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How to Implement Response to Intervention at the Secondary Level

PJ Caposey

Principal of Oregon High School, Oregon, IL
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In the past five years, Response to Intervention (RtI) has become one of the most discussed, researched, and implemented educational improvement programs. The process -- which was originally designed to improve core curriculum and the interventions given to students whose needs were not being met by the core curriculum -- has been transformed into a cookie-cutter three-tier system. Furthermore, this over-simplified approach is now almost universally accepted, as evidenced by the model being displayed on the Pearson Assessment: Welcome to RtI Web page.

While the canned RtI model may correlate to school improvement at the primary and middle levels, it does not do so at the secondary level. Simply implementing RtI, or having designated RtI time, does very little to lead to positive school improvement at the secondary level when it's not implemented appropriately. It is the responsibility of secondary school leaders to make RtI apply to the personality, climate, and the needs of their school. While my sincere belief is that there is no boxed plan, curriculum, or intervention that can (on its own) improve schools, I do believe that identifying and applying principles of successful programs can make a significant impact on students throughout the country.


1. Fix Core Curriculum

In Robert Marzano's What Works in Schools (2000), his research indicates a guaranteed and viable curriculum has the most significant impact on student achievement. Intervention (in terms of RtI) is the specific change in instruction to help meet the needs of a student. Conceptually, this makes this little sense. If the original product was not meeting the needs of the students because it was a poor product, then changing instruction to hope the student returns to receiving the poor instruction does not better the situation. While this sounds ridiculous, it is happening in many schools across America. Textbooks are frequently used as the driving force behind instruction and promote the rote memorization, drill and kill, and lower order thinking skills that dominate high school classrooms throughout the nation. The attempt to implement a new idea or program without fixing the backbone of the school (core curriculum) occurs far too frequently.


How to Implement:  Fix the curriculum. Align the curriculum to standards, maintain high expectations, and monitor it frequently. High school curriculum is far too often driven by content and not skills. The adoption of the core curriculum standards addresses this issue directly, promoting fewer, higher, and clearer standards that call for schools to either adopt new curricula or significantly adapt their current curricula. Educational leaders need to ensure that the curricula taught in their schools are aligned to standards without gaps and redundancies.  

2. Embrace the Team Concept

The teaming and collaborative concepts driving PLC's, and the newest trend, PLN's, is dead-on. Educators are increasingly embracing the concept of team, however, in most secondary schools teams are driven by common subject matter and not common students. This is a positive trend, but it's not the answer. The academy or middle school model for ninth grade students is essential to providing them the best opportunity at high school success.

How to Implement: Department and subject level teams are not enough. Schools teach students, not subjects. Common teachers need to share common students, especially at the ninth grade level. Educational leaders must use creative scheduling to give a ninth grade team common planning time. Even in small high schools a leader has enough flexibility in scheduling to implement something that will truly impact student learning. Team meetings can be effective in a variety of ways, as long as the focus remains on students and learning. For instance, one team meeting can focus on a particular student's social-emotional status, and the next might be a longitudinal data analysis of student achievement. Meetings will always have impact as long as the focus remains on students and not on teachers.

3. Catch Students Before They Fail

As educators, we know (or more importantly, have the ability to know) which students may struggle in high school well before the doors open each fall. It is too late to make the decision to provide intervention or support anytime later than the second semester of a student's 8th grade year. Identified students should receive mentoring and intervention to ease the transition process. Academic interventions should be built into their schedule from Day One on campus. This not only ensures the intervention starts immediately, but potentially saves the student from embarrassment of being moved from an existing course.

How to Implement: As educational leaders, it is our responsibility to build relationships with our feeder schools and identify kids that may not now, but will need our help. This includes leaders providing release time for teachers to meet and the creation of a rubric to guide the selection process. As with all components of a successful secondary RtI process, the rubric needs to address local needs. The rubric we use includes teacher and counselor recommendations focusing on social-emotional issues in conjunction with student achievement and attendance data. Using this simple formula has allowed us to identify the 10 percent of the population that most needs attention. Observing students once they arrive at our site has allowed us to tweak the selection process from year-to-year to best fit our local needs.


4. Forget the Triangle

The RtI model will not maximize its impact for any school that has classified RtI as a triangle-shaped program with pre-determined numbers in each tier (commonly 80/15/5). An effective RtI process can be described as a diamond with locally determined (and frequently changing) numbers in each section. This RtI model allows for schools to provide a change in instruction for all kids whose needs are not met by the core curriculum. RtI should also be viewed as a continuum of services with the goal (using the model below) for all students to be continually moving along the continuum to the right.

