Opinion
Education Opinion

RTI for Gifted? Are You Sure?!?!?

By Tamara Fisher — August 24, 2009 10 min read

I remember many years ago a discussion that broiled in a grade-level staff meeting regarding a 7th grade student at our middle school whom all the teachers were concerned about. As a consistently struggling student, she had been referred for possible Special Education services a few times over the years but never qualified for the services because her overall IQ wasn’t quite low enough and she had no IQ-achievement discrepancy. Yet it was clear to her 7th grade teachers, as it had been clear to previous grade teachers, that she needed some sort of assistance. But the hands of the Special Education teachers were tied because the student didn’t qualify for their services yet again. The 7th grade teachers were passionate that something needed to be done to give this student the assistance she obviously (to them) needed, and the special education teachers were frustrated that they were restricted by rules, regulations, laws, policies, etc. from being able to reach out to this student and offer her their expertise.

I don’t remember what solution, if any, the teachers came up with to help her, but I do vividly recall the passion and intensity of the discussion. In part, I remember it because I recall thinking at the time that I was grateful gifted education (in Montana, at least) wasn’t so restrictive. If the teachers and gifted specialist determine a kid needs gifted education services, we aren’t limited by magic numbers from providing that student the services.

Yet there are places where “magic numbers” are required for a student to receive gifted education services, and I’m certain discussions similarly passionate to the one above have occurred regarding students who don’t have the magic numbers to qualify for gifted education services and yet the teachers (and parents) all know the student needs the services.

When I first learned about RTI, or Response to Intervention, I thought, “Ah, so we weren’t the only school with students who needed the expertise of special education services but didn’t technically qualify for those services.” RTI has been created as a way to make sure the kid gets the assistance/services he needs whether or not he technically qualifies for special education or as having a learning disability.

RTI is a tiered service delivery model, which means different levels of service (instruction, assistance) are provided and students receive their instruction and any assistance at whatever tier (or level) they need that information. So (pardon my simplistic diagrams created in Word, transferred to Fireworks, saved as JPEGs, & somehow uploaded for your viewing pleasure), the green tier (Tier 1) in the diagram below is the Core, i.e. the level at which instruction delivery will be appropriate for most students.

The yellow tier (Tier 2) represents the targeted or strategic interventions that some students will receive when assessments show they aren’t quite learning the material after the Core lesson or layer of instruction. Tier 2 is where students receive some additional practice on a skill or additional instruction on a concept in order to help them grasp that skill or concept. The red tier (Tier 3) represents the intensive instruction that a handful of students may need when assessments show that Tier 1 instruction and Tier 2 instruction have not allowed the child desired results (i.e. learning or mastery).

[Interestingly, this tiered visual no longer appears on any of the RTI information sites - or if it does, it’s modified. My graphics capabilities are limited, so I couldn’t create anything much beyond this for you. I’ve place these images here simply for all the visual learners out there, not as a be-all end-all representation of an RTI model.]

RTI is instruction in tiers, not students in tiers, so the same given child could receive instruction in Tier 1 for learning the alphabet (for example), Tier 2 for learning the sounds of each letter, and Tier 3 for learning specific consonant blends (such as “cl” and “bl”).

I ask you: Whose learning needs aren’t represented in this model?

Yep, the gifted student. At face value, the essential RTI model assumes the Core (or Tier 1) will meet the needs of all students who aren’t struggling with that skill or concept. Is the core, whole-class, grade-level instruction and curriculum appropriate for the gifted learners you know? Perhaps in some subjects for some advanced learners, but for all of them? Of course not. They have often already mastered the material (or can do so very quickly). Think about this:

> Just as there are some students who are a little bit behind in any given area/subject and who will need some extra assistance (i.e. Tier 2), there are about the same number of students who are a little bit ahead and will need some extra challenge and/or acceleration.

> Just as there are a few students who are significantly behind in any given area/subject and will need some significant assistance (i.e. Tier 3), there are about the same number of students who are significantly ahead and will need significant extra challenge and/or acceleration.

Spend enough time reading information about RTI and you will sooner or later come across a statement that says something to the effect of RTI being a way to make sure that every student, whether struggling or gifted or somewhere inbetween, gets what he or she needs as a learner.

Here, here!

But my concern is that nearly every piece of information about RTI talks about it in relation to the struggling learner. And that is how most schools seem to be interpreting its purpose. Yes, that was its original intended purpose, but you can also find information referring to RTI as a model for effective schoolwide reform, as “Every Ed” rather than “Special Ed,” as having the ability to transform how we educate all students. I agree with those last three possibilities (and am excited by them), but they won’t happen if the nearly-sole focus of RTI implementation is for only the struggling learner.

