Responsive Teaching

By Christina A. Samuels — September 10, 2008 7 min read
First grade students at Lynville-Sully Elementary School in Sully, Iowa, take part in a guided reading lesson with teacher Jennifer Rozendaal.
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Identifying struggling students wasn’t an issue for teachers at Lynnville-Sully Elementary School, tucked away in this town of 900, an hour’s drive east of Des Moines. Knowing what to do next was the hard part.

Even in an elementary school with just 188 pupils, it was hard for teachers to offer intensive instruction to children who needed extra help while juggling the needs of the rest of their students. The school’s reading-support staff created lesson plans that didn’t always relate to regular classroom work. And teachers felt they had to wait too long to get extra resources to help the students who needed it.

“You know what they need, and yet you had to prove it,” said Cindy Gibbs, a 2nd grade teacher. “Sometimes you’d miss half a year before you’d get them in the resource room” for extra help.

A Three-Tiered Model

Experts say ‘response to intervention’ should have three levels of intensity, with instruction based on students’ individual needs.


SOURCE: National Association of State Directors of Special Education

Acting on these concerns, the principal and teachers revamped the school’s instructional program in the fall of 2006, introducing a framework best known as “response to intervention,” or RTI. Called “instructional decisionmaking” here in Iowa, RTI relies on frequent, short tests of students and on regular adjustments of instruction, based on what those tests show of a student’s progress, or “response,” to lessons. Iowa’s school district officials are among the most enthusiastic promoters of the method, which is garnering intense interest among educators around the country.

Help for All Students

“RTI is this big thing that really can transform how we approach teaching all kids,” said W. David Tilly III, the director of innovation and accountability for the Heartland Area Education Agency, which provides resources and professional development to 54 districts in the state, including Lynnville-Sully.

In practice, RTI can look quite different from school to school. But several key components are necessary for a successful program, researchers say. Students are generally screened early in the school year to determine if they may have educational difficulties, and to help their teachers figure out what extra lessons they may need.

Children with such difficulties are given increasingly intense instruction geared to bolstering the areas where they need help. The interventions must be scientifically based and teachers must present the lessons as they were designed to be taught. Additional tests, or “progress monitoring,” continues for those students through the school year, to make sure the extra lessons are working.

Third grade students work with teacher Sabrina Edsen during a guided reading group at the Lynville-Sully Elementary School in Sully, Iowa.

Finally, if a student still hasn’t responded to several different interventions, he or she may need further evaluation, or special education services.

Federal special education law specifically allows states to use RTI as a tool for identifying children with learning disabilities. However, the hope among some proponents of RTI is that by providing instruction as soon as a problem is noted, children can be steered away from special education.

Heartland AEA, which has been cited often in research for its approach to RTI, sees the method as a way to change the nature of instruction for all students. Potential benefits for students with learning disabilities are just part of the positive effects RTI can have on an entire school, they say.

Special education identification “is just the toenail on the elephant,” said Mr. Tilly, the Heartland official. “That’s not what it was created for, and that’s not what its best purpose is.”

‘Not a Scripted Program’

In Heartland area schools, the process of introducing a school to the RTI process may begin with informal conversations with interested schools. The agency also holds daylong sessions with teams of teachers and administrators, where they are asked to evaluate thoughtfully their own readiness to launch the process. Building consensus is a crucial part of a successful program, administrators say.

But even Heartland’s long experience with the practice hasn’t made every school’s implementation the same—or easy.

“I told teachers it was going to feel really overwhelming. We’re going to be juggling a lot of balls, and it’s going to feel like they’re falling,” said Jolene Comer, the principal of both Lynnville-Sully Elementary School and a 120-student middle school housed in the same building. Heartland officials approached the principal because the school was already in the process of adopting a new reading curriculum. Ms. Comer said the instructional-decisionmaking process seemed to fit well with the other changes in the school.

Introducing RTI required restructuring the day so that grade-level teachers had common planning time, changing staff members’ duties so they could work closely with students who were having problems, and introducing intensive professional development.

“The whole staff really felt like this was important. Now it’s been a year and a half, [and] it feels like business as usual. I feel we’ve accomplished a lot,” Ms. Comer said.

The process has led to a new energy within the building, she added. Teachers are working together more than they ever have before. Labels for children aren’t as important as they once were, she said, which she sees as a benefit. “These are all our kids,” Ms. Comer said.

In six days of training with Heartland staffers, the team from Lynnville-Sully was asked some probing questions. Among them: Is the core instruction given to all pupils the best that it can be? How will you know which students require interventions? What interventions will be used? How will you monitor effectiveness?

