Special Education

Experts Say RTI’s Use May Outrun Its Research Base

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 28, 2011 7 min read
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Response to intervention has exploded into one of the most popular school initiatives in the country, but experts caution that RTI’s use is far outstripping its research base.

While the heightened interest has spurred research advances in key aspects of RTI, such as universal screening tools and initial interventions, other areas have little or no research support. Moreover, experts worry the historically piecemeal approach to studying RTI can give educators a skewed view of how to employ it effectively, and for what purpose.

“Before people go out and start proclaiming there is a dominant effective model of RTI that everyone ought to embrace, they really need to have more research on it,” said Karen Wixson, the dean of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and co-chair of the International Reading Association’s task force on RTI. “I think it has lots of potential, but if you just see it as another supplement to general education, ... it’s probably not going to have much of an effect.”

Response to intervention takes many forms in schools, but generally couples high-quality instruction, either in a subject area or on student behavior, with a universal screening tool to gauge each student’s risk of not succeeding through core instruction alone. From there, students receive interventions of various types and intensity levels based on their needs, along with frequent progress monitoring. The monitoring can be used to make longer-term educational decisions for the student, such as referral to special education or English-language-learner services. Researchers and practitioners differ on whether the framework is being used—or should be used—to improve academics generally or identify students with disabilities.

“The problem is the horse is out of the barn. We’ve almost lost the opportunity to do a really good efficacy study on RTI, because the beliefs of many RTI proponents and practitioners are so strong,” said Joseph R. Jenkins, a special education professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle. “I hear so often, ‘We already know RTI works; don’t even talk to me about that question.’ It isn’t the researchers who say that; it’s those on the implementation side with schools, who have absolute confidence.”

Evolving Framework

Researchers also have considerable evidence for individual parts of RTI.

While schools ramped up the use of RTI as a result of its inclusion in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, many of its key parts—such as progress-screening and increasingly intensive interventions—came out of the Reading First grants in the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Those grants were meant to support “scientifically based” reading instruction.

“Reading First was largely about teaching kids to break the alphabetic code, … and that carried over in the early years of RTI,” said Douglas H. Fuchs, a professor and chairman of special education and human development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Fuchs said those early literacy aspects of RTI had both stronger initial research bases and were easier to test because they had been put in place under other conditions.

Comprehensive reports in 2000 and 2009, from national reading and mathematics panels organized by the National Academies, found that tightly targeted curricula and screening to identify students at risk of academic failure helped improve student performance.

Likewise, studies in the mid-2000s by Sharon Vaughn, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, and others explored effective practices for second-tier interventions. They found that daily small-group sessions of 20 to 30 minutes, focused on specific areas in which students struggled, could improve student performance. What’s more, RTI “really energized research on screening and early identification; it brought that to the fore,” Mr. Jenkins said, noting that testing groups such as the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association intensified their focus on improving formative and diagnostic assessments such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or dibels, in response to RTI’s inclusion in the 2004 special education law. “That’s produced a lot of validation and reliability studies for those [areas],” Mr. Jenkins said.

The Sum of its Parts

But many researchers ask whether the sum of the research on RTI’s parts is as great as the whole, particularly as districts expand RTI’s reach from the early grades to middle and high schools, and from reading and math to other subjects.

“For good or bad, the research has proceeded in a way that chunks or atomizes aspects of RTI, not [investigating] RTI as a system,” Mr. Fuchs said. As Matthew K. Burns, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, pointed out in a 2010 study, there have been no randomized, controlled trial studies of an entire RTI model.

A randomized controlled trial “is an inherently messy proposition,” Mr. Fuchs said. It must account for the effect of every intervention at each tier, he said, along with the teacher training and data analysis used for decisionmaking. Testing a particular RTI framework as a whole also requires researchers to enlist a much larger sample of schools, and ensure all of them implement the framework similarly enough to compare them.

“I’m not saying it’s not important, but typically researchers don’t get funded to do this kind of work, and doing it persuasively enough so it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal is much more complex,” Mr. Fuchs said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s something I and other researchers have struggled with.”

In one of the few studies of an entire RTI model, Amanda M. VanDerHeyden, the president of Education Research and Consulting Inc., in Fairhope, Ala., in 2007 found in a multiyear, staggered-implementation study of an RTI program that it reduced the number of students referred for special education services. It also eliminated overidentification of male and minority students.

Identity Crisis

One downside of the research focus on individual interventions or tiers is that the disparate evidence can lead educators to confuse the trees for the forest during implementation, according to Darren Woodruff, a co-project director for the National Center on Response to Intervention, sponsored by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.

“People can be misled into thinking, ‘We’re doing this reading intervention, so that’s RTI,’ ” he said. “They’re only doing one or two components, not doing the full framework.”

In a 2009 article in School Psychology Quarterly, Cecil R. Reynolds, an educational psychology professor emeritus at Texas A&M University, in Bastrop, Texas, and Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz, a neuroscientist and dyslexia researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., sharply criticized the RTI research community for not providing enough evidence that RTI should replace the traditional IQ-discrepancy model for identifying students with disabilities.

“RTI is pretty good at figuring out who does not have a disability, but … kids do poorly in school for a lot of different reasons, and only one of those is a disability,” he said in an interview. “But now a lot of states are saying, ‘Well, if a kid doesn’t respond to interventions, that means the kid has a disability.’ ”

“People are taking what was intended to be an early-intervention-and-prevention model, and trying to make it into a diagnostic model, and it’s not. We make a mess out of it,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Ultimately, what educators and researchers think of the evidence base for RTI depends in part on what they consider its fundamental purpose, noted Mr. Jenkins of the University of Washington.

“Does RTI implementation raise all the boats? Or is it really about the struggling learners?” he said. “I think the way it’s practiced is whole-school reform. It has been adopted as big, data-based school reform, whereas the original intent, at least half of that was to identify students with disabilities.”

Looking ahead, Ms. VanDerHeyden of Education Research and Consulting said evolving technology could go a long way toward improving RTI’s research base. She pointed in particular to longitudinal tracking systems that capture individual students’ growth, such as some being piloted in Louisiana, that can provide more-nuanced information for instructors both during the initial screening and later progress monitoring.

“The Web-based data-management systems could reduce the false positives made during screening,” she added. “I think the next generation of research will be much more keenly focused on efficiency.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.com.
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as RTI: More Popular Than Proven?

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