Education Funding

Tools of the Trade

By Anthony Rebora — April 09, 2010 6 min read
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Late last year, the education publishing giant Pearson put out a press release announcing its latest online venture: A Web site devoted entirely to response to intervention. Intended to demystify the increasingly popular instructional framework, the site provides an overview of RTI, a research section, links to policy and implementation guidance, and a directory of related Pearson products.

Even apart from its intended uses, though, the Pearson site is indicative of a larger trend. As schools ramp up RTI initiatives, many education businesses are moving aggressively to position themselves as go-to RTI solution-providers.

It’s not hard to see why. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 allows school districts to spend up to 15 percent of their federal special education dollars on RTI programs. And if that weren’t enough, states and districts can now channel portions of the $25 billion in federal stimulus money designated for Title 1 and special education to RTI.

In other words, at a time when school budgets are tight, this is one area where they may have money to spend.

Besides, with its emphasis on data-driven instruction and intensive support for struggling students, RTI is just plain hot right now. Industry insiders note it has become the preferred method of meeting accountability expectations and a number of other education-reform imperatives for many schools. That gives education businesses an obvious place to lay their chips.

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” says Mary Howard, a special education and literacy consultant and author of RTI From All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know (Heinemann). “Every day it seems like there’s a new product on the market.”

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How well schools navigate that market, RTI experts say, could make a significant difference in the success of their programs.

Charts and Gadgets

Perhaps no products are more emblematic of RTI than the varied assessment and progress-monitoring tools now on the market, which have given teaching in some places something of the veneer of stock market analysis.

In general, RTI requires schools to screen all students at the beginning of the year and then periodically monitor their progress to gauge how well instruction and interventions are working. To help educators collect and tabulate this data, education companies have surfaced an array of increasingly sophisticated tools—some of them originally developed for purposes other than RTI.

At the most fundamental level, assessment and monitoring products provide brief basic-skills tests and allow educators to upload the results to a Web-based data system, which can then be used to generate reports and track student progress. Among the most popular products of this type are Pearson’s AIMSweb, CBT/McGraw Hill’s Yearly Progress Pro, Renaissance Learning’s STAR Reading and STAR Math, and Edcheckup.

In a bid to provide a more RTI-centric tool, Wireless Generation has recently launched mCLASS: RTI, which expands on the company’s existing digital handheld-based assessment products by incorporating features that allow educators to track interventions and manage tier groupings. AutoSkill, meanwhile, provides an “RTI Package” in reading that combines an assessment tool with a reading-intervention software program.

Other monitoring products, such as Spectrum K-12’s Exceed/RTI and the Centris Group’s RTIm Direct, are billed as more comprehensive, districtwide management suites. Such programs can aggregate and track data from a variety of assessment tools and sources, as well as monitor interventions and tiers and perform complex statistical-analysis tasks.

How Much Is Too Much?

As with other classes of RTI-related commercial products, however, some learning experts express wariness that schools may be becoming overly reliant on Web-based testing tools, to the detriment of more nuanced personal observation and response by skilled teachers.

In an interview with Teacher PD Sourcebook, early-literacy expert Richard Allington argued that such tools are extraneous to high-quality instruction and have little relation to improvements in students’ reading skills.

Instructional consultant Mary Howard says that assessment tools can be a useful as a “starting point,” but that teachers must be able to look beyond the data to understand individual students’ difficulties. “The minute you turn reading into a number, you miss a lot,” she says.

Howard believes that RTI funds might be better spent on teacher professional development, particularly to improve regular classroom, or Tier 1, instruction.

Others counter that monitoring tools, if used properly, are integral to well-coordinated school improvement and are ultimately empowering to educators.

“We need to give teachers the tools they need so they can do things efficiently,” says Nancy Safer, director of the National Center for Response to Intervention, which publishes screening- and monitoring-tool review charts on its Web site. It’s partly a question of “what’s realistic” when asking teachers to monitor and document the progess of dozens students, she adds.

In an article published on the Web site of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ RTI Action Network, Jan Hasbrouck and Candyce Ihnot—a consultant and a reading teacher, respectively—argue that monitoring tools can help teachers detect even small changes in student performance and thus make more informed decisions about the course of instruction.

Scott Cary, chief marketing officer for Spectrum K-12, says that his company’s clients, largely administrators, need progress monitoring “to find out what’s working—not just with individual students, but subgroups of students, supplemental products, interventions, and teachers.”

“You can’t do that if you don’t have digital management,” he says.

Similarly, Andrea Reibel, vice president for corporate communications with Wireless Generation, says her company gets little pushback from teachers on the value of digital formative assessment. “We’re putting the technology in the service of teachers to make these research-based decisions,” she says.

Buyer Beware

Even so, experts advise schools to be cautious in purchasing RTI-related products like assessment and progress-monitoring tools and to take time to understand their role within their instructional systems.

“I believe there is a tendency to ‘shoot from the hip’ in making [RTI] product selections and planning professional development activities,” says Amanda VanDerHeyden, an education consultant and member of the RTI Action Network’s advisory council. “This can lead to a situation where the district has many disconnected resources tucked away in storage spaces and not benefitting students.”

Among initial purchasing steps, VanDerHeyden advises schools to look for information on the products from sources other than the companies who sell them and to test products in their classrooms before committing to long-term use.

“It seems to me that many products are being promoted as RTI when there is no record demonstrating their effects,” she cautions.

Likewise, NCRTI’s Safer says it’s important for schools “to look carefully at the students they are serving and ensure that the tools work with those students.” She notes, for example, that some progress-monitoring tools have not yet been validated with student populations that include English-language learners.

Maintaining compatibility between different components of RTI—core curriculum, progress monitoring, interventions—is also essential, Safer says. The products a school uses in these areas “need to approach concepts in similar ways,” she notes.

Industry observers also point to the importance of considering products from teachers’ point of view. “Is the product or service accessible to teachers using the system? Is the basic training and support adequate?” asks Marc Dean Millot, editor of K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report.

For her part, Howard says she’s most inclined to trust products whose materials and promotions explicitly acknowledge the role of teachers’ professional judgment. “Is there room for independent analysis, deeper questions?” she asks.

VanDerHeyden offers a similar sentiment: “I think it is useful to keep in mind that people implement RTI, not products.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Tools of the Trade

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