Response to intervention can cause tension between teachers and administrators, but at one Texas school it is also fostering a greater focus on instruction.
To gain insight into the staff-administration dynamic, we recently spoke to principal Ron Myers and 6th grade language arts teacher Donalyn Miller about how they are making RTI work at their school, Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas. Myers and Miller, who is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and a blogger for Teacher, have been working together since 2002.
What is your feeling about RTI?
Ron: Personally, I believe it’s a good process. I think the foundation for RTI is effective teaching. But teachers see it as an extra burden when, really if you’re following the foundational ideas behind RTI—effective teaching, knowing your students, filling in the gaps, and documenting their growth—then it should be the natural course of what you should be doing. But that doesn’t always happen and so, unfortunately, there has to be a systematized process where we can capture or identify those kids who have these gaps.
Donalyn: No one in education is going to say that monitoring individual children is a bad thing. I think everyone believes in that. Ron raises some valid points on some of the issues that can come up—issues like inconsistency; data monitoring; the perception, not the reality, that RTI is more work; and a lack of understanding about best practices.
The important thing is that, if there’s not a common understanding of what good quality instruction looks like, then it really sets a program like RTI up to fail in a school. There may be multiple levels of knowledge and we may be just checking boxes on a monitoring form without a real understanding of what those interventions look like and how best to deliver them to kids who are struggling. The data collection to let you know how kids are doing is only one piece of RTI. It’s also the intervention that you are providing. Are those meaningful interventions? Are they interventions that are based in best practices for what we know works to help kids? Are the teachers looking beyond test prep?
What do you mean by “looking beyond test prep”?
Donalyn: When we’re using standardized testing to determine children’s qualifications for RTI services are we, in turn, just applying test-taking intervention strategies or are we looking beyond that at the whole child?
Ron: I hope it doesn’t get to a point where it becomes about checking boxes, because it’s bigger than that. It’s what Donalyn said: It’s about effective teaching practices that help students become more proficient in their understanding of the material.
Donalyn: If we don’t look beyond testing, then we might be able to shore up individual children for that year or for that test. But then we see many of those children in the same intervention programs year after year after year. They don’t ever get out because they don’t develop that resilience, that background knowledge. There’s something that’s preventing that child from coming into his or her own. You see children that are put in an intervention program in 3rd grade when testing begins and they’re still in it in middle school. You have to question the effectiveness of the interventions we’re providing these children if they never graduate out of the system.
Ron: Right, which comes down to the degree of professionalism and ingenuity of the teacher. The goal is to move a child from Tier 3 to Tier 2 or Tier 2 to Tier 1 so that kids aren’t shuffled out to a special program. The goal is to be more inclusive in the regular setting, using effective teaching strategies, which requires a lot of work from the teacher.
Donalyn: It also means a lot of training. To me as a teacher, I keep thinking that if we improve the quality of Tier 1 instruction for all students, then we have fewer students at Tier 2 and Tier 3. We certainly would have fewer students stuck in a program that they never get out of. It’s different work and having conversations about instruction isn’t a bad thing.
Ron: To me, RTI is about digging down and figuring out where the misunderstanding is for the student at the instructional level. You can’t force development, but you can create the conditions for it to unfold. It can be seen as a big job, but it’s something you have to be committed to working through as a teacher.
How are you using RTI at Trinity Meadows?
Ron: The state identifies “at risk” criteria. When we receive 4th grade students coming from elementary schools, we take what those elementary campuses tell us or what the state says in terms of what tier they are at. We give them six to nine weeks—at least, that’s what we are doing this year—and we are finding that we are able to move students down a level based on what their teachers have discovered.
Were you monitoring students before your district implemented RTI?
Ron: We were doing our curriculum-based assessments, which are district produced. Really, that was it. We would monitor students after the curriculum had been delivered. And then the teachers would look at student performance and reteach the necessary material. But that was after the teacher delivered the curriculum, which is not a bad thing, it’s just after the fact.
How are teachers responding to RTI at your campus?
Ron: I don’t want to put words in Donalyn’s mouth, but what I would suspect is that teachers who have been or are more or less geared to work in this manner may feel as though, “Well, here’s a level of bureaucracy that’s being placed upon me. I now have to adhere to this school-wide system when I feel as though what I’ve been doing in the past has worked.”
Yet, at the management level, decisions sometimes have to be made to move the group towards a different way of thinking. From my perspective as a principal, I have found it rare that the majority makes any moves without some kind of semi-direction.
Donalyn: I’m not discounting the validity of the process because I see the value in it—I certainly have room to grow as a teacher. I don’t know every intervention strategy in the world. I really have no issue with the RTI process per se. I think the one thing that might rankle me a bit is that there are some teachers that are using effective practices that are working with kids in all sorts of situations. Is the message that we’re sending to them: Your efforts to grow as a professional on your own are really not valued because we’re going to mandate that you do something in addition to what you’re already doing? There’s the perception among some that this is the case.
Can you talk about the data-monitoring process?
Ron: Currently, most of our progress-monitoring assessments are created by our teacher leadership groups. Last year we tried a variety of approaches, not all of which were successful. I then asked for some teacher committees to consider what we needed to do in order to create a system that would be beneficial and as teacher-friendly as possible. I posed that question on our discussion board and every teacher that responded said, “We need to have a uniform system of monitoring and accounting for our data.”
