Beth FerriBeth Ferri, associate professor in teaching and leadership programs, is the coordinator of the Doctoral Program in Special Education. She teaches courses in adapting instruction for diverse learners as well as graduate seminars in Disability Studies, including a course on Race and Disability and a course on Gender, Disability and Sexuality. Her research interests focus on inclusive education, disability studies, and narrative inquiry. In her 2006 book, Reading Resistance: Discourses of Exclusion in Desegregation and Inclusion Debates (Peter Lang), she and coauthor David J. Connor explore how the entanglement of race and disability worked to create and maintain new mechanisms of exclusion after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.

As any educator will tell you, the pendulum of reform rarely stays in one place very long. There is always something new: new ideas, new theories, and new paradigms. Certainly my own field of special education has been at the epicenter of many educational reforms (i.e. inclusion, positive behavior support, phonemic-awareness). Yet, given this penchant for reform, how is it that the more education changes, the more it seems to remain the same?

One reason for pendulum swings, at least in terms of special education practice, is that the foundational assumptions of the field remain deeply entrenched. The idea that students come in two types, one “special” and one “regular,” for instance, remains an unstated assumption across a range of reforms. We know, of course, that students share a range of abilities, motivations, interests, identities, and backgrounds—all of which cannot be reduced to a simple binary. Yet, because we have yet to challenge this core assumption, we continue to assume that students who are deemed “special” or disabled are different in fundamental and essential ways from their non-disabled peers.

A related core assumption retained in many educational reforms is the deficit model, whereby disability is seen as inherent in the individual. Conversely, the social or minority group model locates disability in the structures of society. According to the social model, disability is relational and contextual—manifest in a lack of fit between how a particular body functions and the built and attitudinal environment in which that body finds itself. We locate the “problem” of disability in the bodies and minds of students, a disproportionate number of which are students of color. Therefore, it is only the student, not the system or larger educational context that is deemed deficient and in need of intervention. In other words, if we locate the problem of disability in students, our interventions are likewise directed at those students and the rest of the system is allowed to remain intact.

The Appeal of RTI

On the surface, the recent educational reform, Response to Intervention (RTI), appears to shift the object of remediation from the student to classroom instruction. RTI is a multi-tiered system of progress monitoring whereby research-based interventions are targeted to learners who are struggling. It has also been proposed as an alternative eligibility model for identifying students with learning disabilities. Yet, because at its core RTI is a procedure for sorting and identifying students, it retains many of the field’s problematic assumptions and practices. RTI, for instance:

– Reifies pull out models of instruction;

–          Suggests that some students simply need better instruction, while others have “real needs,” reinforcing the idea that disability is something “real” inside students;

–          Reinforces the idea that the appropriate response to a student who is experiencing difficulty is to refer him/her;

–          Stifles teacher reflection, inquiry, and problem solving in favor of standardized responses to students learning and behavioral difficulties;

–          Reduces learning to skills that can be assessed quickly and efficiently;

The Standard Treatment Protocol Model of RTI is the model that is most widely discussed in the literature. In this model every student is given what is called a universal screener, typically in the first few weeks of the school year. Those who do not do well on this screener (typically involving quickly administered assessments, such as one-minute reading fluency assessments) are monitored, while exposed to research-based instruction in the general education classroom. After a fixed period of time, students are again assessed. Those that continue to struggle are provided with more intensive instruction, most often achieved by providing the same intervention, but in a small group setting. Again students are given a fixed amount of time to “respond” or demonstrate adequate achievement. Those who respond return to the classroom (or Tier 1), whereas non-responders may either receive a second round of instruction at Tier 2 or move up to Tier 3, where they again receive the same intervention, but with either one-on-one support or with several other peers. Typically there are 3 such tiers, at which point students are referred for special education.

Is giving a student who is struggling more of the same approach that did not work in the first place an appropriate “response” to student difficulties? We might ask why we are labeling students as not responding.

As a deficit-based model, RTI locates learning differences or, what is called lack of responsiveness, as inside students. In fact, a lack of fit between the learner and exposure to research-based instruction becomes the evidence of disability in RTI.  As Fuchs (in Gerber, 2005) states, “If you have a classroom in which most students succeed, then the student who does not must have ‘some underlying deficit’” (p. 519). You will notice in this calculation that the instructional model, because it has been authorized as research-based, is never called into question, even though it is obviously not working for some students. In fact, we should expect that any instructional model will work for some students, but not others. Thus, RTI represents a shift from instructional practices that focus on differentiating instruction for diverse learners to presupposing that all students should be able to learn using the same approach as long as it research-based.

Is it viable to think that one intervention will necessarily meet the needs of all learners? Moreover, if a student does not learn the way I teach, don’t I have the responsibility to try to find a way to teach the way they learn?

