Special Report
Special Education

RTI Expands, Encounters Growing Pains

By Christina A. Samuels — December 13, 2016 8 min read
Wesley Young, a 7th grader at Martin County Middle School in Kentucky, waits to be called on during a social-skills class at the school.
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In 2004, the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act first introduced into federal policy the concept of “response to intervention.”

Now, 12 years later, the educational framework has continued to expand its reach—while also experiencing some growing pains.

The IDEA mentions response to intervention only as a method for identifying children with learning disabilities. But RTI was quickly adopted as a model for overall school improvement, because of its focus on providing assistance quickly to struggling students, before any academic deficits have a chance to become entrenched.

Common features of a response-to-intervention model include: universal screening tools that allow teachers to accurately determine which students need extra help; evidence-based interventions intended to get those students back on track; multiple “tiers” of intensity, so that students who need more help get a higher degree of intervention; and progress monitoring, so that educators have the data on how well a student is responding to the extra help and can make changes if needed.

The same basic framework is used by many schools and districts to support children’s behavioral and social-emotional needs and, in those cases, it’s commonly called positive behavioral interventions and supports. Response to intervention and PBIS are both examples of “multitiered systems of supports,” or MTSS, another term that is gaining widespread usage.

For proponents, multitiered models are far more than the sum of their parts. They say that addressing educational deficits in the general education classroom, without waiting for an official label, has helped teachers and administrators understand that they are collectively responsible for the entire student body, struggling learners and all.

And, when operating well, the method provides a road map for educators, rather than leaving teachers grasping at straws, supporters say.

“Conceptually, it is simple. If you’re doing something that is not working, try something else,” said Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds, the deputy director of the federally funded National Center on Intensive Intervention, which helps schools create programs for students with severe and persistent learning or behavioral needs.

But, just as with eating well and exercising for health, sometimes people fall short of doing what they know is best. That’s where RTI comes in, to provide a framework to follow, she said.

RTI “provides a level of structure and accountability to make sure these things happen, in a real team-based way,” Zumeta Edmonds said. “Without some commitment to doing that, schools are not structured to provide those opportunities.”

But the promise of multitiered systems of supports like RTI has come up against some hard realities.

A 2015 federal study of RTI methods used for reading instruction shows that schools are struggling to implement RTI with precision. For example, schools in the study that claimed to be fully implementing RTI didn’t distinguish well between core instruction and intervention. Many were giving interventions to students regardless of how well the child could read, diluting any possible benefits.

‘Inherent Complexity’

Additionally, the “no labels” approach to helping students with academic or behavior difficulties has proved to be an awkward fit with special education law, which, despite the mention of RTI, is still built around identifying students with disabilities.

“It would be unfair of anyone to come down on the schools in how they’re implementing RTI because of the inherent complexity of the reform,” said Douglas Fuchs, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, who is in favor of the process but said he has misgivings about its rapid spread, often in the absence of adequate supports. A 2011 survey of school district leaders found that 94 percent reported being in some stage of RTI implementation.

“I know many school folks who have worked extremely hard to try to make this thing work. It is not working in a lot of places, not because it’s not being taken seriously, but because it is inherently complex,” Fuchs said. “It is a machine with many moving parts, and to get all of those parts moving in synchrony is a very tall order.”

Early RTI Model

When RTI first drew widespread attention, supporters would often use a triangle as a conceptual blueprint to help educators understand that most students receive core instruction, while progressively smaller groups would require more intensive support.


One example of that complexity can be seen in how schools conceptualize the function of a multitiered system of supports like RTI.

When response to intervention first got widespread attention, it was commonly conceptualized as a simple triangle. The base of the triangle was meant to represent all students, who are supposed to be getting good evidence-based instruction. That’s often referred to as “Tier 1.”

Moving up the triangle to the top was intended to show that fewer children should need more intensive instruction, generally referred to as “Tier 2.” The very top of the triangle, or “Tier 3,” was meant to represent children getting the most intensive services, or those who would need further evaluation for special education.

For many districts, that triangle has been discarded as too simplistic. They’ve devised their own conceptual renderings of the process.

