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Books in Translation

What Every School Leader Needs to Know About RTI

by Margaret Searle

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. What Is RTI and Why Should We Care?

"I am at my wits' end. Jerry is having a tough time with geography even though he is more than capable of doing the work. In fact, I have four students who are in the same boat. I call their parents, but these kids still won't do the work. It's obvious they don't get much help at home. Personally, I think it's a bad case of laziness. Why weren't they tested earlier? If I refer them now, they probably won't qualify for anything. I guess there's nothing to be done."

Does this sound familiar? Many teachers lounges are buzzing with conversations just like this. Accepting these types of situations as status quo is not only frustrating but also unproductive. Wouldn't it be more satisfying for this teacher to have a menu of solid instructional options from which to choose rather than rely on a referral process that she suspects will go nowhere? Wouldn't it save a lot of work and exasperation if she could talk to colleagues about relevant current research and instructional approaches that work with students who aren't inspired to apply the ability they already have? Wouldn't the school system work more efficiently if all teachers had a problem-solving framework to help them quickly respond to students' needs without clogging up the system with needless testing and inappropriate placements? Wouldn't developing an action plan at the first signs of trouble be more productive than spending time blaming other teachers or parents? A well-implemented Response to Intervention (RTI) plan addresses these issues and much more.

The Three Basics of a Quality RTI Plan

I have found it helpful to envision the RTI framework as a three-legged stool. The three legs are (1) an assessment process, (2) a tiered intervention menu, and (3) a problem-solving process. Each leg of this stool must be in place for the framework to be stable and functional (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1. Representative Structure of the RTI Process

The first leg of the stool is the heart of RTI. Just as feedback helps runners shave seconds off their time, educators and students need specific data to stay on target and make appropriate adjustments if the going gets rough. The RTI process uses data from three assessment tools (discussed in further detail in Chapters 3 and 4) to meet this objective.

  1. Universal screening data help pinpoint high-priority areas of concern. Screening provides data that help answer fundamental questions: What should we keep and what needs to be dropped or updated? Which students are in danger of falling through the cracks if we do not intervene quickly?
  2. Diagnostic assessments refine the universal screening data by identifying the root causes for gaps between expected outcomes and actual performance.
  3. Progress monitoring provides continuous feedback about how successfully the selected intervention is promoting student growth and closing achievement gaps. It also helps determine when a change in strategy is required.

Three levels of assessment drive the RTI process: universal screening, diagnostic assessment, and progress monitoring.

The second leg of the RTI stool provides a continuum of research-based interventions. It does no good to pinpoint which students need support if, once identified, there is no help available to find solutions. Teachers need access to a menu of research-based possibilities, ranging from whole-class strategies to more intense individual interventions that require special training to implement. Typically, intervention categories are arranged into a three-tiered pyramid (see Figure 1.2), which will be elaborated on in Chapters 5 and 6.

  • Tier 1 provides research-based classroom instructional strategies powerful enough to enable 80–90 percent of students to be successful without further intervention.
  • Tier 2 provides interventions of moderate intensity that supplement Tier 1 strategies and are provided for groups of three to six students. Five to 10 percent of students may need assistance at this level.
  • Tier 3 provides intense interventions provided for groups of one to three students. Like Tier 2, this level is also a supplement to Tier 1, not a replacement for it. One to 5 percent of students generally need assistance at this level.

Figure 1.2. Three-Tiered Pyramid of Interventions

The final leg of the RTI stool is an efficient problem-solving process, often referred to as an Intervention Assistance Team (IAT) or a Student Support Team (SST). This component uses data from the assessment cycle to prescribe, monitor, and adjust intervention plans. Think of it as the support system that makes the assessment and intervention legs of the stool functional and efficient. This process will be explained further in Chapter 7.

The problem-solving team uses the intervention pyramid to help teachers and families identify appropriate solutions.

RTI: What It Is and What It Isn't

RTI is a systematic way of connecting instructional components that are already in place. It integrates assessment data and resources efficiently to provide more support options for every type of learner.

