Response to Intervention: Recommendations for Principals

Response to Intervention: Can we really do this?
by:Claudia Rinaldi, Ph.D.,Boston College
Erica Herman, M.S. Ed. Boston Public Schools

The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

– John Schaar

Response to Intervention: Can we really do this?

Changes in American public education are continually affecting the lives of administrators and educators. The hope is that the changes address the real needs of an ever shifting population. New regulations from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 are making imperative changes to all administrators, principals and educators in the field. Response to Intervention (RTI) has been integrated into the newly amended IDEA as an option for the eligibility of students with learning disabilities. What does this mean for administrators and educators?
What is Response to Intervention (RTI)
This new instructional model came from new guidelines for school districts under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Ac t (IDEA) of 2004 that recommend using evidenced-based interventions—like those utilized in a response to intervention (RTI) model—as a diagnostic tool and as part of the identification and eligibility decision-making process for special education services and, in particular, for identification of learning disabilities (Mandlawitz, 2007). An RTI model integrates a multi-tier preventive instructional system that incorporates the systematic use of a data-driven decision process to enhance outcomes for all children (Burns & VanDerHeyden, 2006). RTI is typically delivered in a three-tier school wide system with tier one consisting of general education classroom instruction, tier two consisting of general education classroom instruction in addition to small-group preventative tutoring (such as general classroom instruction as well as small group work with repeated readings), and tier three consisting of the elements from tiers one and two in addition to special education services (such as classroom instruction, small group work with repeated readings, and one-on-one instruction with a special education teacher) (see Figure 1). The model entails continuous progress monitoring and using the data to inform instructional decisions. The results of this model can strengthen both teaching and learning because the instruction is constantly tailored to meet the needs of each student at every tier and increase student achievement, while reducing the inappropriate number of students referred for special education.
As part of the model, all children in the school participate in universal screening assessments three times per year using curriculum-based measurements (CBM). CBM refers to assessment processes that determine students’ instructional needs within a curriculum by directly assessing specific curriculum skills (Rinaldi & Samson, 2008). CBM can be used at any time to monitor progress in the curriculum and its take a minimal time to administer (i.e. 3-5 minutes per student). Based on the universal screening, a student’s risk level is identified as Tier 1 (low risk/no risk), Tier 2 (moderate risk) and Tier 3 (high risk). At Tier 1, students are assessed during the 3 times identified in the school-wide model (Fall, Winter, and Spring). If the students are at Tier 2 or moderate risk, they are monitored monthly, while if students are at Tier 3 or high risk they are monitored weekly for progress. Based on most models the estimated number of students in each tier is as follows: 80% of the school population in Tier 1, 10-15% in Tier 2, and 5-10 percent will be in Tier 3. These numbers maybe different if the school is urban, has an unusual number of English language learners (ELLs), or high numbers of students with special education needs. Based on the data collected, teachers’ problem-solve instructional solutions that address the unique academic needs of the student, and decide whether they should continue or change instructional delivery or strategies using the progress monitoring data collected from the monthly or weekly CBMs.
Beyond assessment, the use of evidenced-based or scientifically based instructional solutions is recommended. This stipulates that schools evaluate their curriculum resources and personnel training as well as plan that can take different leadership roles based on staff’s individual strengths. For example, a reading specialist can be part of a reading instructional task force, while the computer education staff can integrate database management systems in place to track and report data on progress monitoring.
What must administrators and teachers organize to effectively implement a RTI model that meets district, state and nationals goals?
Administrators and educators must work in partnership to create a common understanding in 3 main areas before adopting this model.
RTI Knowledge. You must ensure that administrators and faculty, both regular and special educators, have a common understanding of the RTI model including how it will be implemented in the school and how RTI will address the district, state and national goals. Building a collaborative partnership among all participants will impact the connections with the everyday culture of the school and the students’ needs. All should have achievable and feasible goals that go beyond a one year initiative but one that prepares for true school change. Thus, prioritizing major changes and potential outcomes while allowing the current experience to inform future planning should a goal in itself.
Collaboration and Communication. You must continue to develop ongoing processes by which you develop a Professional Learning Community (DuFour, 2004) that establishes guidelines for a variety of levels and types of communication among all stakeholders including regular education teachers, special education staff, administrators, and supporting researchers. A Professional Learning Community is defined as a faculty approach on learning rather than teaching by working collaboratively, and holding yourself accountable for results (DuFour, 2004). Such approaches may include principal weekly updates, classroom walk-throughs, teacher led professional development initiatives, grade-level common planning time around addressing the needs of children in the various tiers, individualized training as needed, and school-university partnerships that can support professional development opportunities aligned to the RTI model. Thus, all efforts should also ensure shared decision-making, participation and responsibility in addressing the educational outcomes all students (Denton, Vaughn, & Fletcher, 2003).
Sustainability and Capacity Building. You must develop structures and conditions that facilitate collaboration and logistical allocation of resources. For example a school implementing a RTI model provides individual teacher planning time plus additional grade-level RTI data- informed instructional planning time where students in Tier 2 and 3 are constantly being reviewed to ensure prevention. Another structure is the internal ability to report grade-level and school-wide data highlighting successes and challenges. These structures must have long term planning and sustained leadership. They must also be seen as practical and useful while recognizing teacher professionalism (Denton, Vaughn, & Fletcher, 2003). In addition, sustainability of the model should also include support for the multi-tiered service delivery in the form of additional personnel with relevant training and or evidenced-based curriculum resources as stipulated in the RTI model identified by the school. Another vital area of sustainability is around the school-university partnerships. This type of partnership can provide support on ensuring a high fidelity of implementation of the model within the existing research, school structures and resources. It can also provide the schools with pre-service personnel receiving training at the pre-service level on RTI that can help support the school during implementation.
What can principals, other administrators, and teachers expect as a result of a RTI Model in their schools?
Principal leadership in implementing the scope of RTI is vital and necessary to see change and school reform. You can expect a variety of changes
1. Increase academic outcomes for students
2. Data-informed instruction
3. Problem solving ability of teachers
4. Collaboration among all professionals in the school
5. Reduction in the inappropriate referrals to special education
6. Increase level of teacher engagement in professional development
7. Evidence of a Professional Learning Community in action

