Response-to-Intervention was created by the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Because RTI was put forth more as an idea than as a plan in the special education law, administrators were left to create their own models of it. While in principle RTI identifies which students have disabilities early in their education, decreases the number of students referred to special education programs, and reduces the overidentification of minority students to special education, it is an ambitious and complex process.
District leaders implementing RTI must be organized and knowledgeable. A small handful of state departments of education, including those in Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have created full-scale, statewide implementations of RTI, and other states are piloting programs in select districts.
In order to implement RTI, various procedural features must be chosen: How many tiers of intervention will be used? What is the nature of preventative intervention at tier 2? How do administrators define nonresponsiveness? What is the role of special education?
How Many Tiers?
The first feature to pinpoint is the number of tiers of increasingly intensive instruction. The “regular” classroom is considered the first tier. Subsequently, RTI frameworks may vary considerably, from three tiers to as many as seven tiers. Some practitioners, like Jeff Grimes, former administrator in the Heartland (Iowa) Education Agency, and his colleagues, view these tiers as a substitute for a traditional evaluation of all children suspected of having disabilities. They view RTI mostly in terms of providing prevention and advocate for using more than three tiers. Others, according to research in School Psychology Review, see RTI tiers as part of a more comprehensive and traditional evaluation. They regard RTI as consisting of early intervention, and identification and classification processes.
We recommend three tiers of instruction—with general educators conducting the first two and the third managed by special educators. We recognize the difficulty in designing more than one tier of intensive, preventative instruction beyond the first tier (the regular classroom) and believe that a second tier of instruction should be implemented so that once students respond, they can benefit from instruction in the regular classroom. Unresponsiveness at the second tier would mean those students need the most intensive instruction, the third tier, which special education would provide. The second tier’s format, nature, and intensity should permit general educators, including reading teachers, speech clinicians, or school psychologists, to implement it without extensive training and ongoing support.
There are two prominent models of preventative intervention at tier 2: problem-solving and standard treatment protocol. Most practitioners conducting RTI use the former, while researchers, by contrast, favor the latter.
As part of Iowa’s statewide reform, Heartland staff members developed a four-level problem-solving model partly to “provide educational assistance in a timely manner.” According to unpublished reports on Heartland’s reform efforts prepared by Martin Ikeda, director of special education in the Iowa Department of Education, at level 1, a teacher confers with a student’s parents to try to resolve academic or behavior problems. At level 2, teachers and their school’s Building Assistance Team (comprised of other teachers and specialists) identify and analyze problems and help teachers select, implement and monitor the effectiveness of an intervention. If a student does not meet specific benchmarks of academic achievement, support staff, such as school psychologists, get involved at level 3. They use mostly behavioral problem-solving to refine the intervention. At level 4, special education assistance is considered. At each problem- solving level, the process is meant to be the same: Practitioners determine the magnitude of the problem, analyze its causes, design a goal-directed intervention, monitor student progress, modify the intervention as needed, and evaluate its effectiveness and plot future actions.
Throughout this problem-solving process, and across the four tiers, “data about a student’s responsiveness to intervention becomes the driving force,” following Grimes’ advice. Teachers and staff members compare the student’s performance level and learning rate with what is expected in the same classroom. It is the student’s relative classroom performance, rather than test performance, that determines responsiveness or unresponsiveness and special education eligibility.
Many districts, including the Minneapolis Public Schools, have adopted the problem-solving approach to intervention, according to Andrea Canter, director of school psychology at Minneapolis Public Schools. Its popularity is due in part to personalized assessment and intervention, but this individualized approach is also a potential weakness, as it assumes that staff are experienced in assessment and intervention. Plus they need to have the clinical judgment and experience to know which assessments and interventions to apply and the knowledge, discipline and opportunity to accurately measure the effectiveness of the interventions, according to a 2003 report published in Learning Disabilities Research and Practice.
Whereas the problem-solving approach differs from child to child, a standard treatment protocol usually involves a fixed instructional trial, usually 10 to 15 weeks, delivered in small groups or individually, illustrated in research reported in the Journal of Learning Disabilities and Exceptional Children.
For example, Frank Vellutino, professor of psychology at the University of Albany, and his colleagues in 1996 asked first-grade teachers in New York to identify their poorest readers early in the school year. Vellutino and his colleagues assigned the children to tutoring and nontutoring groups. The tutored children received a 30-minute, one-to-one intervention five days each week for most of the semester. This focused on phonemic awareness, decoding, sight word practice, comprehension strategies, and reading connected text. In second grade, tutored students below the 40th percentile of national norms on the Basic Skills Cluster test had another eight to 10 weeks of tutoring.
We recommend that schools use a standard treatment protocol for children with academic difficulties and a problem-solving approach for students with obvious behavioral problems with academic deficits. Standard treatment protocols can be highly effective for academic deficits, especially for reading problems in the primary grades. And the quality of preventative intervention in tier 2 does not depend on the expertise of staff or administrators who may have uneven training and dissimilar backgrounds in instructional design and its implementation.
With a standard treatment protocol, preventative intervention represents “instruction that benefits most students.”
Regardless of which RTI approach at tier 2 is adopted, two components of the assessment process accompanying RTI implementation must be specified. First, methods must be determined for measuring students’ response to instruction, and second, once a student’s response has been quantified, a criterion must be applied for defining nonresponsiveness. Students are identified as “disabled” when they perform beneath the criterion or, depending on the model, are referred for a comprehensive evaluation.
Various methods are available for specifying these two assessment components. However, administrators should recognize that the different methods produce, or identify, varying numbers and types of children as “disabled.” Researchers and practitioners must develop a common approach to define and assess nonresponsiveness. Otherwise, there will be inconsistency within and across districts in terms of who is “disabled.”
We recommend that a “dual discrepancy” be used to designate nonresponsiveness. Dual discrepancy requires that teachers and specialists identify students as nonresponsive only if they show insufficient levels of academic achievement and inadequate rates of growth or slope. Level of performance alone can classify some students as nonresponsive despite their improvement. When the intervention begins, they are far below the benchmark criterion, and despite strong progress, they remain below criterion. By contrast, slope of improvement alone leads to classifying some students—whose rate of growth is slow but who, at intervention’s end, reach the benchmark criterion—as nonresponsive. We advocate using slope of improvement and final level of performance, because it supports a nonresponsive classification only when a student fails to make adequate growth and completes the tier 2 intervention below the benchmark.
Role for Special Education
Special education in many districts needs reform. Students who don’t respond to preventative tier 2 interventions deserve a revitalized tier of special education to address their serious learning problems.
A reformed special education should have lower student-teacher ratios and more instructional time, and should use ongoing progress monitoring, such as curriculum-based measurement, to develop data-based and individualized educational programs. This means more teacher preparation, as well as more school district professional development programs. Without this change, special education’s large student caseload and unproductive fixation on paperwork and on procedural compliance weaken its effectiveness. Special education should be viewed as a valued third tier in the RTI framework, rather than as a dreaded outcome.
We recommend that RTI be configured to incorporate special education as a third tier that delivers the most intensive, data-driven, and iterative instructional programs designed to address individual learning needs.
Douglas Fuchs and Lynn Fuchs are professors of special education and human development at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, where they conduct research to improve the academic performance of at-risk children. They are senior consultants to the newly created National Center on Response to Intervention (www.rti4success.org).