We had a group of teachers who volunteered to come together and create a data-monitoring system over the summer. They brought the system to me, I had a few questions, we took it back to the leadership team, and they had a few questions. We then took it to the whole staff. As a principal, I’m thinking, “Great. We’re talking about instruction. We’re talking about things that are good for kids.” But it is still a work in progress.
Specifically, we look at student expectations for the year. The teachers list objectives or expectations as they go through their nine-week grading period and make curriculum decisions based on student performance and mastery. It’s a process, and I think the difficulty right now is that it is still pretty tedious for teachers to maintain this data-monitoring system and that’s one of the stumbling blocks. Finding a way to make that manageable is where we’re currently at, but I’m open to ideas.
Donalyn, what did this process look like from your end?
Donalyn: I’m the department chair of the 6th grade language arts department. We had a group of teachers last year who worked to develop specific assessment instruments, progress-monitoring instruments to look at our kids. What this group did this year, or the summer before school started, was to go back and look at those tools to determine if they were still doing what we wanted them to do. Were they, in fact, assessing skills we felt (a) the kids needed, (b) were part of our state standards and district curriculum, and (c) really told us whether kids were developing as readers and writers or not. And then they used that information to develop a spreadsheet, a check-list chart to look at how our kids work as they progressed towards specific reading strategies and reading skills.
Ron: It’s an evolutionary process, but what it has done for me as a principal is to help direct our teacher conversations. We now have teachers talking more frequently about the kinds of conversations that Donalyn mentioned: What are we trying to measure when we think about building a progress-monitoring tool? What are we trying to measure or define?
To me, that is professional growth when you have teachers who argue or debate.
How do you manage the paperwork?
Ron: There are some district forms that must be completed that are pretty time-intensive. Those are more or less some checked boxes on those forms, but every tiered student must have a form that is completed and it takes a while to get those filled out.
To help manage that, there are two assistant principals, myself, the two RTI-intervention specialists, and our ESL teacher, who has a knowledge base for working with at-risk students.
Our group serves as RTI liaisons to help teachers complete the paperwork. We’ve tried to lessen teachers’ workload by giving some pretty standard answers to complete the paperwork. As needed, we’ll go in and work with the teacher as they complete those particular forms prior to us having an official meeting. We try to do some preliminary work to complete the form before we sit down and formalize it in the student intervention team meeting.
How is it going so far?
Ron: It’s not pretty. It’s not pleasant. It’s not ideal at this point, but the district has said these are the forms that you will use. Even though teachers may feel like it’s a lot of work, we have tried to take away some of that. These liaisons help to guide them through that process, walk them through that process. Because for a teacher to do it on his or her own, I think would be too big, just too big.
Is the process of working with the liaisons helping you with the paperwork?
Donalyn: Yes, absolutely. It takes a long time to fill out the paperwork. And I think there’s maybe a jump between what expectations were for that process in the past, but again, is it helping the children by helping monitor their progress? I think it is.
When you’re at school and you have complaints about the level of paperwork, you don’t necessarily see what the burden might be on another campus that has another system for handling that paperwork. If teachers are unhappy here with the burden of paperwork, and yet Ron and the other administrators have put into place a system that alleviates some of that burden, I could only imagine what it is at other campuses.
Why don’t you monitor electronically?
Ron: You can monitor electronically to a point, but a human being still has to consider the information. Now, we do have some teachers who have begun to use a [Web-based] gradebook—GradeSpeed. It’s using a technology tool that we have here. It’s accomplishing the same thing as an electronic form. But that’s still a work in progress. It’s a good question, how can we make the process more efficient?
What kind of PD was offered to the teachers?
Ron: I’ll be honest with you, there’s not enough. At this campus, we have a lot to do to really look at effective Tier 1 instruction. We do tidbits of it. We maybe do morsels of it, but we have not come to the place where we’ve really looked at that in a meaningful way. We’ve hinted at it.
Is PD the elephant in the room?
Ron: Well, in some ways. But it’s also like you’re driving the car and changing the wheels as you’re going down the highway. It just takes time. When you hear there’s an RTI initiative and you’re trying to help teachers understand the meaning behind the forms and completing the forms, then you don’t want to throw on the layer of, “Oh, and by the way, we also need to be looking at effective Tier 1 instruction.”
Donalyn, from where you’re sitting, if you could wave a magic wand, what would be most helpful to teachers?
Donalyn: I think good conversations about good Tier 1 instruction have to take place. I’ve said that all along. Because if not, then that assessment form does not become as meaningful as it was intended to be. People will just focus on the compliance aspect of the piece of paper, instead of the collaborative aspect of it.
I think those conversations about what good instruction looks like have to be out in the open and it has to be reinforced. It’s also connecting it to RTI and saying, this is what it looks like. Because right now, for many teachers, I think they see RTI as an additional burden. They don’t see it as a rethinking of an existing problem about how to best serve kids that struggle.
In other words, it’s a delicate balance between giving teachers room and being compliant.
Ron: I know there are moments when everything I’m asking those great teachers to do, I know they’re thinking, “Are you really asking me to do this?” But as a principal, I have to do that. I have to say, “Yeah, I need you to do it—sometimes just for the good of the ship with an understanding that we can see where this leads with possible changes. But right now, I need you to comply with this adoption of this particular system.”
Donalyn: I think thats what helps me to be mission-driven—where you realize your classroom is not the end all and be all of everything that goes on at a school. And you would honestly hope that the quality of instruction for all the kids in the school is important, not just the quality of instruction for your kids.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2010 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Faculty Meeting