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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

No More “Waiting to Fail”

Response to Intervention enables schools to identify the kinds of support struggling students need—and provide that support when it's needed.

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Nearly 35 years ago, the U.S. Congress passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 as part of the nation's evolving commitment to accommodate the needs of all children in public schools. Soon after the passage of this historic legislation, policymakers became concerned about two trends. First, the number of students identified with learning disabilities grew much more quickly and reached much higher levels than expected. Second, the percentages of black and other racial minority students who were found eligible for special education services were much higher than the percentages of racial minorities in the U.S. population. Both of these trends have continued, and accumulating evidence indicates that special education services have not been as effective as possible (Kavale & Forness, 2000). Because of these concerns, many educators and policymakers have suggested that we need alternative methods for determining students' eligibility for special education services.
One alternative approach—Response to Intervention (RTI)—has received increased attention since its inclusion in the most recent reauthorization of federal special education law. The 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act states that schools will no longer be required to determine whether a student has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability, the traditional method of identifying learning disabilities. Instead, schools are allowed to use evidence of a student's failure to respond to instructional interventions as part of the data documenting the presence of a specific learning disability.

The Prevention Model

The history of special education leading to RTI is a story of more and more prevention-focused instructional practices. Prevention-based practices have been used in other disciplines for many years. For example, immunizations are required for almost all children before school entry because the population reaps general health benefits from the prevention of infectious diseases (Fairbanks & Wiese, 1998).
The basic prevention model includes three types of activities: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary prevention includes steps taken to stop a certain outcome from happening at all (for example, healthy eating and regular exercise to prevent type 2 diabetes). Secondary prevention includes steps taken to address the problem at the first sign of symptoms (for example, using dietary and exercise changes to treat type 2 diabetes). Tertiary prevention is actions taken after the problem has already surfaced. At this stage, the prevention steps include methods to reduce the effects of the problem (for example, using insulin for lifelong management of diabetes). When this prevention model is applied to education, it manifests itself as RTI. Many studies have shown that students benefit when prevention practices are used in schools (Foorman, 2003).

The Three Tiers of RTI

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a systematic method for instruction and assessment of students. Figure 1 (p. 44) provides a graphic representation of the three RTI levels of intervention to support students with varying instructional needs. Tier 1 includes universal instruction and assessment of all students—in other words, the general education curriculum. Schools need to ensure that this instruction and assessment are research based and effective in helping students gain academic proficiency. Success at Tier 1 is defined as the student demonstrating at least the levels of knowledge and skill expected for his or her age and grade.

Figure 1. Levels of Response to Intervention

Tier 2 includes selected instructional activities and assessments for students who have not achieved at the expected level while participating in Tier 1. An example of Tier 2 intervention is providing 30 minutes a day of additional reading or math instruction to 1st grade students who have not met grade-level benchmarks. Students receiving Tier 2 support are monitored weekly to learn whether their skills are improving. If their assessment data indicate progress, the students gradually receive less support until they are able to succeed within the general education (Tier 1) program. If they do not make progress after a specified period of Tier 2 instruction, the school either adjusts the students' Tier 2 instruction or refers them to Tier 3.
Only at Tier 3 does the school take steps to determine whether a student has a disability that requires special education. At this stage, the school conducts a comprehensive evaluation of the student's skills, including the data obtained in Tiers 1 and 2, to determine why a student's performance is significantly different from that of other students of his or her age and grade and to decide what additional instructional supports the student needs.

Why Is RTI Important?

RTI helps ensure that all students have equal educational opportunity. RTI provides mechanisms by which students can receive supplementary instruction without the stigmatizing effects of a disability label. Under prior special education laws, students had to show a deficit (such as mental retardation or a specific learning disability) to qualify for specialized instruction. The process to become eligible for special education services under the older laws was time-consuming and often meant that a student must “wait to fail” before receiving additional instructional support. Under RTI, schools must not only ensure that they are providing scientifically based instruction in the general education program, but also provide intervention to students not succeeding in the general education program before considering them for special education placement.
Such a significant shift in policy will take time to implement and evaluate. However, outcomes from schools that have practiced RTI for a number of years have shown that it raises education attainment of students in general and reduces the number of students who need special education (Brown-Chidsey & Steege, 2005). For example, Speece, Case, and Molloy (2003) found that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcomes for students identified as being at risk for reading problems. Both Tilly (2003) and O'Connor (2003) found that RTI methods used over time reduced total special education placements and improved academic outcomes for students at risk.

RTI in Action

One way to see the benefits of RTI is through examples of students who received Tier 2 and 3 interventions. Consider the following two stories.

Helping an At-Risk Student Catch Up

Tim lived with both his parents and a younger sister in a northeastern U.S. town. When Tim was an infant and toddler, he spent his day at home with his mom. At age 3, he was enrolled in a private preschool that focused on allowing students to explore and learn from self-directed inquiry. Tim began half-day kindergarten in the same town where he had attended preschool. His teacher reported that he made good progress but was very shy and quiet in group settings.
During the summer between kindergarten and 1st grade, Tim's family moved to a new town in a different school district. Tim enrolled in 1st grade; most of his classmates had attended the local district's full-day kindergarten program. The district used the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) to measure students' literacy development (Good & Kaminski, 2002). Tim's scores on the fall DIBELS benchmarks showed that he lagged behind other 1st graders.
Because Tim's DIBELS scores revealed that he was at high risk of reading problems, he was immediately placed at Tier 2 of his school's RTI program. Tim participated in the evidence-based reading program Early Reading Intervention, a small-group intervention with three or four students in a group. Tim's progress was monitored using winter and spring DIBELS benchmarking assessments; these data showed that once he began participating in the program, he started to develop word-attack skills.
Tim made excellent progress and met the winter DIBELS goals. As a result of the strong progress he made when participating in Early Reading Intervention five days a week, his schedule was changed to include two days of Tier 2 instruction each week. Tim continued to make good progress; he was eventually transitioned out of Tier 2 instruction and participated in Tier 1 instruction only.
Tim's story shows how early intervention can prevent later reading problems. Tim began 1st grade at risk of reading failure and in danger of being identified as learning disabled; he ended the year reading at the level expected for 1st graders. Coordinated and systematic intervention and assessment activities made a profound difference in this student's school success.

