peers.
The district started delivering more effective, personalized teaching – known as Specially Designed Instruction, or SDI – and ensuring it is at the core of the Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for students with disabilities.
The work is being done through a federal grant, in which the Iowa Department of Education partnered with Area Education Agencies and schools throughout the state to spearhead this initiative. Though SDI is not new, the intensive focus given to the four principle elements of it – diagnose, design, deliver, and engage – is.
Results statewide are impressive. Among the 94 school districts participating statewide, second graders on IEPs jumped 15 percentage points closer to meeting grade-level benchmarks; third graders went up 11 percentage points during the same period.
Logan-Magnolia’s experience is no different. Across grade levels, students saw marked increases toward their benchmarks. Initially focusing on accuracy in reading, students are tested to see how many words they get accurate within a minute’s time. Last fall, for instance, a second grader went from getting 24 words correct per minute to more than doubling that – to 52– by spring.
This has been a game changer for the educators at Logan-Magnolia.
“If we look at the framework of diagnosis, design and deliver, we are really looking at the whole picture of what a student needs,” said Andersen, SDI literacy consultant for Green Hills Area Education Agency. “I feel like the No. 1 practice in this building is the diagnosis piece.”
Without the correct diagnosis, after all, it’s virtually impossible to put in place the design – or intervention – that will correct the deficiency.
“When we started the process, we were veteran teachers but had little to no idea what to do with students who were struggling,” Andersen said. “I was seeing no growth. There was a third grader who didn’t know her vowel sounds. We started this new framework on her. Last year as a seventh grader, she passed decoding assessment with only two errors. This takes a long time and it’s a process.”
But seeing the results are well worth it, teachers agree.
“Using the diagnostic assessments is wonderful, you take the data, plug it in and it tells you where the student should start,” Michael said. “It helps with grouping students, too.”
In their work, they discovered that there were problems with phonological awareness – the ability to recognize and work with the sounds of a language.
“It’s the foundation of all reading, and we found that a lot of our students were missing that piece,” Andersen said. “If they don’t have that in place, they can’t master the basics of reading.”
This discovery was especially astonishing among older students, Michael said.
“Older students are very good compensators,” she said.
The discoveries among their students in special education caught the attention of the general education teachers. In fact, many grade levels are incorporating programs used in SDI in their universal instruction.
“It’s infiltrating gen. ed, as well,” Andersen said. “Most grade levels now screen for phonics decoding and phonological awareness.”
“And we’re finding gaps in instruction with all levels of students,” said special education teacher Heidi Brenden.
The practices are finding their way to the junior and senior high schools, as well.
“We can share with our junior and senior high school teachers,” Andersen said. “When these kids leave elementary school, their education can continue.”
“The junior high teachers will say, ‘Let’s make sure she doesn’t fall back – how do we design instruction to ensure it?’” Michael said.
In all, the SDI framework has fortified the teachers’ efforts.
“I feel like our instruction has been streamlined because we have our diagnostics and can say, ‘OK, what does this kid need?’” Andersen said. “We have materials in our hands that match our students’ needs.”
But Andersen underscores the necessity of building relationships – and therefore trust – with students.
“Before you can deliver effective instruction, you need to have a relationship with that student,” she said. “That’s No. 1 before building anything else.”
Michael recalled one student being saddened when she learned she had an IEP.
“You have to be honest with your students,” Michael said. “I told her, ‘special education is not a forever thing – stick with me and you’ll be able to graduate from your IEP.’”
Part of the training in the SDI framework focuses on having teachers go through training on the science of reading and analyzing their building's capacity for delivering specially designed instruction.
“In beginning our work here, we discovered that we weren’t taught the science of reading in our college prep courses,” Andersen said. “We didn’t know how students learned to read until we had been teaching for years.”
“We are seeing that training really needs to occur about the science behind reading more so teachers are prepared when they go into the field,” Brenden said. “This needs to take place at the college level.”
Andersen said the SDI framework overhauls special education, both from the perspective of student success and teacher satisfaction.
“It really takes the stress out of special education,” she said. “I am thinking this will take care of the burn out rate. It makes it not so overwhelming.”
To the newest member of the team, Macy Baker, that’s music to her ears.
“I can’t imagine not having all these resources,” she said. “It still requires us to be on our toes in making sure the curriculum is helping. But you can see it’s really making a difference.”