One Teacher's Three-Tiered Intervention Strategy
I had no sooner returned from Rick Wormeli's seminar on differentiated assessment and grading than my administrator walked into my office. Her face showed apprehension and a bit of weariness. Her cause for concern was revealed as a long list of changes in the district, in the school, and even in my classroom. Budget cuts in the state were causing changes that would force us all to adapt quickly.
Occasionally looking at me over her glasses, she revealed the denizens of next year's roster. My class sizes would be pushed to a staggering 37 students! She concluded her reading of the list with a half-hearted, "I don't know how you'll do it, but I'm sure you'll come up with something that will work."
"Will the classes be remediation or enrichment?" I asked.
She replied, "We don't have enough students to run separate classes, so they will be mixed, but about 10 percent are repeating the class."
Furthermore, the administrator informed me that the English as a second language (ESL) class would not run separately, so the ESL students would now be sprinkled throughout the other classes. Then there were the other special needs students to consider. All I could think was, How am I going to pull this off?
Merging Differentiation, Assessments, and RTI
Having the tools required for differentiated instruction is one thing, but here I was faced with the task of truly implementing it. More than that, I would need to adjust differentiation to my teaching style, a diverse group of students, and a bulging class size. I quickly realized that manageability would be just as important as the instruction itself.
This would no longer be a single learning environment; it would be a group of diverse students with different learning needs, abilities, and backgrounds. This would be an environment where differentiated instruction was not just a novel idea; it would truly be required. As Rick Wormeli (2006) so eloquently states, "Differentiated instruction is doing what's fair for students. It's a collection of best practices strategically employed to maximize students' learning at every turn" (p. 3). My first task was to determine how student learning could be maximized under the given circumstances.
It then became evident that the solution was right in front of me. I had recently learned about Response to Intervention (RTI) and how it is used at the building level. Essentially, it is broken down into four components: screening, tiers of instruction, progress monitoring, and fidelity indicators (Mellard, 2008). I realized that I could merge Wormeli's differentiation, Stiggins's formative assessments, and RTI and adapt them to a single classroom setting.
Communicating with students would be a key element to successful classroom implementation. According to Barber and Mourshed (2007), "The very best systems intervene at the level of the individual student, developing processes and structures within schools that are able to identify whenever a student is starting to fall behind, and then intervening to improve that child's performance" (p. 34).
Where to Start?
A vital precursor of student success is that they are given clear learning targets; that students understand what they should learn (Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2007). With this principle in mind, I designed a series of learning objectives for each unit in student-friendly language. These objectives represented skills that I wanted the students to retain at the end of the unit. For example, a chemistry objective might read, "Compare and contrast ionic and covalent bonding." A unit consisting of 6–10 objectives seemed to be operational.
According to Richard DuFour and associates, who write about professional learning communities, "A teacher in a PLC begins the unit by advising students of an essential outcome, an outcome so important, so significant, that every student must achieve it. Learning will be the constant. In this situation, it is imperative that time and support become the variables" (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek, 2004, p. 35). Because the learning goals were uniform for all students, the parts of the learning environment that I would be changing were the amount of time available to achieve mastery of the objectives and the amount of support that students would be provided.
Next, I needed to gauge each student's needs and background, and I had to be able to do it quickly. I strongly believe in students' abilities to assess themselves over a teacher's ability to guess after having met them for only a few minutes. I scoured the Internet for a learning styles inventory, which my students completed on the first day of class.
Students presented their results in verbal and visual formats, and then they compared the results to their original guesses about their own learning preferences. This assessment provided me with the data I needed about the types of learners who were in the classroom. It was up to me to provide a variety of learning experiences for each learner, and it was up to the learner to choose appropriate learning activities from the list I supplied.
Table 1 shows an example of the tasks students might choose. If an assignment seemed particularly valuable, I made it a requirement, such as in choices c and d. The number and types of required activities can vary for gifted students, second language learners, and other students with special needs.
How Does RTI Fit In?
The systematic, three-tiered approach used in RTI can be adjusted for an individual classroom. Under the usual RTI guidelines, about 80 percent of students receive tier 1 interventions, about 15 percent of students receive tier 2 interventions, and a small percentage receive tier 3 interventions. I took the same approach in my class; however, to fit the classroom setting more appropriately, I modified the system to include the following steps:
- Monitor student progress.