Providing Intervention for a Student with Learning Disabilities

Martha attended a half-day preschool program when she was 3 and 4 years old. When she was screened with the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) at the beginning of kindergarten, she scored lower than average in phonemic awareness and letter naming. As a result, her kindergarten teacher placed her in daily small-group lessons (Tier 2 intervention) that focused on developing these skills. Martha's language development showed progress by the end of kindergarten, but her skills were still in the low-average range compared with those of her classmates.
Martha's 1st grade teacher used the Open Court Reading program to provide Tier 1 instruction to all students. The school screened students at the start of the school year with the DIBELS, and Martha's scores indicated that she remained at risk for reading difficulties. For this reason, Martha participated in Tier 2 interventions in 1st grade. In addition to whole-class instruction, she attended daily 30-minute small-group reading sessions using the Reading Mastery program. These sessions were led by a special education teacher who worked with both general and special education students. To determine whether the extra lessons were helping, students in Martha's group completed weekly DIBELS measures of nonsense word fluency. Martha's classroom teacher and the special education teacher communicated regularly about Martha's lessons so that her Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction would be complementary.
By November of 1st grade, Martha showed sufficient gains in her reading skills to allow her to discontinue smallgroup lessons. But when all students in Martha's school participated in midyear screening assessments that January, Martha's scores revealed that she was struggling again. Her teachers decided to resume the small-group intervention. Martha's progress in reading during February and March was slower than in the fall, and she gained an average of less than one word per week on oral reading fluency measures. Her limited progress, despite the use of well-validated Tier 1 and Tier 2 reading interventions, led her teachers to request a Tier 3 comprehensive evaluation.
The school psychologist reviewed all Martha's kindergarten and 1st grade reading data. These data suggested that Martha was able to learn the sound-symbol correspondence needed for reading, but that she read words much more slowly than typical 1st graders. The psychologist administered tests of memory and processing speed to test the hypothesis that Martha's reading difficulties were related to the speed with which she decoded and understood words. Using the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Awareness (CTOPA) as well as the Children's Memory Scale (CMS), the psychologist found that Martha's scores on measures of rapid automatic naming were well below average.
The evaluation findings were presented at a special education team meeting to discuss whether Martha was eligible for special education services. The data collected at Tiers 1, 2, and 3 all converged to suggest that Martha's reading difficulties were the result of a learning disability. The team, consisting of Martha's parents, teachers, and school specialists, developed an individualized education program (IEP) for Martha that included two major components: individualized reading lessons for 60 minutes each day, replacing both the whole-class and small-group lessons she attended; and additional time for completing all standardized, timed assessments so that her slower reading speed would not compromise her opportunity to demonstrate her learning.
Martha's story shows how RTI methods can be important for students who have disabilities. She was provided with high-quality, research-based reading interventions from the start of her schooling. Her progress was closely monitored as she received Tier 1 and 2 instruction, and by the time she was placed in Tier 3 and found eligible for special education services, her teachers had a thorough understanding of how to give her the additional support she needed to succeed in school.

Timely Support for All Students

Response to Intervention is a databased, systematic procedure that supports equitable educational access for all students. RTI provides school personnel with ways of knowing which students are at risk and whether efforts to help these students are working. RTI begins by ensuring that the general education classroom is providing effective instruction and assessment for all students. RTI then offers a way to bridge gaps between general and special education services by providing scientifically based interventions quickly and efficiently for all students who need such support, before going through a lengthy process to determine eligibility for special education.
RTI is a general education initiative and policy that requires the active participation of all general educators. The most effective RTI solutions include collaborative work by general and special educators to provide effective instruction for students as soon as they need it. The result? Greater success for all students and fewer students placed in special education.

Brown-Chidsey, R., & Steege, M. W. (2005).Response to Intervention: Principles and methods for effective practice. New York: Guilford.

Fairbanks, J., & Wiese, W. H. (1998). The public health primer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Foorman, B. R. (2003). Preventing and remediating reading difficulties: Bringing science to scale. Baltimore: York Press.

Good, R. H., & Kaminski, R. A. (Eds.). (2002). Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (6th ed.). Eugene, OR: Institute for the Development of Educational Achievement. Available:

Kavale, K. A., & Forness, S. R. (2000). History, rhetoric, and reality. Remedial and Special Education, 21, 279–297.

O'Connor, R. (2003, December). Tiers of intervention in kindergarten through third grade. Paper presented at the Responsiveness-to-Intervention Symposium, Kansas City, MO. Available:

Speece, D. L., Case, L. P., & Molloy, D. E. (2003). Responsiveness to general education instruction as the first gate to learning disabilities identification.Learning Disabilities: Research and Practice, 18, 147–156.

Tilly, W. D., III. (2003, December). How many tiers are needed for successful prevention and early intervention? Heartland Area Education Agency's evolution from four to three tiers. Paper presented at the Responsiveness-to-Intervention Symposium, Kansas City, MO.

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