RTI does

  • Develop a systematic way of identifying student strengths and weaknesses.
  • Reduce the time students wait to receive necessary instruction and intervention.
  • Require schools to ensure that underachievement is not due to a lack of appropriate instruction.
  • Require close monitoring and documentation of student responses to research-based instruction in general education classrooms, so schools are less likely to label students too quickly.
  • Require that general and special education classrooms share responsibilities to ensure that all students can receive additional support using a seamless instructional system.
  • Require the use of research-validated practices in core classroom instruction and supplemental intervention services.

RTI does not

  • Apply only to students who qualify for special education.
  • Allow students to wallow in failure until they meet a qualification score.
  • Focus more on compliance to forms and procedures than on student results. It does promote procedures that get the right services to the right students at the first signs of trouble.
  • Ignore the bias of assessment instruments that over-identify students who lack prior knowledge due to environmental and cultural differences that are easily misinterpreted as a learning disability.
  • Simply refer, test, and label students when they underperform in general education classrooms without proving that the problem is not the fault of the curriculum or the instruction.

The Two Models of RTI

There are two models for implementing RTI: the standard protocol model and the problem-solving model. Though there are pros and cons for each model, they both follow the same treatment cycle. Teachers must

  • Assess all students with a universal screener.
  • Diagnose reasons for any problems flagged by the screener.
  • Select research-based interventions for the specific problems identified.
  • Implement the selected plans and monitor them for positive effects.
  • Adjust intervention plans in response to the progress monitoring and diagnostic data collected.

There are two RTI models, and both have the same basic requirements.

The protocol model

The protocol model prescribes a very specific intervention for all students who exhibit similar problems and fall below an established districtwide benchmark. This intervention is based on scientifically validated research and is the only intervention plan used to solve the identified problem. The staff implementing this intervention is carefully trained and regularly monitored for fidelity of implementation (i.e., implementation consistent with the research).

The advantages of the protocol model are

The disadvantages of the protocol model are

  • More efficient staff training that focuses on only one research-based intervention plan for a given problem area.
  • A highly standardized program that allows relatively easy fidelity monitoring.
  • A predetermined intervention that reduces team meeting time.

  • The limitations of only one approach, which may not accommodate the needs of every learner.
  • A potentially weak buy-in from staff charged with implementing a plan they have had no hand in developing or selecting.
  • Limited staff training on a variety of research-based approaches.

The problem-solving model

The problem-solving model relies on a team of experts who customize intervention plans to suit individual learners' needs. Team members must be trained to analyze the strengths and needs of learners and the teachers who instruct those learners. This careful analysis, performed before an action plan is created, prevents the loss of precious time caused by implementing the wrong interventions. Team members draw from a broad array of research-validated interventions and assessment tools.

The advantages of the problem-solving model are

The disadvantages of the problem-solving model are

  • Customized plans that are appropriate for both learners and educators.
  • A flexible model that can be adapted to individual students' needs.
  • A potentially strong buy-in from those who implement the plan, resulting from their direct input.

  • The requirement that team members possess a high level of expertise in many areas.
  • More time-consuming training and intervention design.
  • The difficulties in monitoring such a fluid process.

A 2008 study conducted by the Special Education Leadership and Quality Teacher Initiative found that 24 of 42 responding state departments of education recommended a combination of the two intervention models (Hoover, Baca, Wexler-Love, & Saenz, 2008). With a dual approach, students receive the customized plan provided by the problem-solving model while ensuring that the strategies selected come from a list of research-based interventions called for by the protocol model.

A combination of models works best.

What RTI Looks Like When Done Well

As I work with educators to create their RTI plans, I notice that common themes tend to run through their comments and questions regarding the RTI framework. The following sections, introduced by representative comments, illustrate the core characteristics of a properly executed RTI plan.

Shared roles and responsibilities

Randy, a middle school intervention specialist, asked, "Why do general education teachers need to be involved with RTI training and implementation? I always thought RTI was just a new way to determine eligibility for students with disabilities. Isn't that the job of the psychologists and special education teachers?"

