Education Trends

Intervention for Failing Students: What Matters Most?

April 8, 2011

A recent survey found that a good number of teachers are concerned about resources -- or a lack of -- for struggling students and those with diverse learning needs. The survey got me thinking about a popular model being used in schools today to support students who are failing. It's called Response to Intervention, or RTI.

In my conversations with educators, RTI seems to be either a smashing success or a haphazard flop. Further investigation led me to this discussion in an Edutopia Group where I read teachers describe more of the RTI "hit or miss" school scenarios.

One Intervention Model

So what can make an intervention model, like RTI, successful? Before we go there, let's start with a definition. This may be an oversimplified explanation, so apologies, but I'm a big fan of keeping it simple:

RTI is a tiered-model approach for supporting struggling students and identifying possible learning and behavior needs. Here are the three tiers:

  • All students receive high-quality, instruction. This instruction is research-based and includes differentiation (tier one).
  • Then, students who are not progressing adequately in the regular, high-quality classroom are provided with some type of intervention -- an additional, smaller math or reading class, for example (tier two).
  • If a student is still struggling, then he receives one-on-one targeted intervention that speaks to his specific skill deficits (tier three).

If desired results do not occur, a formal evaluation and data from tier one, two, and three are used to determine any eligibility for special education services.

On paper, RTI is a pro-active intervention model (not a program) that offers targeted academic support to struggling students. It also curtails the practice of too many students being inappropriately referred to special education. A win-win situation, it seems. But, as many teachers will tell you, how it is rolled out is where it can get sticky.

And I agree, when Something New comes to a school, so often the devil is in fact in the details. But I'd like to take it a step further by saying, as are the angels in the implementation. Those angels are teachers and students. To start with, schools with successful intervention systems in place include teachers fully and from Day One in the decision-making process.

A Closer Look

At one public middle school, the intervention coordinator invited a teacher from each grade level to attend the RTI trainings with her. The teachers came back and shared the information (not the coordinator) with their colleagues, serving as their guides and leaders.

The coordinator also said it was important to keep the teachers from feeling overwhelmed along the way. That meant from the beginning, she involved herself completely in supporting teachers in providing quality instruction (tier one). She'd help wherever needed -- planning and co-teaching a lesson, having a discussion with a misbehaving student, or even by making photocopies.

Teachers need opportunities to sit down with their coordinator and all together look at the student data. And not just the standardized test but other data -- grades, teacher reports, and student work -- to determine the students who need additional support, and what exactly they need. At the middle school mentioned, with the teachers at the table, supplemental English and math classes were then developed for the students determined to be in need.

Knowing that the teachers who were going to teach the supplemental classes were the most qualified to develop the curriculum, the middle school coordinator advocated for the school to give the teachers the time, resources, and a place to work together.

In this situation, the coordinator functioned more as facilitator, understanding that success meant focusing on the people by first identifying students and their specific needs, then giving teachers the helm in developing strategic, quality instruction. Sadly, when it comes to schools and academic intervention, all too often the focus becomes a program. I'd like to issue a brief warning at this time: Many for-profit companies are out there selling schools "the fix it all" curriculum package. Insist that your school do plenty of research before purchasing anything.

Keeping Kids in Mind

Students need to have a stake in what they are learning. When visiting classrooms, I know kids have buy in when they say things like, our work, our ideas, our books. Here's a few ways to encourage that in students who are receiving intervention support:

Arrange a one-on-one with a child that includes reasons, rationale, and time for questions prior to the changing a his/her schedule. Don't let your school do the ol' schedule-change blitz where, for example, without warning, a child's art class is replaced abruptly with a reading class. An upset and confused child does not make for a willing learner. And they deserve better than this.

Propose that your school avoid using words like "intervention" or "remediation" when naming the supplemental classes. Go for something positive like, Math or Literacy Academy. Students already know the reasons for the class, and they certainly don't need a constant reminder with some humiliating title.

Advocate for field trips for the students who are in intervention. They can be to a local colleges, museums, or a public library.

In a Nutshell

It's impossible to successfully move a large number of students at a school out of failure without giving teachers a voice in the intervention plan or model. Who are the experts that spend hours and hours with the specific clientele of students at a school? Teachers. In my years in this field, time and time again, I sadly see exclusion of teachers -- and students -- in big curricular decisions.

So, what's the moral here? Our schools need to stop putting so much faith in things (a process, model, or program), and start having a lot more faith in people.

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