How to Implement:  Forget the triangle and find ways to support all learners whose needs are not met by the core curriculum. Focus time and energy on providing enrichment activities to support learners that needs are not satisfied by the core curriculum. Create opportunities that extend the curriculum through local creativity and innovation. Take advantage of local partnerships. Our high school has dual credit agreements with three different institutions and has created independent study courses for approximately 15+ percent of the twelfth grade population. These courses are designed to mutually benefit the student and the school by optimizing their talents in a manner that benefits the school while developing skills that will help them in the future.

5. Social-Emotional Awareness and Support

Is secondary RtI all about the ninth grade? No, but a quality program should divert the majority of their resources to that end.

A typical eleventh grade student with a 2.7 GPA that suddenly begins failing three classes has some outside of school issue impacting his or her performance. It may be divorce, substance abuse, mental health issues, or any other number of factors, but it generally is in the realm of social and emotional health.

Intervention can only be provided, in these cases, if local data is monitored regularly, adequate staffing exists to provide the intervention, and staff communication is outstanding.

How to Implement: We must know, value, and support all learners in our building. We must study our local data, and intervene with as much fervor for a student with a social-emotional issue as we do for a student with an achievement issue.

How have you implemented RtI at the secondary level? Do you have any tips you can share?

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Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Candidate for a PhD in Education Learning Instruction Innovation Lifelong Learner

RTI is a great way to utilize specific data to determine the strengths and weaknesses of students. I work closely with a team of teachers to insure students will get the benefits of uninterrupted classroom instruction. Some students need small group, individual instruction specific to their needs. Small groups provides students a safe and secure environment where questioning and thinking skills can be explored. The big idea is to teach students who need more one on one specific instruction how to analyze the bag of strategic tools and how they can be better Learners.
To say the problem is poor instruction is not understanding the complexity of why students are not learning at the same rate and in the same way.
RTI is helping students own their Learning

Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent's picture
Robin Ruiz- Teacherparent
Candidate for a PhD in Education Learning Instruction Innovation Lifelong Learner

First of all- I have followed a team of about 150 students from 6th grade through 8th grade. I have monitored their data through progress monitoring Discovery testing and their standardized test scores, analyzed each strand where incorrect answers were consistent. Those students who are very close to moving up a level or who show over 200 point gain yearly are targeted. Making a schedule for groups not greater than four or five students at a time using empty classrooms during planning periods, and pulling out the students who are in close proximity of each other so time is not wasted is a plus. I also alternated weeks of math and reading. Finally 20 minutes of RtI with 10 minutes of mobility did not interfere with the classroom instruction as the teAchers have silent reading times built into block scheduling. Providing the students access to small group and individual instruction allows them the opportunity to learn questioning skills and thinking skills in a safe atmosphere.

PJ Caposey's picture
PJ Caposey
Principal of Oregon High School, Oregon, IL

"To say the problem is poor instruction is not understanding the complexity of why students are not learning at the same rate and in the same way."

That was not said anywhere in my article. What I was attempting to articulate is that without a viable curriculum throughout the school RtI is a circular process that does not lead to long-term meaningful academic progress in a building. The first job of leaders when implementing a successful RtI program is to analyze and confirm that the core curriculum in their building is strong.

From what you have said it sounds as though this is not the case in your building. Thus, you have a great thing going in your building -- keep up the good work.

Matt M's picture
Matt M
West Fargo

In West Fargo, we are in the process of building a second high school to keep up with our growing population. Across our school district, we have adopted the response to intervention from the elementary to high school level. This article talks about how to implement in at the high school level. This has become a topic of debate between our current high school and the new high school. Currently, we have PLC's or learning teams, but they are based mainly on content area and departments, not who has the same students. The debate is that while we are in the processing of developing a new high school we should look at changing the implementation of our RTI classes. According to this article, and many of us think that PLC's should change to address students that we have in common not just by department. However, there seems to be quite a bit of resistance at the high school level to adopting this idea. It's done at the middle school levels, but for some reason not at the high school. I guess some us just can't understand why the change would be so difficult or how it could hamper student learning.

Jsmalline's picture

As an Elementary Principal, we did a significant amount of work with teachers to unwrap the CCLS. The more difficult work was having a team of teachers develop a shared understanding of proficient for that standard. This process facilitated focused discussions about the standards that was never done in the past. This work led to a much stronger RtI mindset within the school.
In my new role as a Turnaround Principal, I work mostly with Secondary Principals. As I work in different schools, it has become very clear the misunderstanding of RtI. One issue is the curriculum and the different set of expectations for teacher to teacher in the same grade level and subject area. I would like to know more about the work your teachers did to guarantee a viable curriculum in the many different content areas taught in a high school. Also, what systems have been put in place to monitor the fidelity of the curriculum?

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