This is the first time special education legislation has as much impact on general education as on special education. In most schools, the new procedures for eligibility are a small part of the RTI plan. RTI is intended to deliver a wider variety of general education options before the words special education are even uttered. Only when Tier 1 interventions fail to close learning gaps do more intensive services—including English as a Second Language, gifted education, remedial classes, and tutoring—come into play. These services are supplementary to interventions begun and maintained by general educators. The goal of RTI is to prevent problems for all students; as a consequence, major shifts in roles and responsibilities are often necessary at all levels.

RTI began as a response to a 30-year argument about the best and worst ways to decide upon eligibility for special education services. Early in the process, there was little consistency among districts about what constituted a Specific Learning Disability. In response to this dilemma, a discrepancy formula was developed to determine whether a student's actual achievement was significantly different from his or her predicted achievement based upon his or her IQ score. It didn't take long for educators to question the wisdom of this formula. Though it was easy to calculate and helped with consistency, there were three serious negative side effects.

The discrepancy model didn't demonstrate a big enough gap between achievement and ability for young children to qualify for services until they reached the 3rd or 4th grade. This often resulted in the "sorry, we'll have to wait until you're far behind your peers" response. Students' needs were overlooked or ignored until they were considerably behind their peers, and only then were services provided. Research has shown that early interventions are more powerful and effective than those applied after the problem has become deeply rooted, yet this delay was common practice.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) now requires that students both with and without disabilities are provided with proactive, supplemental support as soon as a teacher detects a potential difficulty. Regulations regarding early intervention services (EIS) permit schools to use up to 15 percent of the district IDEIA Part B funds to develop and implement EIS.1 

IDEIA requires that all students be provided with supplemental support as soon as a difficulty is detected.

Another downside of the discrepancy formula was its bias in the assessment of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Many students who could have succeeded with far less intensive services were mislabeled. Even though "rule outs," such as cultural background, socioeconomic circumstances, and lack of appropriate instruction, are built into the law, these safeguards were generally ignored in an effort to provide assistance to struggling children. As a result, a disproportionate number of African Americans, English language learners, and children from disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances were identified as disabled. The RTI process, however, decreases misidentification by providing options that are less intensive than special education.

A disproportionate number of African Americans, English language learners, and children from disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances are misidentified as disabled.

The eligibility assessment procedures formed the crux of the third problem with the discrepancy formula. Even though the regulations call for "multifactored evaluations," the information typically collected is more helpful for sorting and labeling students than it is for designing specific programs. Even though the regulations call for "appropriate educational programs," studies suggest that many achievement and behavior problems are actually due to shortcomings in both general and special education instructional programs (National Research Center on Learning Disabilities, 2007).

Trying a variety of approaches before referring students to special education should have always been the first step, but many districts subscribed to the mentality that "if the student doesn't fit, refer him, test him, and dispatch him to someone else's program." Schools need to shift this old paradigm to a new RTI way of thinking, though this will likely require significant cultural changes. With an RTI approach, psychologists and specialists focus their time on designing interventions rather than checking for eligibility.

Increased progress monitoring

Lynn, an elementary school principal, asked, "What is this watch list I keep hearing about? How are these students identified and who needs to watch them?"

Progress monitoring helps teachers know when to change strategies.

A watch list is a list of potential struggling learners identified by district universal screening procedures. Teachers typically monitor these students on a weekly or biweekly basis, using progress monitoring probes to gauge the success of selected interventions. If student growth data are weak, teachers should immediately change strategies rather than wait until a student is in trouble or qualifies for a label. In strong RTI buildings, teams take genuine pride in helping students move off the watch list. You can feel a sense of personal challenge ignite team spirit and morale, with a common sentiment being, "We've saved another one from slipping through the cracks!"

Coordination of support and resources

Darcy, a curriculum director in an urban district, stated, "RTI makes so much sense to me because it coordinates every program, resource, and service into the three-tiered intervention model. This makes our old practice of adding programs and services that all worked independently look like a disjointed mess. How do schools get this job done?"

Teachers often recognize the disconnect between general education and the myriad special education resource services. They are happy to have students receive help but are frustrated when those students are constantly pulled out of class for tutoring and other services. If the focus of core and intervention classes matched, students wouldn't miss critical instruction. They would receive a double dose of the same skills that were taught using different approaches and from a variety of teachers. Strong curriculum maps, flexible schedules, common planning times, and efficient communication are the key elements to this type of coordination.

