Elaine Mulligan is the Assistant Director of NIUSI-LeadScape, a federally-funded technical assistance project that supports principals of inclusive schools. Her responsibilities include designing and delivering professional learning, coordinating LeadScape’s online resources, and coaching principals to support their transformation of school cultures and practices.
In working with educators through our various projects, I hear a lot of different viewpoints on Response to Intervention (RTI). Many states are encouraging districts to focus on RTI approaches in an effort to improve state assessment outcomes for groups that have historically not scored well on these tests (e.g., students with disabilities, English language learners, students in particular racial/ethnic groups). Districts are implementing mandatory professional development and support teams, and schools are rechanneling instructional supports and redesigning schedules to support intervention processes. There is a lot of activity and attention around RTI, from preschool through high school. Some educators consider RTI a great success and report great improvements in student achievement, while others see it as a series of bureaucratic hoops to jump through that impede student support processes. Which is it?
What is RTI?
Response to Intervention is a process for providing supports to students. It is not a program, a curriculum, or a mechanism for identifying students for special education services. Most importantly, RTI is not ever a place where you send students! Here are three good definitions:
IDEA Partnership’s Fundamentals for Educators and their Partners defines RTI as “the practice of providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to student needs and using learning rate over time and level of performance to inform educational decisions.”
According to the RTI Action Network, “Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered approach to help struggling learners. Students’ progress is closely monitored at each stage of intervention to determine the need for further research-based instruction and/or intervention in general education, in special education, or both.”
The National Center on Response to Intervention says that RTI “integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. With RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on a student’s responsiveness, and identify students with learning disabilities or other disabilities.”
What these definitions have in common is that they describe ways of providing effective instruction in response to student needs as general principles for practice, not a model of service delivery.
Common Themes from Successful RTI Implementation
Success stories from LeadScape principals who are using RTI practices in their schools, as well as those from schools in California, Nevada, and Arizona where culturally responsive RTI processes are helping to reduce achievement disparities, and stories from graduate students in doctoral programs here at Arizona State University who work in schools with well-developed, effective RTI practices reveal these several themes around effective RTI:
Development of a common vision for equity. In success stories from both principals and teachers, the first step is always to bring all stakeholders in the school community together to develop shared understanding and agreement. This may start in a building leadership team, a parent-teacher organization meeting, or in a professional learning setting, but it always leads to the inclusion of administrators, teachers, families, students, and community members in planning a system of student and teacher supports to improve learning.
High degree of teacher collaboration. Nearly every story about successful RTI implementation includes several examples of ongoing teacher collaboration. Most describe really synergistic grade level teams that plan lessons and interventions together, many include well-developed co-teaching teams that work together to manage multiple learning activities in classrooms, and a lot of success stories include examples of teachers collaborating with parents and families to design and implement effective interventions.
Student-centered discourse. When school leaders, teachers, or paraprofessionals describe effective RTI practices, they talk mostly about the students, not the interventions. A typical story will begin with “I had a couple of students who . . . “ or “a girl in my class was continuing to struggle with . . . .“ Success stories are never about miraculous interventions that work for all kids; it’s always about unique students and how the teacher figured out what would work for those students. These stories generally end with what the teacher learned by teaching those students.
Flexibility. Schools that are successfully using RTI processes report that they live by the motto “monitor and adjust”. Staff schedules for supporting interventions, meeting times, administrator duties are all subject to change on any given day based on what is needed to support students.
Common Complaints about RTI
Not every story about RTI is a happy one; teachers often report that RTI is disruptive to classroom learning, difficult to implement, and insufficiently supported by school or district leadership. Here are some of the issues that arise for teachers in RTI implementation:
Lack of trained personnel to support interventions. Often, teachers report that they only received a cursory training in RTI and feel like they are expected to implement these practices without a thorough understanding of the entire process. They may also report that there aren’t enough staff to support intervention groups. Complaints like this indicate that common vision and teacher collaboration have not been established (#1 and #2 above).
Lack of interventions to draw from. Teachers sometimes feel overwhelmed because they think they need to have a robust repertoire of interventions in order to meet the needs of students at Tiers 2 and 3, in addition to designing good instruction at Tier 1. Two issues emerge from this complaint: First, that teachers conceptualize interventions as existing procedures to implement, rather than responsive strategies to student needs, and second, that teachers are not collaborating to share ideas and materials (#2 above).
Difficulty in implementation at high school level. This is a common complaint; high school classes are generally set up as autonomous entities. The collaborative processes and multi-faceted approaches of RTI don’t seem to fit. RTI can be implemented in high schools; the development of shared vision and teacher collaboration is just as important at this level as it is in elementary schools. A common mistake is to characterize RTI as a “special education process,” which disenfranchises the majority of teachers and discourages collaboration and flexibility.
Delay of referral process for special education services. In one sense, this complaint is valid; engaging in Response to Intervention practices impedes the process of identifying students for special education. That’s probably not a bad thing. When a student responds to an intervention and makes progress, we often discover that the disability we may have suspected isn’t a disability at all, but a different approach to learning that the student and teacher can benefit from.
What can we do to improve?
One thing that we do know about implementing RTI is that talking about it with other educators is a good way to get better at it. More information, more ideas, more stories help teachers, administrators, and parents to refine their approaches and lead to more student success. I’ve included some sources of information on RTI below. Please share your own stories of success or struggle with RTI in our comments section, and let us know about additional resources.