Special Education

‘Response to Intervention’ Sparks Interest, Questions

By Christina A. Samuels — January 18, 2008 8 min read
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As a demonstration site designated by Oregon as a prime example of “response to intervention” in action, the Tigard-Tualatin district has had to pare visiting groups down to no more than 25 people. During the last few visits, 50 people descended on the district just outside Portland at one time.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between efficiency for our district and, at the same time, offering something for people who want to see what we’re doing,” said David Putnam, one of the RTI project managers in the 12,000-student district.

As educators in Tigard-Tualatin and elsewhere are learning, a lot of people want to see what they are doing. Response to intervention—an educational framework that promises to raise achievement through modification of lesson plans based on frequent “progress monitoring”—is one of the most-discussed education topics today.

“People are hungry” for information, said Maurice McInerney, a co-project director for the newly created National Center on Response to Intervention. The technical-assistance center, based in Washington, is funded by a five-year, $14.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs.

While supporters are urging widespread adoption of RTI, saying it can transform educational practice, others are offering cautions.

Although RTI has shown success with children just learning how to read, skeptics note that the research base is less solid for older students and students in other academic subjects. Some parent groups also are concerned about how RTI fits into the legal process created by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law that guides educational practice for special education.

Creating an effective RTI process in thousands of schools, moreover, is a huge undertaking. And other observers are unsure whether RTI can do what federal law suggests—offer a way to diagnose accurately whether a student has a learning disability. Supporters say such a process, properly used, could reduce the rolls of special education and save districts millions.

If RTI is a train that is already rolling down the track, “it’s a track that’s being constructed right in front of the train,” said Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and longtime researcher in learning disabilities.

Many Tiers

Those concerns shouldn’t halt the adoption of a process that could be a powerful tool for improving student achievement if carefully implemented, say RTI proponents. Federal education law requires that before any student is placed in special education, the school must ensure that his or her learning problem is not linked to inadequate instruction.

The data-crunching element of RTI is a way to do that, said George M. Batsche, a professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, and the co-director of its Institute for School Reform. “The law says before we ever think about special ed, we have to look at general ed,” he said. “Support services can’t fix the basic service.”

The Reach of RTI

States have given the following guidance to school districts about response to intervention as a way to identify students with learning disabilities. Most are permissive, meaning they allow the use of RTI but do not require it. Others are “transitional,” or in the process of requiring the use of RTI. A small number have made RTI mandatory.


Note: Note: SLD=specific learning disability; SD=severe discrepancy. Alaska, New Hampshire, and New Jersey have not reached the stage of an identifiably proposed choice.
1 Permits SD until June 30, 2009
2 Provides alternative of “pattern of strengths and weaknesses.”
3 Provides for other information including SD-type data under “pattern of strengths and weaknesses.”
4 Requires RTI under label of “pre-referral” by 2010.
5 Requires RTI in grades K-2 as of July 1, 2009.
6 Subsumes SD under “patterns of strengths and weaknesses.”
7 Requires the state education agency to approve third option.
8 Provides for third alternative in the form of “pattern of strengths and weaknesses” and prohibits SD for grades K-4 in reading effective July 1, 2012.

SOURCE: “RTI after IDEA,” by Perry A. Zirkel and Nico Krohn, Teaching Exceptional Children, Jan./Feb. 2008

In most RTI programs, students are given a basic screening early in the school year, to spot any potential educational deficits. Those who may have difficulties are given additional tests, to allow school-based teams to zero in on the problems and craft an approach to addressing them.

Students are then given intensive education in a “multi-tiered” system of service delivery. The small numbers of students who do not respond well to any interventions are considered to be at the top of the tiers, and are more carefully evaluated for possible referral to special education services.

The promise is that general education teachers will be able to 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.

The process has been endorsed by the federal government through the 2004 reauthorization of the IDEA, 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.

The special education law also allows RTI to be used as part of the process for determining if students have a learning disability.Widespread practice for identifying students with learning disabilities involves testing students’ intelligence and comparing it with their classroom achievement. Students who have a severe discrepancy between IQ and achievement are often considered learning-disabled, but that process has been criticized as a “wait to fail” model that identifies students as learning disabled who could be helped just by getting better teaching.