Coordination among general education and special education support services is essential.

Team problem solving

Olivia, a school psychologist, said, "When I first heard that the RTI framework needed a problem-solving team, I thought, 'Well, here is a place where our district is already on target.' What I learned, however, knocked my socks off. Now we need to involve students and families in the team meetings every time. How do you get them to participate?"

Families and school personnel need to share responsibility for student improvement. Often, this home/school cooperation doesn't happen because the school does not provide a safe and welcoming environment for families experiencing problems. The magic behind an RTI problem-solving meeting is the rule that states, There will be no admiring or even talking about the problems during the meeting. RTI problem-solving meetings with families are strictly for creating action plans that solve the pre-agreed-upon problems. The policy of not blaming others or describing student problems dramatically changes the dynamics so that every participant feels encouraged and supported, rather than attacked and defensive. This approach makes the team meeting environment 100 percent safe and welcoming for the student, family, and school personnel involved.

Focused leadership

Ken, a superintendent of a small rural district, made this observation: "My 'ah-ha moment' was seeing how visibly the superintendent and the principals must lead this effort every single day. Where do we start?"

Select a few high-priority areas and attend to them daily for at least two to three years if you want the change to become common practice. Without clear priorities, the initiative will weaken and look like a "flavor of the month." Teachers are quick to spot half-hearted improvement efforts and will often take a "this too shall pass" attitude. Regularly discussing data and strategies keeps the energy, resources, and talent moving in a unified direction. Chapter 2 will go into more detail about how both administrators and teacher leaders typically set up and maintain effective RTI structures.

RTI Changes Our Thinking

The following dialogue between two teachers addresses some common concerns and thoughts about how RTI impacts the school improvement effort.

Renee: Let me see if I understand this. RTI is a new type of prereferral to determine eligibility for special education services, right?
Matt: Yes and no. Eligibility is a small part of the RTI process. A primary purpose is to increase options within general education without going through the hassle of a formal referral. You may refer students later if the interventions don't work, but no time is wasted in the meantime. RTI strives for immediate support for students.

A primary purpose of RTI is to increase options within general education.

Renee: That sounds like it could delay students with legitimate disabilities from receiving services.
Matt: RTI cannot deny or delay a formal evaluation for special education. At any point in an RTI process, IDEIA 2004 allows parents to request a formal evaluation to determine eligibility. However, we won't wait for the test results to start helping students. Do you remember when we used to refer a student and then wait months only to find out that he didn't qualify for anything? How frustrating was that? Now we can provide interventions while we evaluate the need for a multifactored evaluation. RTI is less about labeling and more about getting appropriate services to students as quickly as possible. Generally speaking, referrals, once made, don't require as much time because data collection has already begun through the RTI process.

RTI cannot deny or delay a formal evaluation for special education.

Renee: RTI sounds like another set of hoops for special education teachers to jump through.
Matt: RTI requires general, remedial, gifted, and special educators to collaborate as they plan, deliver, monitor, and adjust interventions within the general education setting first. If everyone involved doesn't plan and work together, then the system will likely fail.
Renee: Well, good luck with that. This sounds like a lot to put on already full plates. Where are we going to find the time and resources to do all of this?
Matt: We already have several of the RTI components in place. We just haven't called it RTI. We have aligned our curriculum and chipped away at differentiated instruction for years. We practically eliminated tracking and replaced it with flexible grouping. Kids with IEPs have higher expectations and are learning with their nondisabled peers more than ever before. All of this is part of the RTI infrastructure. However, identifying more time to plan together is a must, and there are some big assessment changes we will still need to tackle.

Many existing programs and services fit into the RTI model.

Renee: Oh, great, more testing. When am I supposed to teach these kids?
Matt: You're absolutely right; we need to drop some of our more labor-intensive tests and replace them with quick progress monitoring probes. That will actually save instructional time and provide more useful and timely information.
Renee: That sounds way too reasonable to actually happen, but I hope it works out that way. You know, research-based instruction is the other scary piece. How will I know how to implement research-based interventions? Where do I find those ideas?

RTI requires research-based interventions.

