The foundation of a response-to-intervention program is fairly easy to explain: Offer a strong academic program to everyone. Screen all students, and provide targeted lessons to struggling learners based on their specific problem areas. Then monitor the progress of those students to determine whether they’re catching up with their peers or they need additional help.
But schools and districts may not always have the tools on hand to make the process work, such as universal screening tests, progress-monitoring systems, and a battery of research-based interventions.
Curriculum developers have jumped in to fill the breach with assessments, interventions, data-crunching software, and wraparound professional development so that teachers and administrators can learn how to handle it all. As a result, response to intervention, or RTI, has become one of the few bright spots in a period of anemic growth for the educational materials marketplace.
But with the explosion in available products—all touted as valid, reliable, and research-based—comes a worry that RTI is being seen as a program that can be bought off the shelf.
“It’s great that we have more and more possible texts,” said David Allsopp, a professor of special education at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. “But we can’t just rely on that being it. We have to use our brains, which kind of is being lost in this.”
Matthew K. Burns, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the co-author of several books on RTI, said many of the programs on the market are good—they just may address the wrong problems for students.
“Some of the canned programs that have been implemented have been done to the detriment of the decisionmaking process,” Mr. Burns said.
A Structure, Not a Program
For their part, vendors say they understand that response to intervention is a way of organizing instruction.“RTI is a structure, as opposed to a thing you just drop in a school and, poof, magic happens,” said Laurie Borkon, a vice president for response to intervention for Renaissance Learning Inc., based in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Renaissance Learning sells screening programs, interventions, and progress-monitoring tools in math and reading.
But districts and schools are creating increasingly complex instruction-and-monitoring systems, and they need the help that good products can provide, company representatives say.
“What we’ve seen is an increasing level of sophistication around RTI,” said Mary Mitchell, the senior vice president for marketing for New York-based Scholastic Education, the creator of the widely used READ 180 software system for struggling readers in grades 3-12.
Schools “have a blueprint around RTI, and they’re interested in seeing how we fit into it,” she said.
Even in a difficult fiscal climate, states and districts are managing to find money for response-to-intervention programs, said Kathy Mickey, a managing editor and senior analyst with the education group Simba Information, a market-forecasting firm in Stamford, Conn.
In Simba’s “PreK-12 Special Education Market Forecast 2010” report, RTI accounted for about $1.2 billion, or 14 percent, of the $8.3 billion educational materials market in 2010. Spending on RTI materials is projected to grow by about 5 percent this year.
In contrast, the overall educational materials market has growth projected at about 1 percent for 2011. Ms. Mickey said a normally robust growth rate for the overall educational materials market might be anywhere from 5 percent to the low double digits.
“In the last couple of years, where there has been investment, it has been for struggling students,” she said. “The feeling is that investment early is good.”
Money to Spend
Changes in federal spending guidelines for special education have helped power some of the spending on RTI materials. The 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allowed states to use up to 15 percent of their federal special education aid on “early intervening services,” which are programs specifically for students who are having difficulty in school but have not been identified as being in need of special education.
Mr. Allsopp, of the University of South Florida, said that his concern is not necessarily with the curriculum materials themselves, but with the notion that to execute an RTI intervention well, teachers must move in lock step.
“This process of buying into the belief that you need a program in order to be effective—it really is making our teachers think they can’t think, and that they shouldn’t think. They think teaching is about following directions,” he said.
But the specific interventions teachers use are important, said Michael L. Kamil, a professor of education at Stanford University, in California, and the chairman of a federally created panel that examined interventions for struggling adolescent readers. He said that having a deep knowledge of the foundations of RTI will do no good if teachers are not targeted on the specific interventions needed to address a student’s area of weakness.
For years, educators tried a lot of different techniques with struggling learners, with little progress, Mr. Kamil said, but focusing on proven interventions is key. “Once we said, ‘Not everything works,’ we made dramatic progress,” he said.
‘Cheap and Easy’
Even though using effective materials is important, Mr. Burns of the University of Minnesota suggests that not all schools need to invest in the most expansive, comprehensive materials that are available.
“For the schools I work with, I have two criteria: cheap and easy,” Mr. Burns said. He favors an RTI structure that could allow several less expensive and easy-to-implement interventions in a school instead of one program that may not be right for all students. The bulk of the resources could be devoted to students who are the hardest to educate, he said.
The federal government has stepped in to try to cut through some of the promotional haze that surrounds RTI curriculum materials.
The What Works Clearinghouse, established by the U.S. Department of Education, has a stringent evaluation process for gauging the effectiveness of an education program. The federally funded National Center for Response to Intervention also compiles information on products by inviting vendors to submit the research they use to support their products; it then evaluates that research for validity and rigor.
The goal is to help schools and districts become more educated consumers, said Darren Woodruff, the center’s co-director. He also said that a mix-and-match approach may be best, depending on a school and its specific needs.
“RTI is going to look different in different school districts, and different states,” he said. “RTI helps you focus in on what do your students actually need. By definition, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Curriculum Developers Seek to Capitalize on RTI’s Growth