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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

RTI Resources

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8 Responses to “RTI: Thoughtful, Effective Practice or “One More Thing”? by Elaine Mulligan”

  1. David Gibson on 12/15/10 1:33 PM US/Eastern

    I thought is was “sad but true” to hear that in one location a teacher was overheard saying that a student being pulled out of class “had to go to RTI.” It shows how even the best intentioned efforts can get implemented into structures that work against the intentions!

  2. Anna George on 12/17/10 2:45 PM US/Eastern

    This is very well-written. Thank you for effectively articulating the components of an issue that needs to be addressed.

  3. Dr. Laurie Zucker-Conde on 12/19/10 1:54 PM US/Eastern

    While I very much appreciate this balanced picture of the potential of Rti, as an ESL/bilingual teacher/administrator in a field in Massachusetts that is rapidly disappearing due to lack of resources and leadership, I remain suspicious of both the beliefs that underlie the theory of Rti and its current implementation in under-resourced schools. Rti valorizes a deficiency model of children, particularly ELL students. The language of “intervention” suggests a medical model; one imagines a triage team send to fix a broken child, instead of well-resourced teachers helping a student who is learning at a different pace for logical reasons, and will be for some time. Moreover, the need to document each “scientifically researched intervention” and carry out its implementation in the prescribed manner for the suggested amount of time, is onerous for many teachers/schools. Rti can co-exist with ELL programs in schools; however, it could easily replace ESL in elementary schools, in particular, where there is often a strong belief in “inclusion” and rapid assimilation. Many schools have no ESL program, no credible ESL program, or no ESL program that is connected to the ELA/reading curricula; Rti, while usually better than a Special Education for many students, still places ELL students in a deficiency frame work based on federal, state, or local assessments normed on an English-speaking, or grade-leveled, district-based population. Rti exists, in large part, due to transition of federal funds to competitive grants and shifting of terms in order to be able to meet needs under one rubric or another. I question the efficacy of this philosophy for ELL students. If American students had the opportunity to become bi-literate beginning in Kindergarten or Grade 1, the anxiety to assimilate students to grade-level English reading norms might be tempered, and all American students might have the opportunity to become better prepared for college and the current world. It might be that bi-literate students could use and exchange virtual high school programs in other countries in the future if we could adequately imagine programs that are not based on English primacy alone, socio-economic status, or grade-levels.

  4. Elaine Mulligan on 12/20/10 1:47 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Dr. Zucker-Conde,

    You raise some very important points; thank you for taking the time to comment and add to this discussion. It’s true that RTI is often used to bolster deficit-oriented characterizations of students rather than to prompt reflective and collaborative teacher practices. As you point out, students who are English language learners are often caught up in those “othering” practices. The National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) published a helpful brief on using RTI for ELL populations at http://www.niusileadscape.org/lc/Record/150?search_query=. They also developed a useful professional learning module for culturally responsive RTI at http://www.niusileadscape.org/pd/culturally_responsive_response_to_intervention.

    But your point is actually about whether RTI is really intended to improve instructional practices or whether it’s yet another way to stigmatize students who don’t benefit from teachers’ preferred ways of instructing. Wow. What a great conversation to have! I’d love to hear from other educators on this topic.

  5. Jeni on 3/8/11 7:19 PM US/Eastern

    This is indeed a fascinating discussion Elaine. I have been troubled by the assumptions underlying the identification of students with LD and the use of RtI in this identification practice is no exception. I appreciate the response of a reader (Dr. Zucker-Conde) who raises the point that RtI operates from a deficit perspective, trying to find kids who need help. In an RtI model, educators regularly screen students, looking for those who do not meet benchmark criteria. Many professionals are therefore spending significant portions of instructional time looking for problems among their students rather than looking for their strengths to use to mediate instruction.

    I think there are other troubling assumptions underlying RtI. For example, creating an RtI model assumes within child pathology. Although advocates of RtI point to the provision of intervention prior to identification as a strength of the model, the role of culture in learning is ignored. Instead, if a student does not “respond” to interventions, it is assumed that the problem lies within the student. This problem is accentuated in the standard treatment protocol approach that fails to account for student differences in culture, learning style, and background. In addition, although discussing racism and meritocracy may feel uncomfortable, these “isms” are replete in the RtI discussion. RtI is grounded in the meritocracy that pervades in the educational system of American schools. Because meritocracy rewards acts of merit in very subjective ways, its potential for misuse is clear. In light of the ways in which educational practices favor the dominant and privileged groups, assuming that all students will “respond” to an intervention fails to recognize the barriers in place for students of diverse backgrounds. Finally, I question whether RtI is really different at all. Previous models for identifying students who may have learning disabilities, were enacted similarly to many RtI practices. In problem solving models, educators met with teams to implement interventions, reported such interventions’ results with a team of professionals, and deciding whether to move forward with special education services. The ways in which students move through RtI tiers are similar and therefore problems may persist if educators fail to account for problematic assumptions such as those above.

  6. Deborah on 9/24/11 4:48 PM US/Eastern

    I like that RTI is an intervention that is provided in a timely manner. Instead of a wait and watch attitude and delay until a teacher may refer a student to SST. In RTI the intervention is provided and then the outcome monitored and adjustments made in the intervention as needed. The student moves through the different levels of more intensive intervention which continues to be fine tuned. This prevents the loss of time which usually results in students falling further and further behind. Studies have shown that students benefit most from early intervention. RTI provides this early intervention.

  7. Mike Howe on 9/26/11 4:41 PM US/Eastern

    I feel RTI could make significant changes in the way we teach. Assessment is key to making positive gains in the classroom. To often we don’t know if a child has been placed correctly, and sometimes we don’t know if our students are retaining the curriculum. RTI places attention on assessment and placement when a child doesn’t succeed. RTI is systematic and offers three levels of learning. I think the problem with running RTI is a lack of teacher knowledge to implement.

  8. Elaine Mulligan on 9/27/11 12:11 PM US/Eastern

    @Deborah and @Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ve been noticing an increase in web hits on our page of RTI resources for schools and administrators (http://nichcy.org/schools-administrators/rti), so I think you’re exactly right. I really hope that educators and administrators will take advantage of the free resources we’ve identified in this blog to support and improve their RTI processes.

    (Note: I’m no longer at NIUSI-LeadScape. I’m now at the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities – nichcy.org – which also has excellent resources.)

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