Unpacking the discourse of RTI, which includes terms such as standard, treatment, protocol, universal, and fidelity, reveals quite a bit about the model. First, the approach is designed to operate in a very tightly organized fashion. Envisioning the classroom as a laboratory, the goal of RTI is to control as many variables as possible. Teachers are expected to deliver research-based instruction with fidelity, which explains the penchant for commercially developed and scripted programs that can be faithfully administered by teachers. Some have gone as far as calling these programs “teacher proofed,” because they are designed to take the teacher completely out of the equation. Reducing the teacher as a variable allows an exclusive focus on the intervention, which is assumed to be valid and effective, and the learner.

Given that teacher quality and teacher training are consistently found to be the most important factor influencing student achievement across a range of studies, why would you try to teacher proof instructional materials or try to automate instruction?

Although RTI is designed to provide intensive instruction to students as soon as they begin to fall behind, it could also be seen as reifying some of the most problematic aspects of special education. It would not be a stretch, for instance, to assume that RTI labels might simply augment or replace existing special education labels. Moreover, in most of the descriptions of RTI, pull out delivery models prevail in Tiers 2 and 3. In this way RTI confuses intensity of instruction with placement—an idea that was challenged by inclusion, where special education is seen as a service, rather than a place. The model also continues to promote referrals as an appropriate response to student difficulty. Therefore classroom teachers continue to be led to believe that they are ill equipped to teach diverse learners. In this way, RTI represents a kind of push back to reforms that are more in keeping with inclusive practice, such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and differentiated instruction. The following quotes are instructive:

If students “demonstrate adequate progress” in Tier 2 they “are not disabled and can be integrated back into the general classroom” (Batscher et al., 2006).

“If students respond to the treatment trial, they are seen as remediated and disability-free and are returned to the classroom for instruction” (italics added) (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005, p. 95).

Students who do not respond are considered “difficult to remediate” and further [special education] evaluation is warranted (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2005, p. 97) because they “cannot survive in the mainstream classroom” (p. 97)

In these examples, the general education classroom is envisioned as a “disability free” space, where only students who are achieving at a level commensurate with their non-disabled peers belong.

Is RTI compatible with inclusive practice? If so, why do so many of the models assume that students, particularly in Tiers 2 and 3, will receive pull-out instruction?

Finally, advocates claim that RTI will provide the solution to the disproportionate placement of minority group students in special education (Gresham, 2007). Although there is no evidence to back up this claim, presumably by ensuring all students have access to research-based instruction, unwarranted referrals to special education will be avoided. Certainly aiming to curb the disproportionate referral and placement of students of color in special education is vitally important and must be addressed. Klingner and Edwards (2006), however, suggest that RTI will not achieve this goal unless we ensure that research-based interventions are also culturally responsive. We cannot assume that interventions that are effective for majority group students, will also be effective for culturally and linguistically diverse students or students with disabilities for that matter. Finally, they caution that we must not ignore or discount contextual factors that might also explain why an intervention isn’t working for a particular child.

How will we ensure that RTI does not simply replicate existing problems with overrepresentation, particularly since students who are culturally and linguistically diverse may not “respond” to instruction in the same way or may need more flexibility in terms of instructional approaches?


There are many acknowledged (and unacknowledged) problems with special education, including lack of efficacy of pull-out models of instruction, poor transition outcomes, long-standing overrepresentation of students of color, lowered teacher expectations, increased drop out rates, as well as the unfortunate stigma associated with special education labels and placement. Given these problems, it is encouraging to see reforms like RTI attempt to change some of these practices. Unfortunately, because of its adherence to a deficit model and to traditional special education practice, RTI does very little to disrupt some of the more problematic aspects of special education.

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9 Responses to “RTI: Reform or Reformulation? by Beth Ferri”

  1. Phil Smith on 9/1/11 8:05 AM US/Eastern

    Beth, I’m glad to see that you’re continuing to pursue this issue. This is important stuff.

  2. Jennifer Huber on 9/1/11 10:59 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written blog Dr. Ferri! I found myself nodding emphatically in agreement throughout! 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. 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. I also think that 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. Your comment about the educational pendulum is so true. I have been in education for over twenty years and often feel the swing. Previous models for identifying students who may have learning disabilities, were enacted similarly to many RtI practices. In problem solving models for example, 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.

    I wonder what your thoughts are for systems change and reform? What next steps should educators take in light of this discussion? What might teacher educators promote in teacher learning programs (beyond critical reflection)? Any thoughts?

    Thanks again!