Specifically at the individual student level, the RTI model will guarantee exposure to the evidenced-based regular education curriculum, and depending on tier level strategic and evidenced-based preventive curriculum. For example, at a Tier 2 risk level, students received the regular curriculum plus an additional “dose” delivered in a small group setting. For students in a Tier 3 risk level, a third exposure delivered by the special education teacher would be additional to the regular curriculum of Tier 1 and small group instruction of Tier 2. This is an important difference from the typical model where students with academic difficulties or learning disabilities can potentially be taken out or miss out on the general education classroom instruction thus creating inequalities in content and exposure to the curriculum.
At the teacher level, evidenced-based instruction within the RTI model will also guarantee that through data you see rate of individual student growth and the impact of Tier 2 and 3 intensity of instruction. The level of teacher engagement in the model entails quick and feasible administration of curriculum-based measurement tools within the regular classroom environment. When this aspect of RTI is in place you can expect teachers to move from whole class instruction to differentiated instruction, thus resulting in a preventive model rather than the more common “wait to fail” model for students. Further, the data from progress monitoring will allow teachers to inform their instructional decisions and to address the individual needs of each student with grade-level peers who are involved and invested in addressing the needs of all students in your grade and school. For example, a stronger focus on differentiated instruction can result on more grade level collaboration around planning, understanding and using data, brainstorming possible interventions and sharing of expertise. You can expect that this type of collaboration will address the aspects of the curriculum that can be measured through CBM and support the efforts of a professional learning community.
Lastly, you can expect the number of students referred for special education to decrease in general because of the prevention aspect of RTI and because the progress monitoring data demonstrates progress trajectory and rate of learning. This allows teachers to project gains based on the current instruction. Similarly, for students referred to the special education process, you will also have teachers that become active participants during special education eligibility and IEP meetings. Since teacher are now part of the progress monitoring effort using CBMs, they can report on the rate of learning based on tiered instruction and be involved in the development and monitoring of the IEP goals and objectives, be it at grade level or at instructional level or both. You can expect your teachers to have a more comprehensive conversation about children who are unable to learn despite cultural differences, educational opportunity, poverty and other factors. Finally, the teachers will also be able to confirm that a potential discrepancy found in the formal assessment process supports the findings they have obtained from the instructional programming and CBM probes administered over the course of the year.
In conclusion, the RTI model has the capacity to deliver instruction in a multi-tiered school wide system with Tier 1 consisting of general education classroom instruction, Tier 2 consisting of general education classroom instruction in addition to small-group preventative tutoring, and Tier 3 consisting of the elements from tiers one and two in addition to special education and/ or other support such as those for newly arrived ELLs. Three aspects of school change must be present to effectively implement a RTI model in schools. They include knowledge of a RTI model and how it will be applied to the particular needs of their school. Enhanced collaboration and communication structures such as those in Professional Learning Communities (Dufour, 2003), and lastly providing sustainability and capacity building in the form of personnel and allocation of resources that meets the demands of the teachers for providing evidenced-based instruction. Providing a high quality evidenced-based preventive education is fundamental and a right of all children.
Figure 1

Burns, M.K. & VanderHeyden, A.M. (2006). Using Response to Intervention to assess learning disabilities. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 32(1), 3-5.
Denton, C.A., Vaughn, S., & Fletcher, J.M. (2003). Bringing research-based practice in reading intervention to scale. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18(3), 201-211.
Dufour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11.
Mandlawitz, M (2007) What every teacher should know about IDEA laws and regulations. Pearson: Boston.
Rinaldi, C. & Samson, J. (2008). English language learners and response to intervention: Referral recommendations. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(5), 6-14.

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