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School & District Management

Response to Intervention Challenges Focus of New Federal Study

By Christina A. Samuels — November 09, 2015 3 min read
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If you are involved in special education and have not yet read my colleague Sarah Sparks’ article on a major new study of response to intervention, stop what you’re doing and read it now.

To summarize: A federal center tasked with evaluating education programs took a look at response to intervention, an instructional method that was given a huge boost by the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. And what it found in this study, which looked at students in 13 states, is that RTI doesn’t appear to be working as proponents might hope.

RTI is most commonly used for literacy instruction in the early grades. The underpinning of RTI is that all students should get high-quality reading instruction, along with frequent monitoring to gauge their progress. This is referred to as Tier 1 instruction. Students who show signs of weakness in a particular area get targeted instruction intended to catch them up to their peers, also known as Tier 2 instruction. Different districts may have different numbers of tiers, but generally students who struggle for a long time are referred for a special education evaluation.

The goal behind RTI is to have a framework to give children intensive help before they fall so far behind that they end up in special education classes. But according to the study conducted by researchers on behalf of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, 1st-grade students who received interventions ended up losing ground compared to virtually identical students who were not given targeted lessons.

After a few months of Tier 2 instruction, 1st graders in the study were about a month behind similar peers. This was the same no matter the child’s income level, racial or ethnic group, or native language. There were no statistically significant results to Tier 2 instruction for students in 2nd or 3rd grades.

That finding is compelling enough, but what I also found particularly interesting is that the schools tracked by the researchers often blurred the lines between the instruction that is supposed to be for all students, and the targeted instruction that is supposed to be just for students who are struggling. From the story:

In 1st grade, 45 percent of the schools provided Tier 2 interventions to groups of students at all reading levels, not just for students reading below grade level. Moreover, 67 percent of schools provided Tier 2 interventions during the core reading instruction, not just in addition to it. That blurring of the lines between core instruction and intervention is worrisome, said Karen K. Wixson, a reading and literacy professor and a dean emeritus of education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. "Core instruction is supposed to be aligned with Tier 2, but Tier 2 is singling out a particular component and approaching it in a different manner. The core instruction is broader and covers a much broader range of skills students need to be exposed to," Wixson said. If interventions that are focused on a few skills take up more of the Tier 1 instruction, she said, "Students are missing a lot of broader things that are going to make a difference in their ability to put it all together in functional reading."

Response to intervention study raises new and old questions

There’s a lot to take away from this study, and I encourage you to either join the discussion thread on the article’s page, or to continue the conversation here.

But here’s what comes to mind for me as I read this report:

First: The philosophy and theory behind RTI changes a lot when we’re talking about everyday, on-the-ground instruction in thousands of classrooms nationwide. It’s the age-old struggle between research and practice.

Second: This study also shows a wide variation in results among schools. The conclusions I mention above were for all the schools and students studied, but digging into the data shows that some schools are getting better results than others. So what are they doing that is different?

And third: A handful of states use RTI as their sole method of diagnosing students with learning disabilities. (If a student does not show a “response” to the interventions, that prompts further evaluation. This is in contrast to other identification methods, such as IQ tests.) But is RTI being implemented with enough accuracy and precision that it can be used for that purpose? Researchers have already offered cautions about RTI’s role in identifying learning disabilities and the U.S. Department of Education has said that RTI cannot be used to delay or deny a full special education evaluation for a child. This study should certainly prompt more attention to the identification issue.

Photo: Teacher Rebecca Decker works with students at Lone Star Elementary in Fresno, Calif., in 2011. The Sanger district, which includes Lone Star, was using response to intervention at the time to identify students early who were struggling in a particular subject, and get them help before they fell too far behind.—Manny Crisostomo for Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.