  3. Beth Ferri on 9/2/11 7:38 AM US/Eastern

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jennifer. I love your comment that, “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.” That really hits at the heart of what I see as a problem in RTI. I also think it fails to dislodge the assumption that an appropriate response to student difficulty is to refer them to someone else. In these and other ways, RTI reflects a kind of backlash to inclusion and what I had hoped were outmoded approaches to student learning needs. I wrote about this in more detail for an article in the International Journal of Inclusive Education, that I titled, “Undermining Inclusion.”

    As far as systems change and reform, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I would say that we need a recommitment to inclusion and methods/approaches/practices that support inclusion (UDL, differentiated instruction, collaborative learning approaches). We need to prepare all teachers to expect to meet diverse learning needs in their classrooms.

    Thanks again–you’ve given me much to think about!

  4. David Hernandez-Saca on 9/10/11 9:28 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Beth and Jeni,

    I carefully read both of your comments. I also carefully read your Blog entry Beth.

    Beth: I respect the work you do from a Disability Studies perspective.

    One question that I actually woke up this morning thinking about was the relationship between Special Education and Disability Studies.

    As an emerging scholar, who wants to be at the table of critical issues in special education and disability studies, my advisor(s) are always pushing my thinking about knowing both worlds, special education and disability studies.

    How can these two world talk to one another and encourage ‘reconciliation’ if you will?

    Personally, I am not trained in special education, but come from a disability studies perspective (which I have so much still to learn from). However, I believe its important to know both world, in order to do the critical work necessary to develop an educational system that serves the need of ALL students.

    I liked your point about needing to challenge the core assumptions within special education.

    I liked your point:

    ‘We locate the “problem” of disability in the bodies and minds of students, a disproportionate number of which are students of color.’

    It seems to me that they are deemed ‘disabled’ because there is an ideology of ability, that is predicated upon Western Middle-class, male ideal, or normal, which in turn “Others” others and the way in which the system has dealt with this ‘lack of fit’ is by constructing those who are not ‘normal’ or in the ‘selected’ (to quote a colleague of my) as disabled in some way.

    I love the fact that you expose the nature of the current systems’ logic and paradigm and how it pathologies certain minds/bodies and I would argue spirits. Your discourse analysis of the ways in which the language that is used within the discourse of RTI is evidence of this.

    However, I want to end my comment, with the critical question that Jeni points out, what can we do beyond critical reflection?

    Maybe to begin, at the academic level of the system is to continue engaging in these types of conversations which I hope can lead us to collaborations in order to deconstruction in order to reconstruct the world of (special) education in healthy ways for the common good of ALL children and their loved ones.

    This morning as I was thinking about how special education and disability studies could reconcile or unite, I started to think about student voice. Where are the voices of students regarding these issues? Maybe we can start there?

    Thank you for reading my comment and I look forward to hearing from you.


  5. Margaret Higgins on 9/23/11 2:16 PM US/Eastern

    Beth and All,

    Thank you for the discussion so far regarding Response to Intervention (RTI). I have been reading it with interest as a doctoral student in Disability Studies, a former teacher of English, journalism, and composition, and as the mother of a grown child with multiple disabilities.

    As I worked with my son outside of school, I saw that what I was doing to teach him didn’t always work even though it had worked with others. I came to realize that I couldn’t teach my son. I needed to let him teach me HOW to teach him. Through observation, trial & error, reflection, more observation, more trial & error…until the two of us found what works. Learning became relationship, perserverance, reflection, spontaneity, and creativity.

    The reference to RTI being “teacher proof” is thus a concern for me. Does this mean that teaching has become “thinking and creativity proof” as well? If there are prescribed lessons, does this mean that creativity is removed from teaching AND from learning as well? How many teachers teach test strategy instead of teaching thinking, diversity in thinking, support of thinking? The same can be asked of creativity, even whether creativity is allowed to exist in the same classroom as RTI.

    How does the “teacher proof” teaching of RTI affect teacher reflection? Is teacher reflection stifled? Is student reflection stifled? Are thinking and creativity replaced with rote learning? Would any one of us want to be in such a learning environment?

    In addition do the procedures used in RTI create test anxiety? How many (or what percentage of) students are actually helped by RTI? and How many students (or what percentage of) students are harmed by RTI?
    What is the evidence for this evidence-based program?

    What are the long-term effects of RTI? What is RTI doing to the process of thinking and creativity, and how is this affecting our nation’s productivity, citizenship, philosophy, etc.? Has anyone studied what happened to those raised on RTI as they become adults? Are they diverse thinkers, or are they rigid and closed minded or somewhere in between? How do they compare with generations which have gone before them? Are there class considerations? Do those who are socially/economically higher rank higher and continue to rank higher than those those who have less socially/economically? Or, is there a blending, and those in lower social/economic are able to better themselves and move up because of what they’ve learned through RTI.

