‘Response to Intervention’ in Math Seen as Challenging

By Christina A. Samuels — June 16, 2009 3 min read
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Educators gathered here last week to discuss a recent federal “practice guide” on response to intervention for students struggling in mathematics agreed that applying the RTI approach to that subject is challenging. But they also suggested that doing so was worth the effort.

The practice guide, produced by an expert panel convened by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, offers eight recommendations for providing remediation in math through the RTI process to students in elementary and middle school.

While RTI has been studied extensively as a method of addressing problems with young children learning to read, the research base is much thinner for math, said Russell Gersten, the chairman of the federal panel that produced the practice guide.

Still, the guide recommends, among other steps, that remediation for students in grades K-5 should focus on the properties of whole numbers, like counting, addition, and subtraction. Older students, up to 8th grade, should learn rational numbers in depth, including the meanings of ratios, decimals, and percentages, the panel recommends.

Another recommendation is that all students who need extra math assistance should work on fluent retrieval of basic arithmetic facts, like simple addition and multiplication. Higher-level mathematics often assumes that students can quickly recall facts like “3 times 9” or “11 minus 7,” when such operations may be difficult for those lagging behind their peers, the panel found.

Sketching a Framework

The RTI practice guide for math, released in April, as well as a practice guide for reading instruction issued in March, were the topics of a June 10 forum hosted by the What Works Clearinghouse, which is a part of the Institute of Education Sciences, the main research arm for the U.S. Department of Education.

The clearinghouse released both documents, and Mr. Gersten, the executive director of the Instructional Research Group, a nonprofit education research institute in Los Alamitos, Calif., led both the math and reading panels. (“‘What Works’ Guide Gives RTI Thumbs Up on Reading,” March 4, 2009.)

Neither practice guide endorses specific products and practices. Instead, they’re intended to guide educators on what would be evidence-based features of any good RTI framework.

Response to intervention is a tiered system of instruction that has grown in popularity since its inclusion in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

The first tier of the approach is for all students to receive a high-quality instructional program. In the second tier, students with identified weaknesses are targeted and given specific lessons designed to address their problems. The small number of students who struggle after the first and second tiers are to get more intensive help in the third tier, under the method.

The guide doesn’t attempt to group its recommendations into tiers. For example, a suggestion to focus on explicit instruction in word problems is not a “tier 2” or “tier 3” intervention; it’s a recommendation based on strong evidence that students who struggle in math need more practice in applying the math they know to real-life situations, Mr. Gersten said.

Educators at last week’s event said that fitting math into an RTI framework is hard, but that they believe it is now vital to improving math performance for struggling students.

Karen D. Cheser, the assistant superintendent for learning support services for the 20,000-student Boone County district in Florence, Ky., said her school system started using RTI in reading two years ago, and had initially planned to leave math for later. But indications that students were becoming weaker as they reached higher-level math classes, among other factors, pushed the district to act.

Ms. Cheser said the district created its own universal screening program, which allows teachers to dig into what was going wrong for many students. It turned out that many students needed to focus so hard on computation that they were unable to grasp more sophisticated concepts, she said. The district’s RTI program, which started this year for 2nd, 3rd, and 6th graders, focuses on math fluency, just as the IES practice guide suggests.

Judith Russ, the mathematics curriculum supervisor for the 134,000-student Prince George’s County district in Maryland, said for her part that finding the right materials is hard.

The instructional materials “are not looking at building conceptual understanding. That’s one of the challenges we have,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘Response to Intervention’ in Math Seen as Challenging


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