George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Olympic Gold in the Classroom: RTI

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Missy Franklin not only won the gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke, she also set a world record of two minutes and 4.06 seconds. I was swimming on my back the other day -- certainly not nearly as fast as Missy -- and I wondered how she was able to swim straight without being able to see where she was going?

Fortunately, someone else had thought about that before I did, and prepared some help for the swimmers. The obvious danger of running into the wall headfirst is a concern, so a string of pointy warning flags is hung before the ends of the pool. The first thing backstroke swimmers do before swimming is to make sure that they know how many strokes they take after passing the flags before they get to the end of the pool.

So that keeps the swimmers from bashing their brains in, what about keeping on a straight course in that fifty-meter pool? Not a thing was provided. So how do the swimmers do it then? Well they do it the same way I did it the other day. Looking up at the ceiling, I saw lights, air-conditioning vents, and fire sprinklers. I also saw ceiling tiles. I found that if I concentrated on keeping directly under a line of ceiling tiles, that I could stay out of the lane lines. I learned that if my concentration strayed, that I would wander into other lanes, collide with other swimmers or smash into the sidewall, neither of which is very pleasant.

I also learned to read the ceiling pretty well so that I knew when I was getting near the end of the pool (my pool didn't have pointy warning flags). You might ask, why bother, why not just turn around and look? Well, in the Olympics, they are disqualified if while swimming on their backs they swim on their bellies (except in the flip turns). Another reason is that constantly looking destroys the rhythm of the stroke and slows the swimmer down.

Classroom Connection

Teachers have students swim on their backs all the time. With learning, there is no clear picture of where the students will be or exactly how to get them there, but there are signs on the ceiling that the students can follow without having to stop and take a good look at where the they are and where they are headed by taking a standardized assessment.

Educators all over the US are complaining that there are already too many "assessments" intruding on instruction that destroy the rhythm of learning and slow the students down. The signs that I am talking about are as regular as ceiling tiles: curriculum-based assessments (i.e. formative assessments) that help students know where they are and what direction they are heading. And the periodic summative assessments identify the end goal progress just as the various vents and sprinklers reveal progress in the pool. Students need this constant feedback because it is easy for them to get off track.

Even slow swimmers need feedback and need to see progress. The No Child Left Behind legislation mandated a research-based practice known as Response to Intervention (RTI) when a student begins to lag behind in the pool. This is a simple concept that every swim coach and teacher should know well. Using the data of the last formative assessment, a student/swimmer is observed floundering in a few concepts or skills. Left to himself, drowning is likely. So, the coach/teacher intervenes helping the student/swimmer accommodate for the misunderstanding, helping the student/swimmer learn the basics, or provides additional practice.

Then the coach/teacher tests the student/swimmer to see if the intervention worked. If it did, then the student/swimmer continues the regular workout. If it didn't work then the coach/teacher intervenes in more direct ways, extra conditioning, strength building, and personal coaching after practice. Then another test to see if the intervention worked. And so on, until the student/swimmer either succeeds or they seek more professional help like a medical doctor to fix the tinnitus in the shoulders, or a nutritionist to help improve the diet (or a special education teacher to help with dyslexia).

Acting on Student Needs

The key to successful RTI is quick turn-around between noticing the problem, intervening, and testing the effect of the intervention. Six weeks or nine weeks and especially a semester is often too long to wait to take corrective steps in helping students. The classroom teacher has to act quickly to help students before they get too far behind and especially before the students get discouraged and want to throw in the towel. Interventions could be just a few days, and then assess the student again to see if it worked.

This requires that the teacher/coach be constantly watching the student/swimmers and taking record of their progress. It also requires that the students/swimmers constantly look up and watch their progress too, and listen to the coach/teacher in order to improve.

Just like swimming on your back to get a gold medal, learning successfully is hard work and takes dedication and practice on the part of the swimmer and the coach.

Tell me about your successes with RTI.

Was this useful? (1)

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Carrie Schmeck's picture

If we find a teacher is not identifying the need to intervention, at what point should a parent ask for this by name (high school level)?

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

That is an interesting question. Response to Intervention is a process that teachers should be using automatically. When they see that a student did not do well on an assessment, then they should provide an intervention for a period of time and then assess the student again. If the student "responds" well, then nothing further is needed, if not, then the teacher is supposed to intervene again more aggressively- i.e. pull out, after school, lunch intervention (this is called tier 2). If after assessment the student responds, then great, if not then a more aggressive intervention is used (Tier 3). This could be shifting the student's schedule, changing the venue, or a referral to be tested for special education.

So... to answer your question, it might be better for you to ask two questions, What was the result of the assessment? and if your student's performance was not up to standard, What intervention did you do to help my student achieve mastery?

I think that you would get a blank look if you requested that the teacher use the RTI process on your child. The key to RTI is frequent objective-based assessment and reassessment.

