George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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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Mrs. Harman's picture
Mrs. Harman
5th grade teacher from CA

I work in a title 1 school where we used this program for two year. After our funding was depleted, the program was stopped. I have students in my class that were supported by RTI last year and desperately need another year of the program. What do I do if the program was phased out and I still want to offer the same kind of in depth interventions?

Bruce Brown's picture
Bruce Brown
Owner, e Skills Learning

I developed a manipulative program TIERS for Early Reading Intervention. Schools use their Title I monies or other sources to purchase the original program. We train a series of para professionals and volunteers on the use of the program in a Literacy Lab. Going forward, the program is less dependent on funding. One coordinator with a series of volunteers can run a successful literacy lab.

April's picture
2nd grade teacher from MN

Our district is supposed to be using the RTI model for catching those "struggling" readers. We have heard the term RTI over and over, though no proper training has been implemented. I can see this as an effective approach to helping many of the low level learners. Having paraprofessionals work with the Tier 2 students could help. In an ideal situation, districts could hire teachers who are just working with those Tier 3 students for in depth, explicit instruction. Everything comes down to time. In an RTI classroom, when do you find time to actually work with your students daily? I feel like anytime I would be able to work with my tier 3 students, they would be missing out on something else important-- any our staff is very limited. Is it possible for the classroom teacher to successfully use the RTI model without extra hands in the classroom?

Jenny's picture

My school has adopted the RTI model, and I can see some positive effects from this adoption. However, I think there are still many of my colleagues that are confused about what it is meant to do. This is not for lack of training or coaching, but merely by the fact that these trainings are not relatable to actual events in the building. For example, as a staff we tried to come up with bottom line behaviors, but there were too many discrepancies. I was really caught by the title of this blog, because it is the truth. It is the people, not the program, that are effective. The programs created by professionals are great in theory, but there needs to be room for individuality based on a school's dynamics, and this includes their staff. In order for a "program" to work it takes the entire staff, the people.

Jaime0019's picture

My district uses the RTI model for instruction. Our tier 2 students receive interventions from the classroom teacher while they are in learning centers. While we are working in learning centers I group the students according to their strengths and weaknesses. For reading my Tier 3 students are pulled out by the academic support teacher for small group instruction. They do not get one on one targeted interventions, that I know of, but generally the students that go out usually struggle with the same skills. They track their progress with the EasyCBM program. Data points and benchmarks are done within this program. The academic support teacher's data is linked to the classroom teachers so we can see the results. For Math, I have to do all the interventions. It is suppose to be done by a paraprofessional interventionist but due to scheduling, she does not work with my kids during Math. I do my interventions during learning centers. There are many aspects that I like about the RTI program but I still think it could be improved due to the fact that we as teachers can only do so much in the classroom in large groups without any assistance.

Jaime0019's picture

We have found that the Project Read Program has made a tremendous impact on our struggling learners in ELA.

Melissa Kaufman's picture

We have a similarly tiered program with our English/language arts (ELA) classes at my middle school. We don't call it RTI, but we group our students into tiers. Tier 1 students receive the regular ELA curriculum, and during our "intervention" time (which we call Academic Excellence), they get to participate in an enrichment class. Tier 2 students also receive the regular ELA curriculum, but during intervention time, they receive a 2nd reading/ELA skills class. Tier 3 students receive a modified curriculum/reading program during their ELA class and also receive more reading skills during the intervention time. We're hoping to see tremendous growth with this program, although it is only our first year using it.

Melissa Kaufman's picture

How do you structure your learning centers? Are students grouped by ability based on the data from the EasyCBM program? I use centers in my classroom, and we group our students by ability. I only teach reading though- I don't know if I could figure out groups and schedules for multiple subjects. It makes me glad I'm a middle school teacher!

Melissa Kaufman's picture

Do you think that using the CCSS can be beneficial for an RTI program? I think that you would have to adapt the CCSS to meet the needs of your tiered students. Not all students are on grade level, and they might have to have work modified or scaffolded so students can meet the standards. Has anyone run into this problem when using RTI and CCSS? (Especially ELA)

kimberlyhong's picture

Hi Melissa,

It sounds like the program your school implements is very similar to the RTI model. Considering that you have used this resource for about a year now, what are some of the changes that you have seen in the growth of your students and teachers who implement it?

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