Matt: It used to be difficult, but there are a lot of materials and many Web sites now available. We need training. We also need fidelity monitoring to reassure teachers that they are implementing the plans in the most effective manner.
Renee: That sure beats crossing our fingers and hoping that we're doing the intervention correctly.
Matt: Our intervention teams will also use some new protocols to upgrade our services. Problem-solving teams will focus on student data to help teachers set specific learning targets before designing and adjusting interventions and services. We will no longer just admire the problems and label students. Problem solving will also be more collaborative as we coordinate the efforts of the student, his or her family, and a variety of faculty members.

Where Did RTI Come From?

Over the past 30 years, special education laws and revisions have been criticized, analyzed, and adjusted, but the mandates needed to trigger significant change did not appear until the reauthorization of IDEIA 2004. The final regulations published in June 2005 are less about compliance and accountability and more about prevention and early intervention.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and IDEIA both require research-based models that include reliable screening and progress monitoring of student responses to evidence-based instruction. They also require the use of data to match instructional interventions to areas of specific student need as soon as those needs become apparent. The process must document that underachievement is not due to a lack of appropriate instruction.

RTI in Practice

RTI thinking applies to many levels of decision making, and effective results start with a systemwide application. After analyzing district data, leadership teams focus on the primary needs of the entire system. Individual schools then design action plans that apply district goals to their specific settings. Each department, grade level, and teacher then creates a plan to use these goals to meet the needs of individual students.

At every level, an established and proven sequence is followed to ensure that appropriate and timely decisions are made. This sequence includes the following steps:

  1. District and building teams use data to create a priority-ranked list of issues in order to determine a few items for action.
  2. Problem-solving teams use a diagnostic process to help unravel possible root causes of identified problems.
  3. Clear, specific, and measurable goals guide implementation.
  4. Teachers develop action plans shown to be effective by research.
  5. Teachers carefully and frequently monitor individual student progress.
  6. Teachers and administrators evaluate the adequacy of the RTI plan and make adjustments based upon this evaluation.

RTI at the district level

The leadership team at Insightful School District studied the data patterns from their K–12 universal screening results and the state testing scores from the previous year. The team identified two key issues that needed immediate attention.

  1. Math scores were among the lowest in the county at every grade level, except grade 3—and that score was nothing to cheer about.
  2. Students with disabilities and English language learners were identified as low-performing subgroups.

After establishing a districtwide improvement goal, the district council identified possible root causes for these issues, set two measurable goals, and developed a plan for monthly progress monitoring at the district level. They then realigned district resources to support individual building plans. Team members returned to their schools to involve staff in reviewing data and establishing their own continuum of interventions. Each building was charged with reporting its findings and progress to the district council on a monthly basis. This helped to coordinate the process and share the multitiered intervention plans across the district.

RTI at the building level

The Insightful School District high school faculty studied building data that targeted the district goals. The staff identified several math concerns unique to their school.

  • Many general education, special education, and ESL students were less than proficient with basic mathematical facts and were shaky on basic computation procedures.
  • The main instructional approach in 60 percent of math classes was a 30-minute "sit and get" lecture followed by independent work.
  • Only 20 percent of staff used corrective feedback daily.
As a result of these findings, the math department created specific and measurable goals for the staff and their students. They contacted the county math supervisor for help with developing a research-based plan to meet their goals and measure their progress weekly.

The middle school faculty identified concerns similar to those acknowledged by their colleagues in the high school.

  • Students demonstrated weaknesses in computation, especially with fractions, decimals, and percentages.
  • Some teachers did not implement the curriculum map with fidelity, if at all.
  • Weekly department meetings were needed to evaluate student progress data and make decisions about how to address students who were falling behind or required enrichment.
The middle school staff also established concrete goals in response to the identified concerns. Special education teachers and ESL tutors agreed to more coteaching to help with differentiation, and scores for both struggling and accelerated students would be charted and studied to monitor subgroup progress and make instructional changes as needed.

Each elementary school had a slightly different spin on why specific student progress was problematic. However, in response, they all

  • Developed clear and measurable goals that resulted from the baseline data collected.
  • Designed a research-based approach to reach their goals.
  • Planned to measure and chart all students' progress monthly and "at-risk" students' progress weekly to gauge the success of the instructional methods used.