This is why RTI, despite having common elements, can look so different in practice from one school to the next. “This is not a scripted program,” Ms. Comer said. “You don’t take this and just fit it into your day.”

Monitoring and Support


All students are part of one proactive educational system
• Belief that all students can learn
• Use available resources to teach all students

Use scientific, research-based instruction
• Curriculum and instructional approaches must have a high probability of success for most students
• Use instructional time efficiently and effectively

Use instructionally relevant assessments that are reliable and valid
• SCREENING: Collecting data for the purpose of identifying low- and high-performing students at risk for not having their needs met
• DIAGNOSTIC: Gathering information from multiple sources to determine why students are not benefiting from instruction
• FORMATIVE: Frequent, ongoing collection of information, including both formal and informal data, to guide instruction

Use a problem-solving method to make decisions based on a continuum of student needs
• Provide strong core curriculum, instruction, and assessment
• Provide increasing levels of support based on increasing levels of student needs

Data are used to guide instructional decisions
• To align curriculum and instruction to assessment data
• To allocate resources
• To drive professional development decisions

Professional development and follow-up modeling and coaching to ensure effective instruction at all levels
• Provide ongoing training and support to assimilate new knowledge and skills
• Anticipate and be willing to meet the newly emerging needs based on student performance

Leadership is vital
• Strong administrative support to ensure commitment and resources
• Strong teacher support to share in the common goal of improving instruction
• Leadership team to build internal capacity and sustainability over time

SOURCE: Iowa Department of Education

At Lynnville-Sully Elementary, pupils are screened early in the school year, using Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, tests. If those tests indicate that a child has a problem with reading fluency or decoding skills, the teacher administers other diagnostic tests to pinpoint the problem and to guide the interventions that will be used.

Parents are notified when screening shows that their child may not be learning as fast as his or her classmates. The school has carved out time in the day to allow reading-support teachers to work with small groups of students for at least 30 minutes a day.

Students who need more help get more time, sometimes with the school’s special education teacher, who has a constantly changing group of children to work with. In addition to the students formally identified as requiring special education services, the teacher also works with children who do not have individualized education programs under the IDEA, but just need more help.

The principal, reading-support teachers, and classroom teachers meet once a month to discuss the data they are collecting on students. Three times a year, the school has “data days” to take a deeper look at the overall curriculum and student performance based on other tests.

About 30 percent of the school’s pupils are now receiving some type of intervention, a percentage the principal would like to see go down.

The process is too new at Lynnville-Sully for the school to have much hard data on its progress. Instructional decisionmaking had only been in place at the school for a handful of months when the students took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills last spring. However, the school has seen improvement in its DIBELS fluency scores. Seventy-nine percent of 1st graders met the standards by the end of the 2005-06 school year, a year before the RTI process started. By the end of the 2006-07 school year, the benchmark rate was 83 percent.

At the 2nd grade level, 48 percent of students met the DIBELS benchmarks in 2005-06. In 2006-07, the passing rate was 81 percent.

The Power of Information

Lynnville-Sully still has work to do, the principal and teachers acknowledge. The instructional-decisionmaking structure needs a better place for children who are gifted, teachers say.

And implementation at the middle school, which started this past fall, a year after the elementary school began its work, has been slower. Part of the problem is the particular challenges offered by older students and the structure of the middle school day.

The middle school teachers, unlike the elementary school teachers, weren’t necessarily as eager to embrace change, said Shannon Harken, the Heartland AEA educational consultant who works with Lynnville-Sully on its RTI implementation.

Ms. Comer “has had to take two totally different approaches with the two faculties. The middle school teachers liked what they were doing before,” Ms. Harken said.

But within the middle school, teachers are noting positive effects.

“There’s a lot more people involved in the conversation [about students], and that’s huge,” said Melissa Doll, who works with middle school students deemed at risk of failing academically. “How much more powerful for the student when we’re all sharing data, and sharing what we see.”

The elementary teachers said they see that same power in sharing information.

“We’re catching more ‘on the edge’ kids,” said Lisa Foster, a 5th grade teacher, referring to students who could be having academic problems but can fade from attention in a classroom of students with more pressing needs.

“Before, we didn’t know how to use all our resources. But because our [instructional-decisionmaking] stuff is so data-driven, we don’t let them fall behind,” she said.

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Christina A. Samuels is a staff writer for Education Week. This article originally appeared, in a different version, in Education Week in January 2008. Coverage of district-level improvement efforts is underwritten in part by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Responsive Teaching


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