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Special Education

An Instructional Approach Expands Its Reach

By Christina A. Samuels — February 28, 2011 4 min read

Response to intervention burst onto the national scene thanks to two major efforts by the federal government.

The $1 billion Reading First program ushered in with No Child Left Behind in 2002 gave a boost to the educational framework by encouraging schools to use it for their literacy programs.

Two years later, the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act said that states must permit districts to use RTI as one tool for determining if a child has a specific learning disability.

The process has been growing exponentially ever since, morphing along the way into new forms and educational uses.

In 2010, a survey of district administrators found that 61 percent had implemented an RTI educational framework or were in the process of spreading RTI throughout their districts. In 2007, that proportion was only about a quarter.

Response to intervention involves early identification of students’ learning problems and the use of focused lessons, or interventions, to address those problems before they became entrenched. Though primarily linked with special education and early reading, the method is now used at all levels of schooling and in a variety of subject areas. Educators use “tiered-intervention” models—of which RTI is one type—to improve school discipline. Response-to-intervention models have also been used to improve instruction for English-language learners, with preschoolers, and as a lever for districtwide reform.

The process has been credited as a factor in reducing the overall rate of students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities, which has been on a steady decline since 2005. And in a time of constrained resources, response-to-intervention materials are one of the few areas where school districts are increasing spending.

The Evolution of RTI

The basic “pyramid of interventions” became a well-known symbol of response to intervention because it gives a quick visual representation of how an RTI program can function in schools. Some depictions evolved to show how RTI fits in a model of academic as well as behavioral supports for students. The National Center on Response to Intervention now promotes an even more complex visual model of RTI.

rti overview c1s

SOURCES: “Foundations and Research on Identifying Model Responsiveness-to-Intervention Sites,” Learning Disability Quarterly, 2004; “Response to Intervention: Policy Considerations and Implementation,” National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 2005; The National Center on Response to Intervention

RTI “hasn’t changed special education,” Alexa E. Posny, the assistant secretary overseeing the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, told a group of researchers gathered in Washington for an RTI research summit last December. “It has changed education, and will continue to do so.”

The basic framework of a response-to-intervention process has coalesced around a few necessary parts. The approach typically begins with a program of “universal screening” that picks out students who may be struggling academically, usually with early reading skills.

When the student’s problem area has been identified, teachers use high-quality, research-based interventions with the student, while closely monitoring his or her response to those lessons. If the student’s skills pick up, he or she leaves the process. If there are still problems, the interventions intensify in frequency or length.

Nationwide Look

Identifying Students With Learning Disabilities

Seven years after response to intervention was incorporated into federal special education law, most states now allow RTI or IQ discrepancy to be used to identify students with learning disabilities.

rti overview c2s

SOURCE: National Center on Response to Intervention

If a student still doesn’t respond to the most intensive instruction, he or she might then be referred for a comprehensive special education evaluation. In that way, using RTI as part of a disability-intervention process is different from the previous method that involved giving a student an IQ test, and then seeing if those results showed a discrepancy between the student’s intelligence and academic achievements. The “IQ discrepancy” model meant that students had to essentially fail in school for a long period before being deemed eligible for special education services.

Proponents of RTI say the process has changed education because of its focus on catching problems early, and on improving education for all students.

RTI Adoption

Proponents of response to intervention have stressed that RTI goes beyond special education, and a survey conducted last year suggests that message is being received. More than half of school administrators said their districts are implementing RTI as a joint effort between general education and special education.

rti overview c3s

SOURCES: Spectrum K-12 Solutions; American Association of School Administrators

“RTI, writ large, is really about general education reform,” said Robert H. Pasternack, a former assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and now an official with Dallas-based Cambium Learning Group, which creates instructional materials. Mr. Pasternack was in office when President George W. Bush created the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, which in 2001 pushed both for the use of RTI and for allowing states to use federal special education dollars for intervening early with students who were not yet identified as having a disability. Both recommendations ended up in the idea.

“We had a moral imperative to do things differently, and a fiscal imperative to do things differently,” Mr. Pasternack said, because too often, students were being told they had a disability when they were really victims of poor instruction.

Q&A on RTI

Q: Many people talk about response to intervention as being a general education initiative, which leaves some wondering how special educators with their specialized training fit in. What is your day like now with students at your elementary school?

ELIZABETH DOBRINEN, special education teacher, Madison Elementary School, Sanger, Calif.:

A: “If RTI is done with fidelity, the strengths of both the general education and special education teachers stand out. Special education teachers have been trained to individualize to the need of students and find appropriate strategies that meet their needs. The lower tiers of the RTI model are where general teachers’ strengths are highlighted. They are trained to teach the grade level standards and to dig deeper into those standards effectively.

“It takes a lot of communication, collaboration and trust among my colleagues to pull off a schedule where the needs of the [special education] students are being met and the needs of the students that I may be serving in the intensive groups can be met as well. The goal of the schedule is to effectively meet the needs of all students.

“A great example of that this year is my one reading group that has 2nd- and 3rd-graders. The five students are grouped together based on all five having the same need. Two of the students are on an [individualized education program.] Two of the students are in the problem solving stage—the RTI team is asking, ‘Why are these two students not progressing as effectively as they should?’ So those two are receiving services from the intervention teacher and myself.

“The fifth student is in the bottom 5 percent of his grade level for reading. He needs strategic intervention to help him grow. Working together with the RTI team and grade-level teachers, all five students are receiving what they need to be successful.”

Even with the intense and expanding interest and the investment of new money and other resources, the RTI process evokes questions.

The migration of RTI into new subjects, grade levels, and uses has come with little hard research to guide the way. At the same time, education schools are trying to figure out how—or whether—to introduce the concept to teachers-in-training.

Researchers are pondering whether RTI is being used carefully enough to yield valid results when it comes to identifying learning disabilities.

By the same token, some parents have complained that the process takes too long, and is not always implemented well enough to help their academically challenged children.

As the debate continues, RTI practitioners are forging ahead.

Donald Deshler, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, and a longtime researcher of student literacy, said the next step in RTI is for researchers to shift away from studying the nuts and bolts of how to implement the framework, and instead figure out just what elements make the process thrive in some schools and districts.

“There are some things that are embedded in RTI that make me hopeful,” Mr. Deshler added. For one, he said, “it begins and ends with instruction. RTI looks directly at student achievement in the most fundamental way.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as RTI: An Approach on the March

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