One of those districts is the 9,100-student Iron County district in Cedar City, Utah. The district’s multitiered-system-of-supports diagram incorporates students with behavioral as well as academic challenges, gifted students, and English-language learners. The foundation is built on a complex interplay among problem-solving teams, “evidence-based instructional strategies,” and “data-driven decisionmaking,” among other elements.

Shannon Dulaney, the district superintendent, recognized that a multitiered model couldn’t just be layered on top of what the district was already doing for students. When she became superintendent four years ago, she worked with the school board to create a once-a-week late start for middle and high schools, to set aside planning time for teachers and administrators.

That late start is in addition to an early-release day for elementary students. Also, principals at all school levels have been given power to adjust school schedules to create intervention time for students.

“Carving out time during the regular school day for every school team to meet has been a great positive, and it shows our teachers that we are committed to this process,” Dulaney said. That and the intervention time “are the things that have moved us along the furthest.”

Evolved Model

Many districts have shifted to a model of multitiered systems of supports, or MTSS. This conceptual model, developed by the Iron County district in Cedar City, Utah, is meant to depict a harmonious system working for all students, says Superintendent Shannon Dulaney.


Starting From the Core

In other areas, coaches who support districts that are putting multitiered systems in place are encouraging them to take a close look at their core instruction, rather than jumping to interventions.

Tigard-Tualatin, a district of 12,500 students in suburban Portland, Ore., once hosted dozens of education teams who wanted to see RTI in action. The state had contracted with the district to serve as a model for other school systems, and the district hosts Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention, a 10-year-old state-funded technical assistance center.

David Putnam Jr., the director of Oregon Response to Instruction and Intervention, said the visits dropped off as people became more aware of what response to intervention is. And when state coaches work with districts, Putnam said they focus on shoring up a system’s Tier 1 instruction, which is provided to all students.

“If you don’t slow things down and force people to look at it that way, Tier 1 gets left behind,” Putnam said. The focus on providing strong instruction for all students “involves changing your general education teachers’ culture and perspective. If you don’t get that culture change, you can really be spinning your wheels.”

But the move by many districts to position response to intervention as a schoolwide improvement method has resulted in shifting to the back burner its use as a method of special education identification. RTI shows up in special education law because it was believed to be a more useful method for identifying children with specific learning disabilities. The theory was that children whose educational delays were only the result of poor instruction would be helped earlier so that they wouldn’t need special education later on. The smaller group of children who didn’t respond to interventions would be evaluated for disabilities.

But in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to educators saying that RTI could not be used to delay or deny special education identification. And four years later, researchers who surveyed 31 state directors of special education found that states vary dramatically in how they handle special education identification within multitiered systems.

In many cases, the study found, states have no regulations or recommendations to districts on how long a student can stay on a tiered system before being evaluated further. Those decisions are left to the district, and they’re not reported to the state. “In the states and the districts, they will say it’s important to reduce the number of [special education] referrals. But what we’re finding is that we don’t know if it’s working” because no one is systematically collecting the numbers, said Tina Hudson, an assistant professor of special education at East Tennessee State University and the study’s lead author.

With all that response to intervention is asked to do, does it still remain a powerful model for schools to follow?

Yes, said W. David Tilly, a deputy director at the Iowa education department. Tilly was, and remains, one of the biggest supporters of response to intervention, going back to his days as an administrator at Heartland Area Education Agency, which supports 54 Iowa districts.

Studies “point out that the effectiveness of any evidence-based practice varies in relation to the fidelity in which it’s implemented,” Tilly said. “A takeaway from all of that [is that] when it’s implemented well and with fidelity, we have really good data that this works well with lots of kids.”

The challenge for the future, Tilly said, is to make sure that multitiered models work well with all the other reform efforts that schools must juggle.

Jose Castillo, who was trained as a school psychologist and is now an official with the Florida Problem Solving/Response to Intervention Project, says that response-to-intervention supporters need to do a better job at helping schools balance all those initiatives. His dream would be that the thinking behind response to intervention—using data to make decisions, bolstering general education while targeting interventions to students in need—would eventually become second nature for schools.

“You would ultimately never hear the term ‘RTI’ or ‘MTSS’ ever again, because it would just be a way of thinking. It would just be a way of helping people get everything they can out of their students,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as RTI’s Rapid (R)Evolution


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