‘What Works’ Guide Gives RTI Thumbs Up on Reading

By Christina A. Samuels — March 02, 2009 4 min read
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The federal Institute of Education Sciences has released a practice guide on reading instruction and “response to intervention,” lending its stamp of approval to a process that has already been widely adopted by schools and districts.

A strong response-to-intervention, or RTI, program for early-childhood reading should include screening of all pupils, small-group instruction three to five a times a week for children who are struggling, and monitoring of those struggling students at least once a month to see how they are responding to the intensive lessons, according to the guide. It was published on the ies Web site on Feb. 18 through the What Works Clearinghouse.

But Russell Gersten, the chairman of the panel that developed the guide, cautioned there is still much that educators don’t know about response to intervention, even as RTI, a method of identifying and providing intensive instruction to struggling students, is growing in popularity.

Early-screening tools have the potential of capturing too many students initially, Mr. Gersten said. In addition, the effectiveness of the most intense level of instruction in RTI—generally referred to as the third tier—is still not bolstered by the large-scale studies prized by some educational researchers.

“There’s no evidence of it being harmful, or wasteful, or anything like that,” said Mr. Gersten, the executive director of Instructional Research Group, a nonprofit education research institute in Los Alamitos, Calif., as well as a professor emeritus in the college of education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. However, it does mean there hasn’t been research that meets the standards adopted by the ies, he said.

At the same time, said Mr. Gersten, “this multi-tiered system has the advantage of being efficient” in providing instruction to students who need extra help. And overall, the guide offers practical advice for schools and could serve to advance the RTI process, he added.

‘Good Balance’

Kathleen A. Whitmire, the director of the RTI Action Network, said the panel for the guide represented a good balance of researchers and practitioners. The guide authors also did a good job in describing certain pitfalls of implementation, and how they can be overcome, she said.

“The most motivated educators will still run up against challenges,” said Ms. Whitmire, whose organization is a program of the New York City-based National Center for Learning Disabilities.

In most RTI instructional models, students generally are screened early in the school year to spot any potential educational deficits.

Students who are having difficulties are then given intensive instruction in a multi-tiered system of service delivery. The first tier is comprehensive instruction given to all students. The second tier is generally small-group instruction focused on problem areas, and the third tier is for students who need more individualized attention.

Teachers use frequent progress monitoring to evaluate a student’s response to the instruction, and the small numbers of students who do not respond well to any interventions are evaluated for possible referral to special education services.

The RTI model was given a boost in the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which says that it could be used as part of a process for diagnosing students with specific learning disabilities.

The practice guide, the product of a yearlong effort, is the first on response to intervention that has been released through the What Works Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse has been criticized in some quarters for adhering to rigorous standards that very few programs are able to meet. An independent panel, however, has said that the clearinghouse uses valid methods for assessing studies. (“‘What Works’ Process for Assessing Studies Called Valid,” Dec. 3, 2008.)

The guide includes five recommendations for schools to follow in adopting an RTI program.

‘Low’ Evidence Base

But some practices that are widely used are nonetheless noted as having a “low” evidence base, meaning there are a lack of studies on the topic. For example, the guide’s recommendation to provide “intensive instruction, on a daily basis, that promotes the development of the various components of reading proficiency to students who show minimal progress after reasonable time in tier 2 small-group instruction” is classified as having a low evidence base, even though that particular recommendation forms the foundation of the third tier in most RTI instructional models.

Although it seems like common sense to offer students who are not successful in small-group instruction one-on-one services, the results of such attempts are “ambiguous,” according to the guide’s authors. No studies could be found that showed a statistical impact on reading skills, they say.

Based on that finding, “there is no reason to believe that a tier 3 program should consist primarily of one-on-one instruction—though such instruction should be part of a student’s daily program,” the guide says.

The practice guide does not recommend specific programs that can be used to provide the intensive instruction that some students may need. It does offer suggestions, though, for how school personnel can make good choices of different programs for their students.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as ‘What Works’ Guide Gives RTI Thumbs Up on Reading

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