- Provide research-based interventions.
- Adjust the intensity and type of interventions.
Monitoring students' progress can be accomplished with formative assessments. First, students are given a pre-assessment to determine their level of previous knowledge about the learning objectives.
It is essential to measure each learning objective separately and to provide individual students with immediate feedback on their progress toward the goal. When students do not show mastery of a particular learning objective, they must complete the assignments for that objective (see table 1) then take a post quiz. This is a tier 3 intervention, which in my modified plan applies to 100 percent of the students in the class.
Consider the following scenario in relation to tier 2. Suppose a student scores below 70 percent for objective 6 on the pretest and completes the assignments listed in Table 1. She takes the post quiz, but does not demonstrate mastery. At this point, I use a tier 2 intervention. Some tier 2 interventions are supervised peer tutoring, one-on-one instruction with a teacher, the use of AVID strategies, guided group tutoring, and additional related assignments. After the student completes the tier 2 intervention, she can retake a different version of the post quiz to show mastery. These types of interventions are necessary for about 50 percent of students.
Finally, what about those students who just will not get with the program? Perhaps a student really does not understand a concept, is frequently absent, or refuses to complete assignments. This is where the tier 1 interventions are employed, and they occur for about 10 percent of students.
In these cases, I require students to come before or after school to receive additional help and guidance. Parental involvement helps ensure compliance. At first getting the parents on board can be challenging. When I engage parents in the process, I have to explain the system to them. For them it's really different than what they are used to. There are no points, there is no assigned homework, and grades are based on mastery of learning objectives. However, once parents understand, they are usually very supportive and excited by the way all students learn based on their own needs while acquiring skills useful for college and careers.
The Three Tiers of Intervention
Now It's Your Turn
Implementing a new method of teaching can be scary. Change is never easy, but how much are we really changing? How new is this method, really?
Differentiated instruction is touted as the latest and greatest approach, but if you really think about it, it is probably one of our oldest teaching practices. Think about the days of the one-room schoolhouse where the classroom was diversified with all age-groups, education levels, and learning abilities. All subjects were taught in a single classroom, with each lesson focusing on just a few people in the room to whom that specific lesson applied, while others worked on their own studies. Sound familiar?
It was not until recently that our well-known compartmentalization of education became the norm. English, for example, is now narrowed down to classes like General Level Sophomore English. Is it possible then that this tight compartmentalization could become a thing of the past as class sizes ramp up and diversify even more than today?
The bottom line is that the benefits of this teaching method far outweigh the challenges involved in the implementation, for the students as well as the teacher. For students, there is the obvious benefit of having near one-on-one interaction and instruction from the teacher. Students become more confident and enjoy being treated as individuals by making their own choices. They feel that they are being regarded as young adults rather than children. This confidence, in itself, is a big part of college readiness, but so is the self-advocacy and self-motivation they develop.
The benefit to the teacher is substantial too. I enjoy coming to work every day because I now interact with students in a whole new way. I regularly meet with students individually, and I am aware of how each and every student in the class is progressing. Failures are rarer because the interventions occur earlier.
All clichés aside, I know that I am truly making a difference. I am pioneering new teaching practices that do not throw away old practices, but rather give me the best of all of them. Although this method is successful for me, it is not the only method that works. Teachers can design their own systems that respond to struggling learners. Eventually, when systems become schoolwide, greater numbers of students will have more successful outcomes.
Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). How the world's best performing schools come out on top. Retrieved from http://www.closingtheachievementgap.org/cs/ctag/view/resources/111
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Karhanek, G. (2004) Whatever it takes. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Mellard, D. (2008). What is RTI? Retrieved from http://www.centeroninstruction.org/files/what%20is%20rti%20-%20webinar%205%2014%2008.pdf
Stiggins, R., Arter, J., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2007) Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right—using it well. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn't always equal. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Jean Laurance is a chemistry team leader at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville, Ill. She is completing her doctorate in curriculum leadership at Northern Illinois University. Michael Laurance is a dean's assistant at Huntley High School in Huntley, Ill. He is also a freelance writer.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 20. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.