Good luck with this.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

AClark's picture
Elementary Teacher, Johnstown, Ohio

Our school district has been implementing RtI for quite some time now. In a recent conversation with our principal, we continue to see great success with our Tier 3 students. However, we are not seeing our Tier 2 students prove as successful, especially on state testing. (In several cases, our Tier 3 students are progressing beyond our Tier 2 by the end of the year.)
Here's how our school approaches RtI:
Tier 1-classroom instruction
Tier 2-classroom instruction plus intervention provided by general education teacher
Tier 3-classroom instruction, intervention from general education teacher, plus intense intervention from reading specialist teacher

It seems like the general education teachers are not doing something right...which I am one of them. Automatically we want to take defense and start making excuses.

With all of that being said, reading your article helped me realize that as a general education teacher, I need to address issues with my students, especially Tier 2, quicker. Using the connection between the swimmer and learner helped clear that up for me in a way that I hadn't thought about before.

For our school, I believe we have identified the missing piece as our need to "track student progress" with the interventions we implement at Tier 2. (Tier 3 students are tracked regularly already.) This tracking would cause us to assess more consistently and more frequently at the Tier 2 level.

AKemmerly's picture
ESL Teacher K-6 from Pennsylvania

I really appreciated your comparison between RTI and swimming. Although, I am not an avid swimmer your analogy really made sense. The RTI process requires the teachers to continually analyze data and adjust instructional strategies to keep the momentum going.
Although RTI was instituted in our school several years ago, it was only recently I was approached to take an intervention group. I eagerly accepted, I saw it as another opportunity to meet the needs of some of my English Language Learners at an additional time. I am fortunate to have a group consisting of two students who are ELLs, as well as, four additional students who are struggling with similar difficulties when reading. I am excited to have a group of students and look forward to seeing their progress.
Now a little about my experience so far. I have to say I was a little disappointed it had taken a month to get the RTI time up and running, but I understand it takes a great deal of data collection and analysis to formulate effective groups. The data our district used to form groups was DIBELS Next and MAP assessments. In our district we are fortunate enough to have literacy partners who guide the process. Teachers are active in the final decisions for grouping.
Once the groups were formed I was asked to teach a scripted program. The program is geared to instruct students on reading multisyllabic words. If I am truthful I would have to admit I was not thrilled. My first thought was this will be boring for the students and for me. I have been in education long enough to know to get the students to buy in and be excited, I have to get excited about the program too. So I have been giving it my best shot. I pulled out the individual white boards (all 4th graders like to write on white boards), incorporated the use of the SMARTBOARD and make it as entertaining as possible while still following the scripted program.
After a little over a week I am happy to report that those 30 minutes are the fastest 30 minutes of my day. The students everyday have been commenting how fast the time goes and ask if they could stay longer. So far it has been a great experience for me and soon we will begin progress monitoring, I hope to celebrate successes with my RTI group no matter how big or small. I know if the progress is not there I will be making some changes so we can keep on swimming.

Mark's picture

Ben - I am always looking for unique was to help teachers understand what RTI is. This is a great comparison - thank you. You've probably seen the medical analogy, but I feel that the analogy that you give will help a different percentage of teachers who don't understand the medical analogy. After all, that is what RTI is all about, trying to reach a different percentage of students that the first intervention didn't reach.

Michelle Elochukwu's picture

I am currently a special and regular education teacher. I teach 6th and 7th grade Math, and I love my job. However; I have seen an issue of there being too much time between a students being place in the process of being qualified for special education, or 504. I have several students in limbo, and I feel that while we need the data, the students are falling more and more behind. Do you have any tips on how to keep students on track?

professorbnieh's picture

First of all, as many of the previous posts have mentioned, swimming is a great analogy for RTI. One of the most common complaints from students that I've come across is a disconnect between students and the content they're learning, which speaks to a bigger issue of passive student learning and disengagement. Working in a private school that doesn't officially implement RTI, how would one go about introducing RTI gradually, even if it's just certain practices or concepts? Thanks!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

The basis of RTI is assessment. If you can get your teachers to align their assessments to what is being taught, then that is the first step to implementing RTI. B y alignment I mean each question on a test is correlated to a specific standard. When the test is graded, then the data can be sorted by standards and teachers will know exactly what needs to be retaught. By retaught I don't mean do exactly the same thing that didn't work the first time. The teacher needs to be more creative and address the disconnect that you mentioned to change the ineffective passive learning to active learning.

I hope that helps.
Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I understand your frustration. Unfortunately, you might not like what I am about to tell you. Special education and 504 are often incapable of helping a student with moderate needs. What do I mean by that, well, if a student with moderate to mild learning needs is given the label of special education, or 504, the regular teacher is the one that carries the main burden for helping that child, but now with added paperwork and meetings. Too often being labeled as SE or 504 gives the student and the parent the excuse to not push the child and find a solution to the problem. Yes, a student may receive a few extra minutes attention from an aide in class, but you the teacher are still responsible for differentiating, adjusting, and modifying your curriculum to help that child. To keep them from falling behind, you have to take the initiative and find solutions, which is what you will have to do anyway when they are finally labeled SE or 504.

Good luck!

Ben Johnson
Tyler, Texas

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.