To me, it was simply instinctive to recognize that the tiers of instruction could be flipped to represent how we as schools can and should also provide tiered services for our advanced learners. And in the state of Montana we are in the beginning stages of trying to utilize RTI in both directions. Knowing this, I contacted my district’s person-in-charge-of-RTI last year and offered to talk to our RTI committee about RTI for gifted and the response I got was, “Well, I don’t think that’s necessary. This is really more of a special education thing and doesn’t have anything to do with gifted.”

My fear is that any district adopting RTI with that line of thinking will (continue to?) ignore the tiered needs of its advanced/gifted learners while at the same time easily recognizing the tiered needs of their struggling learners.

So, not that I have the power to do this, but in order to help schools know that it can and does work both ways, I propose the RTI tiers - at least in implementation! - should look more like this:

[And really, if you turn it on its side, what does it remind you of?

MmmHmm - a bell curve.]

Here in Montana, we recently hired a GT Specialist at the state level (our Office of Public Instruction). [This means we finally actually have someone at the state level in a GT position!] And her job in part includes helping Montana districts implement RTI in the advanced/gifted direction, too. OPI asked me to be on the interview team and this meant missing a day of school this past spring to go to Helena and meet the candidates. When I explained to my students why I was going to be gone, I told them about RTI and drew the 3-tier model up on the board. Each time, no matter what the grade level of students I was talking to, their immediate response after hearing the explanation was, “But what about us? Where are we in all that?” It was so obvious to them, too, that there were missing tiers.

Is your district (or your child’s school) implementing RTI (or their own version of it)? Here are some possible questions you could pose to find out if/how tiers of instruction will also apply to advanced/gifted learners:

* Those are great strategies for how we can reach the kids who struggle grasping a skill or concept. What strategies are we going to use to reach (i.e. stretch) the kids who already have a handle on the skill or concept?

* As we will already be assessing all students frequently [a key piece of RTI], how can we use that data to better reach/teach our advanced learners, too?

* We’re putting into place a great continuum of services for our struggling learners. How about we examine also putting into place a continuum of services for our advanced learners?

* So these are our strategies for reaching our learners who are a bit behind. What are our strategies for reaching our learners who are a bit ahead?

As fuel for your questions, I recommend reading some RTI information sites and pulling quotes from RTI documents about “educating ALL students.” For example, the following quotations come from the Montana RTI Trainers Training Manual (perhaps it is the same manual used in all states, I don’t know...). (In each case, the emphasis is mine.)

“Response to Instruction (RTI) is the practice of providing high-quality instruction to all students based on individual need.”

"…creates a continuum of instructional supports.”

“Students who score at the higher level of Tier 1 should be receiving instruction that will continue to keep them challenged.”

“Student learning is evaluated based on how quickly that student acquires instructed material (learning rate). The effect of this shift [in philosophy and process] is that it enables educators to focus on how much and what types of instruction students need, which increases accountability for student learning.” (Which begs another question you could pose: * Shouldn’t we as educators also be accountable for the learning of our advanced students?)

“Essentially, RTI is the practice of: (a) providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to all students’ needs and (b) using assessment to determine learning rate and level of performance to (c) make important educational decisions to guide instruction.”

If RTI is being promoted as a means to improve learning and instruction for **ALL** students, then let’s make sure that actually happens.

Want to learn more about RTI? Want to find out more about RTI’s implications for gifted education? Try these links:

RTI Action Network

National Center on Response to Intervention

Colorado Department of Education RTI page (Colorado is including gifted in their RTI implementation)

Thinking Points - RTI and Gifted Education (also from Colorado Department of Education)

Council for Exceptional Children - RTI Information and Articles

National Association of State Directors of Special Education - Response to Intervention Project

Pieces of Learning - Progress Monitoring Forms for Gifted Learners (I have not used these and therefore don’t have an opinion on them one way or the other, but found them while hunting for RTI + gifted info and figured someone out there might want to check them out.)

Gifted Child Today, Vol.32 No.3, Summer 2009 Special Issue: Response to Intervention I do subscribe to “Gifted Child Today,” but it is delivered to my school address, so this new RTI/Gifted issue that I’m very much looking forward to seeing is somewhere in a pile of district summer mail that hasn’t yet been delivered to my box (we haven’t started school yet here - although do soon). So I have just written this entire post and now discover/realize that my timing is either really good (many of you out there will be interested in this topic due to GCT’s latest issue) or really bad (because as soon as I finally am able to see the issue, I will probably discover information and resources I could’ve linked y’all to here in this post). Either way, I guess I can update if/as necessary.

What have been your experiences with RTI’s implications for gifted students in your schools? How are your schools utilizing the RTI model/process to reach ALL students? Do you see RTI as a potential benefit for gifted education and gifted students, or as a concern, or both?

A final thought from Susan Winebrenner (2001): “Learning is forward progress from point of entry.”

P.S. If you haven’t yet taken my quick survey, please do so! Thanks :o)

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.