Special Education

‘Response to Intervention’ on NEA’s Agenda

By Christina A. Samuels — December 05, 2008 4 min read
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Despite a promotional push by the federal government and adoption by school districts around the country, “response to intervention” remains a little-known educational framework to many.

Supporters say the teaching method, which requires teachers to initiate scientifically based, intensive instruction when students show signs of academic struggle, could mean better classroom results for all students.

But according to the results of an informal online survey posted on the Web site of the RTI Action Network, an organization created to disseminate information about the educational method, more than 80 percent of the close to 800 people who responded rated their knowledge of RTI as “minimal to none.”

About 70 percent of respondents to the Web survey reported working in schools that are planning to or just beginning to implement RTI. A little more than a third reported that their school districts have never offered professional development related to response to intervention, and another 17 percent said it was offered only once a year.

See Also

Chat transcript, Nov. 13, 2008: What Does RTI Mean for the Classroom?

To address what appears to be a gap in knowledge, the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, recently hosted a symposium designed to introduce educators to RTI. Speakers included principals and teachers familiar with response to intervention, as well as a professor from a college of education and an educational psychologist with longtime expertise in RTI.

Building Understanding

“We really do see [RTI] as a way of transforming the way we do business,” said Patti Ralabate, a special education policy expert for the NEA. “But too often, these kinds of initiatives are done as a top-down approach.”

The symposium is one of the first steps the NEA plans to take to help increase the capacity of teachers to engage in RTI programs as they spread through school districts, Ms. Ralabate said.

Response to intervention may be known by various names in different districts, but there are broad similarities in practice: All students in a classroom are evaluated to see if they are on track academically.

Students who show weakness in some areas are given intensive instruction in small groups. They are also given frequent, short tests to monitor their “response” to the lessons, which are also called “interventions.”

If students do not improve academically, they are given more-intensive lessons, or interventions. Students who continue to have problems may be referred for further evaluation to see if special education services are necessary. (“Embracing ‘Response to Intervention’”, Jan. 23, 2008.)

Most of the research on response to intervention is in early-childhood reading, though some districts are putting RTI frameworks in place in middle and high school, as well as in other academic subjects. The success of such programs is not yet known.

The promise of RTI, if it’s implemented well, is that general education teachers will be able to more accurately identify the problems that students are having, and nip those in the bud before they lead to entrenched difficulties or referral to special education.

‘Cannot Be an Add-On’

The process has been endorsed by the federal government through the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which allows schools to use up to 15 percent of federal special education dollars on early-intervention programs for students who are not identified as needing special education, but who need extra support in the classroom. Many districts are using that money for RTI programs.

The special education law also allows RTI to be used as part of the process for determining whether students have a learning disability, rather than relying primarily on the results of intelligence tests for that purpose.

The challenge with RTI, however, is in making sure general education teachers understand how it works, and how to properly administer the interventions, supporters say. Teachers must also juggle the small-group work of RTI along with their other classroom responsibilities.

RTI shifts the focus to student progress, not student labels, David Prasse, the dean of the education school at Loyola University of Chicago, told the group gathered in Washington for the NEA-sponsored symposium, held Nov. 24.

But to be carried out successfully for classroom teachers, RTI “cannot be an add-on,” he said. Instead, it must be seen as a natural part of good classroom instruction.

Abraham H. Jones, a special education resource teacher for the Christina district in Wilmington, Del., also stressed the importance of RTI as work that is done in the regular classroom.

“It’s a general education initiative, and it needs to remain in the general education classroom,” Mr. Jones said. Educators should work on promoting RTI through pamphlets and brochures as well as professional development, so that it can become better known to more teachers, he said.

Karen K. Wixson, a professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said reaching out to subject-oriented teacher groups is key.

“We aren’t necessarily reaching the mainstream of teachers,” Ms. Wixson told the symposium. In addition to contacting organizations such as those organized for mathematics or social studies teachers, she said, proponents of RTI must talk to teacher-preparation programs, preservice teachers, and teacher mentors.

“It’s part of another system there that we have to penetrate if we’re going to get the word out about RTI,” she said.

The NEA plans to produce a summary report of the symposium and has other events scheduled related to special education topics, Ms. Ralabate said.

The RTI Action Network, a program of the New York City-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, has created a discussion board on its Web site and has several case studies of schools and districts that have instituted RTI programs.

“Clearly, there’s a need out there, and we want to help meet that need,” said Kathleen Whitmire, the director of the RTI Action Network.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Response to Intervention’ on NEA’s Agenda

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