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RTI Goes Mainstream

Increased education funding and new software and products motivate more districts to buy in to Response-to-Intervention.
A typical classroom taking CTB/McGraw-Hill's Acuity assessment, a program some schools use for RTI.

In more districts than ever, Response-to-Intervention programs are gaining ground, nipping learning problems in the bud and keeping more students out of special education classes when they truly need intervention, which, of course, is the goal.

According to the Response to Intervention Adoption Survey 2009, which was conducted by Spectrum K12 School Solutions with the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 71 percent of respondents indicated their districts are piloting RTI , or are using RTI , or are in the process of districtwide implementation, compared to 60 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2007. RTI , a multi-tier intervention used to diagnose and address potential learning or behavioral problems early, is also increasing in popularity across all grade levels.

There has been a significant increase in high school implementation, for example, with 51 percent of schools having some level of implementation in 2009, compared to 16 percent in 2008, the survey states. It's unclear how many states mandate RTI programs in their districts, but Spectrum K12 spokesman Scott Cary says there are several.

Generally, the mandate means RTI is being used as the mechanism for identifying, qualifying and referring students to special education. Each state varies on whether it uses it for just one level of students, such as elementary, but most states apply it to all students, Cary says.

Popularity Factors

The reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 (IDEA) and the overall push and acceptance among educators for school reform are among the main reasons that RTI has become so popular. "RTI became so mainstream because it came about when people were truly interested in comprehensive school reform and interested in tracking and improving school progress," says Nancy Safer, director of the National Center on Response to Intervention, which is federally funded and integrates assessment and intervention within a multilevel prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavior problems. "It more precisely identifies kids who need special ed" and also addresses students who are underperforming, she says.

The federal No Child Left Behind law also requires highly qualified teachers to work with children of all abilities, requires districts to reach adequate yearly progress, and requires that students successfully master the curriculum. "That started the framework for districts to truly analyze" data, according to Andrea B. Ogonosky, a licensed psychologist and an independent consultant in RTI. "RTI is about changing the way we instruct children," Ogonosky says. "We have children who are struggling learners, but they are not learning disabled."

Another reason for the increase in RTI usage is that there are more resources, such as how-to guides, informational Web sites, and more software programs [including Discovery Education Assessment] that make collecting and analyzing the data more efficient, says Kathleen A. Whitmire, director of the RTI Action Network at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), which is privately funded. The NCLD offers mentoring programs and experienced, effective leaders in RTI to help districts train and learn the steps of RTI.

But perhaps the greatest surge in RTI usage is due to increased federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which indirectly fuels RTI programs. "It's making sure everyone is measuring what matters," says Cary. ARRA of 2009 provides over $98 billion for education programs, including $10 billion in Title I grants to local education agencies, $3 billion in school improvement grants and $11 billion in IDEA Part B grants to states to help children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate education to meet every child's individual needs and prepare him or her for the future.

The ARRA funding strengthens elementary and secondary education, including making progress toward assessments designed to improve teaching and learning. ARRA has made "a huge difference and given districts financial wherewithal" to implement RTI, Cary adds. Some funds could help pay for reading or math specialists, which help students stay on track.

Other RTI-related funding can come from the $4.35 billion in the Race to the Top program, which will go toward reforming schools, increasing teacher accountability, and improving data management systems to better measure student achievement. Those funds should have been or will be awarded this month.

Screening and Monitoring

The RTI process begins with universal screening of all general education students. Struggling students receive interventions at increasing levels of intensity to accelerate their learning, according to the RTI Action Network site. This is done through a team of general education teachers, special education teachers and specialists, depending on the district.

An elementary student progress report, showing real data in a district using the Lexia Reading software for RTI.

Research has shown that if school leaders use RTI programs—which requires monitoring students every few weeks or even every week—and look at the data, they can determine if certain interventions are working. If they are not, then schools will need to intensify the interventions, says Becky Darling, a school psychologist at the Manteno Community Unit School District #5 in Illinois. Illinois mandates that its districts implement RTI programs by the 2010-2011 school year.

Jefferson County schools in Colorado are also implementing the program. "We want to be proactive and intervene early," says Eric Everding, executive director in instruction at Jeffco Public Schools, which is using RTI. "At the core of RTI, it's about meeting the needs of all students and it's about believing it's meeting the needs of all students."

Progress is closely monitored to assess students' learning rates and the level of performance of each student. And then decisions about the intensity and duration of interventions are based on individual students' responses to instruction, the RTI Action Network states.

Behavioral Interventions

Safer, of the National Center on Response to Intervention, says that an additional RTI trend she's seeing is that more states are interested in integrating both academic and behavioral aspects. RTI can be used for preventing serious behavioral issues in schools. So the idea of a prevention model fits on both sides, Safer says.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District in Tigard, Ore., is a good example. Erin Lolich, associate director of student services for RTI, says the district started using a positive-behavior support system in the late 1990s. "It's the behavioral equivalent of RTI," she says.