The Insightful School District superintendent instructed the district team to develop a method to display the monthly progress monitoring data so it would be easy for teachers to see how their efforts were paying off. Two separate sets of data were posted: one that showed math growth and one that showed ESL and special education progress in math and reading. All district buildings and the central office staff used these data to launch monthly discussions on how teams could support each plan and make adjustments to them.

Districts require data to gauge the effectiveness of plans and measure how well students and subgroups are progressing.

RTI at the grade and classroom levels

Based upon class data and district benchmarks, individual teachers designed classroom goals that contributed to the success of district and building goals. These classroom goals were the foundation upon which achievement of all other goals rested.

Let's visit Mrs. Wood's 5th grade classroom to see how this plays out. As Mrs. Wood considered the district's focus on math, the two areas of particular concern for 5th grade were math fluency and the application of math concepts. Class results from the universal screener on math fluency showed that

  • Nine students rated poorly (0–8 digits correct per 2.5 minutes).
  • Seven students rated close to goal (9–15 digits correct per 2.5 minutes).
  • Eight students rated proficiently (16 or more digits correct per 2.5 minutes).

The universal screening data on the application of math concepts showed that

  • Thirteen students rated poorly (0–5 blanks correct per 5 minutes).
  • Six students rated close to goal (6–11 blanks correct per 5 minutes).
  • Five students rated proficiently (12 or more blanks correct per 5 minutes).

Based upon these results, Mrs. Wood set a class growth goal to increase computation accuracy by an average of one digit each week and increase by .4 blanks correct per week for concepts for the following seven weeks. She prepared a graph to illustrate the current class average and where students would be in seven weeks if they worked together to meet this new goal. Her students were encouraged by the challenge and immediately decided that they needed a plan.

Students brainstormed strategies, and Mrs. Wood recorded their ideas on the board, pointing out that many of their ideas were also studied by universities and had made a big difference for most students. Mrs. Wood cautioned her students that they would only see a difference if they followed the strategies exactly as researchers designed them. The students decided to carefully monitor one another, and they invited the school principal to be their "second set of eyes"—to see if the research would really work for them. The class selected a peer practice strategy as the first intervention to be used for 18 minutes each day.

Mrs. Wood began by ensuring that every student understood the exact procedures for working with partners. Using different examples, she explained and modeled each segment of the peer practice strategy. Each student's folder contained a step-by-step set of directions and two sets of specially selected math flashcards with answers to the problems on the back. Mrs. Wood constantly walked around the room to watch and give feedback to students as they practiced together. She did not skimp on the amount of time spent teaching or reviewing the procedures because she understood that great ideas poorly implemented tend to cause problems that sacrifice precious instruction time.

Each district's issues and goals will be unique, but establishing and maintaining a systemic action plan is critical to a successful RTI framework. District and building leadership teams must set clear goals and keep everyone informed and focused by asking about data and intervention plans weekly. Teachers in all grades and subject areas need to coordinate their plans until the result is a seamless delivery of options that moves flexibly up and down the intervention pyramid.


RTI is not a program you can buy. It is not a pathway to special education. It is a method of organizing and coordinating school resources to create a more efficient range of options that serve all students in danger of not reaching their potential.

The spotlight on student learning is intended to create a culture of early intervention, thus putting to rest the old "wait-to-fail" model that delayed appropriate services. Early support is available to all learners, whether they are in a general education, special education, gifted, ESL, or another specialized environment. All students have access to a growing menu of options made possible by the coordination of resources and services.

Whether the protocol model, the problem-solving model, or a combination of the two RTI models is employed, faculty and families work together in new ways to provide academic and behavioral assistance. This necessarily requires rethinking roles and responsibilities at all levels.

Each of the following chapters provides specific steps and ideas to help you design and implement your own plan that will tap the strengths of your staff and meet the unique needs of your learners. In the next chapter, we will examine some guidelines for getting started and setting up a districtwide support system.


1  The requirements for EIS are found in the regulations at 34 CFR §300.205(d), 300.208(a) (2), 300.226, and 300.646(b) (2).


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