    RTI is more than a program to improve reading skills. Currently, it permeates the thinking, philosopy, and pedagogy of every one of our nation’s schools. From RTI’s narrow vision of process described not only by Professor Ferri, but also from my own study, experiences and listening to others, it seems that RTI promotes one way of thinking, one way of doing things. When that becomes the norm, what are the long-term consequences for those raised with it? Is RTI a healthy educational model/process for those in general education, not to mention those in special education?

    Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence and the processes of differentiated teaching more honor the way people really are in terms of ability, learning style, culture, etc. Multiple intelligence and differentiated teaching allow for differences in the way people learn, for differences in interests, for differences in ability. Both of these educational ideas promote inclusion which in the long run promotes tolerance and acceptance of difference in society.

    What kind of society does our current education support? What kind of society do we want our education to support?

    Thank you for the opportunity to “think aloud through my fingers” and join the conversation


  6. Beth Ferri on 10/17/11 5:11 PM US/Eastern

    Thank you Margaret and David for your insightful responses! I will start with David’s question about a possible merging of special education and disability studies. I think there are two ways to think about such a proposition. First, we could say that at a very deep epistemological (and even ontological) level that special education and disability studies are at odds. From this vantage point, there would be no way to merge or smooth over our differences. But, there is a growing number of critical special educators who have cut their academic teeth in an era of area or identity studies (women’s studies, ethnic studies, etc). These scholars, many of whom have been involved in articulating what it might mean to operate from a Disability Studies in Education framework. I locate myself in this “camp” if you will. If you are interested in joining this conversation, I would direct you to the DSE (Disability Studies in Education) Special Interest Group of AERA; the DSE annual conference, and the Yahoo Disability Studies in Education discussion group. There you will find scholars like yourself grappling with many of the questions you raise.

    FInally, Margaret, your words are so powerful and much more important than my own! I think the issues you raise touch not just upon RTI, but are even more far reaching to encompass an educational system that increasingly and knowingly hides behind accountability systems that deepen class and racial inequities and enact what Kathleen Collins has called “ability profiling.” These same systems disadvantage students with disabilities and frustrate our attempts to make schools and classrooms places where all students can learn and thrive. You remind us about what we should really be thinking about when we care about accountability.

    Thank you both for your thoughtful comments.


  7. Ivan Hernandez on 9/19/12 12:38 AM US/Eastern

    I have mixed feelings. Assessment, identification and instruction are the basis for rendering special education services. What follows is what is referred to as individualized instruction, yet content standards continue to guide instruction that is supposed to meet individual needs. Since regular education focuses on expectations that meet standardized criteria, instuction continues to be geared again towards meeting educational standards. In essence RTI seems like it has good intentions for supporting the general educational delivery system rather than attempting to meet the need of varied learning styles. On the other hand RTI supports the need for a criteria in the level of education in this society. This is an important factor that can’t be denied. Possibly the best solution should be based on a completely different way of looking at our educational delivery system. I invision that the schools of the future will have large sized rooms equipped with cutting edge technology in the mist of all the necessary specialized support providers ready to meet the need of all students in a fully interactive classroom. Maybe there is much to learn from even the most challenged within our society.
    Thank you for the opportunity to share.
    Ivan Hernandez

  8. Beth Ferri on 2/2/13 8:37 PM US/Eastern

    You’ve got a lot here to discuss, Ivan. First, although it is true that we have used assessment and identification as the “basis for rendering special education services,” I am not sure this is necessarily self-evident or cast in stone. In fact, you could say that a benefit of RTI is that it allows schools a way to provide more intensive supports and instruction without necessarily requiring a special education label. This said, I worry RTI labels will simply replace traditional special education labels, but, again, this is not a given and we can perhaps think about ways to ensure all students get what they need to succeed. The classroom you envision sounds like such a place, perhaps, in keeping with universal design principles, perhaps? Thanks for your response.


  9. Ken Smith on 9/25/13 11:51 PM US/Eastern

    The questions that you raise about RTI are very well thought out and important.

    1. Should students get more of the same that is not working?

    2. If a student is successful in on of the lower Tiers, do they have a disability?

    3. If students respond to the treatment, do they have a disability?

    I like RTI as an intervention tool, but I do agree that the process, implementation and how it is viewed should evolve. RTI2 and things as such are taught and learned as an end to all means but are simply tools in a Mary Poppins magical bag of education. The goal is to have instruction that is developed with steps in it so that the students can access the knowledge at all levels and be successful. Teaching should be simple and work well for all. Church pastors seem to understand this basis. At a typical service, there is a theme, title, hand out with the day’s information and the topic contains 3 points and sometimes 5 points of understanding. The information is stacked in a way that it is memorable, chunked, and easily learned. This is something that we need to follow in our classrooms. How do we move in a direction where we teach in a way that all students understand and not just those that can teach themselves?

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