The district follows a system that stems from research done at the University of Oregon that defined behavioral expectations in schools. The district uses a data system that tracks behavioral issues, such as problems in hallways or on the school bus, as well as referrals to the main office and attendance issues, and then teachers and administrators use that data in monthly team meetings to pinpoint which students to reteach and reinforce expectations with, Lolich says.

Then the district incorporated academics into that system, she says, because "there is absolutely a ton of research" that links academic and behavioral issues. The district applied for a grant from the federal Office of Special Education programs and received one for $900,000 over six years, starting in 2001. "That was the inception of RTI, when we infused the behavioral and academic systems," Lolich says.

The district started screening elementary students three times a year in reading and then used progress monitoring, or brief weekly assessments of target skills, using all the data to make decisions about their reading programs and behavioral systems, Lolich says.

Each school has an Effective Behavior and Instructional Support (EBIS) team, including the principal, the grade-level or content-area team, a literacy specialist, and specialists representing special education and English as a second language. The grade-level teams meet with the core team every six weeks to review the data and make instructional decisions, Lolich says.

For example, the team may meet to discuss attendance data for fifth-graders. "If a student has five or more absences in a 30-day period, then we implement an intervention," Lolich says. "Or if a student has two or more office referrals, we will implement a strategic intervention according to our behavior protocol, such as check-in, check-out or mentoring."

There is also a protocol for reading, writing and math. "Our protocols guide our intervention choices," Lolich adds. The results have been positive. Discipline referrals to the main office have been steadily decreasing since the system started. About 1,000 students were referred to the main office in the 1998- 1999 school year, compared to about 470 students in 2008-2009. Lolich attributes this to the RTI system.

Technology Tools

A student in class uses a clicker, one of the technological tools used in RTI, to give her teacher immediate feedback as to what concepts and lessons she understands and what she doesn?t. CTB/ McGraw Hill photo

A whole range of computer-assisted tools now makes it easier for teachers to input data and look at the trends for individual students. They can easily aggregate data and then provide information about each student's progress, Safer says.

The Lamar County (Miss.) School District started using Scientific Learning's Fast ForWord reading intervention software, which is used in RTI programs, in the fall of 2005. The district's team of teachers implemented it at the tier 2 and tier 3 levels for middle and high school students, for elementary students who were struggling English language learners, and for students in special education.

In addition to seeing improved scores on high stakes tests, the district has had about 40 percent fewer referrals to special education over the past two years, according to Peggy Williams, the newly retired director of instruction at the Lamar County School District. "Students have more self-confidence and less frustration in class, as well as better grades across all subject areas."

The tools are in place, Safer says. Teachers have to learn how to use them efficiently and improve instruction, which leads to the need for constant and thorough professional development.

Several years ago, Darling worked with other school psychologists to initiate RTI in the Manteno district. Under the old IDEA law, it was the psychologists' job to test students to see if they had a learning disability. Now with RTI, that work is obsolete, and she is involved in collecting and analyzing the data and helping to determine which students get what intervention.

During the first year, the district, which uses Lexia Reading for its RTI program, started slowly. Interventions were implemented for all kindergarten classes and piloted for one class in the first grade, Darling explains. The district had been using the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) assessment tool, which can identify any literacy problems, and then applied for and received a five-year Alliance for School-Based Problem Solving grant for RTI interventions and resources across the district.

The support included materials, districtwide trainings, and an external coach who helped with benchmarking and problem solving. "You have to start out slowly and collect data in kindergarten," Darling says. "There is so much involved, such as universal screenings three times a year, all the data you have to sort through, analyses, providing interventions, purchasing interventions and thinking of appropriate interventions, and whether or not it's a good fit for the school, and training with the staff ," Darling adds. "It's a huge paradigm shift."

The Benefits

Darling says that early intervention is key to helping students. When students are not responding to intervention, the team meets to discuss the problem and how to solve it. "Overall, we have certainly noticed that the number of students who need to go to individual problem solving, the step before special education, has dropped dramatically since we started doing so many interventions," Darling concludes.

In the second year of RTI, during the 2006-2007 school year, 139 students in K5 were brought to the Student Support Team (or individual problem-solving meetings), but in 2007-2008 only 71 students needed it. "It takes several years to make a big system change like RTI, and this shows the benefits we experienced in the midst of that change," she says. "It's very exciting for us."

Darling adds that the Manteno district leaders learned from their mistakes. "You really have to take a step back and adjust as you move forward," she says. "Be sure to have a team who is very well-versed in RTI and understands it well and communicates that with teachers and administrators."

Judy Davis, the principal of Milam Elementary School in the Conroe (Texas) Independent School District, says leaders, including principals, also must buy in to the program or it won't work. "I've been in education since 1969, and this is the most valuable thing I've ever done in my career," she says. "It's about a group of professionals sitting around a table and talking about the wonderful things about children."

Angela Pascopella is senior editor.