Maligned Tools

The IDEA does not eliminate severe-discrepancy testing, but says that states must not require it if a school or district would like to use another process. Most states allow districts to use RTI and severe-discrepancy testing or other methods if they choose, but two states—Colorado and West Virginia—have eliminated or plan to eliminate severe-discrepancy as an identification method altogether.

Florida and Indiana have proposed doing so, according to Perry A. Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Critics of RTI often focus on the question of how students with learning disabilities are identified. RTI replaces one maligned tool, standardized IQ testing, with another, standardized instruction, they say. But not enough is known about what makes some students respond to certain interventions, they argue, and RTI relies heavily on skilled general education teachers to give students interventions with fidelity—meaning that they are taught the way researchers intended them to be.

“I’m concerned that it is a reinvention of ‘wait to fail,’” Naomi P. Zigmond, a professor of special education at the University of Pittsburgh, said of RTI. “Although it was a promoted as a new way of identifying children with learning disabilities, it is still a waiting game as different things are tried.”

Ms. Zigmond also suggested that RTI might not cut down on a common criticism of severe-discrepancy testing, which is that it overidentifies students.

Teachers using the model will be swimming in data about whether their students are making progress, but the progress targets are “quite arbitrary,” she said. Constant exposure to data, and faulty targets, could cause some teachers to refer just as many students to special education as they have in the past, she said.

And the tests don’t address children whose disabilities have a clear neurological basis. Such children don’t need more instruction; they need a different kind, said Daryl F. Mellard, a research associate at the Center for Research on Learning, based at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence. Mr. Mellard was also one of the leaders of a U.S. Education Department-funded study on RTI and learning disabilities.

“You would hope there would be a more-diagnostic work-up that would be brought to bear” in identifying children with learning disabilities, Mr. Mellard said, “so we don’t rely on the general practitioner to do all the work.”

Michael M. Gerber, a professor of special education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the chair of the special education department there, has also pointed to differences in teachers’ skill and preparation as a potential stumbling block for RTI implementation. Teachers have different ways of working with students, even when instruction is standardized, he said, and those variations will result in different student results. The problem becomes even more acute as a policy is put into effect on a large scale.

“You can’t make people be conscientious and attentive. You can only make them be compliant,” Mr. Gerber said.

Others say that while some parts of RTI are well fleshed out, such as interventions and progress monitoring for young readers, questions persist about how RTI can fit into other subjects, and with older students.

“With higher grade levels,we are walking on much shakier ground,” said Mr. Fuchs of Vanderbilt. Among questions he believes are still to be answered: How much response must a student make to be considered “responsive”? What role does special education play in RTI, since most of the early interventions are to be given in a general education classroom? How should schools evaluate their success?

“If I were a practitioner or an administrator right now, I would certainly implement RTI, but I would be very strategic in the use of it,” he said. “People need to appreciate that RTI is a complex system, and in order for it to work, all the parts need to work, and they need to work in coordination.”

No Alternative?

Practitioners acknowledge that response to intervention is a process that still requires research. But that’s not a reason, they argue, to stop the implementation now. As many see it, RTI offers the best method for getting research-based instruction to students, and helping students with disabilities is just one of many benefits.

Parents’ concerns that RTI is delaying special education services for their children usually fade when they’re shown that their children are getting an appropriate education geared directly to their needs, proponents say.

“It’s got connotations of special ed now. Everyone wants to know about RTI and [learning disabilities] identification, but it’s not been my focus. RTI, to me, means integrated service delivery,” said Judy L. Elliott, the chief of teaching and learning for the 47,000-student Portland, Ore., school district. She also implemented RTI practices as an assistant superintendent in Long Beach, Calif.

“When you work in the trenches and see that this really works, you know it’s not a fly-by-night thing,” she said.

One of the strongest messages about the worth of RTI, Mr. Batsche of the University of South Florida said, is that being sent by the federal government. By creating technical-assistance centers and sponsoring events that allow RTI researchers and practitioners to share their views, federal officials are proving that RTI is important to the future of general and special education, he said.

Mr. Batsche, one of the speakers at a recent RTI summit held just outside Washington, said he could not remember in his 35 years of education experience a similar event where federal education officials asked teams from all the states and territories to gather to discuss an educational issue.

“The message was straightforward: We’re going to be doing this,” Mr. Batsche said. “That’s a very simple message, but very powerful.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as ‘Response to Intervention’ Sparks Interest, Questions


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