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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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?

Ann Duckworth's picture
Ann Duckworth
I am a teacher who loves to help students continually improve their lives

Very sadly our in teaching techniques and yes, even our intervention techniques are still based on the false genetic models or just teaching from the outside. The lag in student learning begins very early from environmental lack of preparedness for school along with various home circumstances, fears, and other anxieties so prominent in today's working class societies. We cannot provide everyone with a nice stable environment, butt--- we can begin providing many more environmental tools and longer-term hope for change by removing our false genetic models from our schools. The myth that says "students are just naturally good at this and bad at that" is a simple way of spouting Gardner's multiple intelligence model. For those students who are failing, the teachers then offer up Galton's admonishment of simply more effort, which hurts more so mental reward received for mental work expended - or motivation in mental areas.
We need to understand and become much more professional and insightful into how we learn and how our individual environments greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and our mental health, -which we are creating more drug/alcohol abuse, and suicide by teaching permanence in ability to our students.
To understand my idea we must see all of us as equal, aside from organic damage to the mind. We also "must remove our inaccurate and unhelpful definition of stress" which says stress only occurs during some immediate situation or work. We need to see more accurately how our minds have many past, present, future unresolved mental work and very different amounts of support for knowledge, care, and needs that create many "maintained layers of unresolved mental work" or real layers of average stress that take up real mental energy from our present thinking and learning. Each layer leaves us with less mental energy to think, learn, and have motivation to learn. This also affects our mental/emotional health. This is "not just some present situation or work". Physical work or old mental work is not stress, for it is using energy but not creating new mental work or stress. This energy is soon recovered with "no mental conflicts". That wrong definition is incorrect and not useful for understanding and improving our lives. I see our average stress as many layers of conscious and subconscious, mental work from our past, present, future -experiences, fears, plans, needs, circumstances, weights and values we apply to self/others/society; and conscience, care for others (lack of which, actually creates fewer layers of mental work): anything our minds continually hold on from areas of our life as unresolved mental work to be resolved.
The amount of those layers is different for all of us and takes away real mental energy depending upon "our individual environments" and weights and values we have learned to place in our lives. As we go down the ladder, the isolation from knowledge and skills along with higher layers of average stress create more dependency on more basic work and values. This creates many more areas of completely new mental work for learning many academic skills. There is also much more experience with problems, circumstances, and values that have been created from much more fear, anxiety, and immediate needs of family, friends, and others around them. This creates many more slowly, crystallizing values, which slowly become for them a set method of functioning using the much higher average layers they have and still experience each day. This creates many repeated SD's for memories of failure, fear, and anxiety for many more areas at home, in school, and in the neighborhood. Note, the lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the higher and more constant those layers become over time and set in place, which leads to more failure and giving up early in school. So, it is not about genetics but the result of many essential and "non-essential layers of unresolved mental conflicts" that take up real mental energy forcing those students and adults to work harder to receive the same mental reward.
So the idea is to more permanently reduce layers of mental work to continually change and improve our lives. You "cannot" use exercise, relaxation, or mediation to permanently reduce average stress. When you use physical exercise, you are temporarily removing the energy dealing with mental work and sending that energy to perform a more physical task. When your body recovers, that energy is then re-fed to your average stress, so nothing is accomplished.
When you use Relaxation in an attempt to reach greater ease or use forms of meditation in an attempt to alter your state of consciousness, you are only temporarily removing the mental energy to your mind. Then when you attempt a new mental work, that energy is then re-fed back to your layers of mental work or average stress you were dealing with in the first place. It is kind of like turning off the faucet to a multi-prong hose or "layers of mental frictions". This works good as long as the faucet is turned off. However, when you attempt a new mental work, it is like turning the faucet back on, so your mental energy is then re-fed not just to that one mental work but to all of the other layers also. As a result, nothing is accomplished from physical exercise, relaxation, or meditation.
The higher those layers in our life from experiences, problems, circumstances, and values we have developed (some faulty) the harder we have to work to receive the same mental reward or learn new and complex things over time that require more mental energy. We cannot provide everyone with a nice stable, knowledge-rich environment. However, we can all learn to begin more permanently reducing non-essential layers of mental work from our life to continually improve our own ability to think, learn, and develop more skills over time. While some of those layers of mental work may be more essential or necessary. This tool provides a way to permanently reduce layers of mental frictions. We need to do more than just solve a mental friction creating a mental work. We need to look at the elements in our lives that create those mental frictions or problems and our values that may be creating those problems. Then, we can begin to slowly understand a little more each day how the elements of our weights and values we are applying in our lives, are creating mental frictions as they come up. Then with a small change in a weight or value we are placing on some elements in our lives and developing a mental principle or rule in a certain area of our life we can then resolve and more permanently remove that layer of mental friction. By slowly understanding how layers of mental frictions are created from many areas of our life, we can then learn to approach those elements in our lives more correctly to keep like mental frictions from occurring in the future. This enables "all of us" to more permanently reduce layers of mental frictions that hurt our ability to think and learn. We all fall on a continuum of many layers of mental work, from more substantial layers to very minute layers of mental work that take up real mental energy. All of us have many layers of mental work and values of approaching our lives that may or may not be the most correct for thinking, learning, motivation, and mental health.
Second tool: the myth of hard work is beneficial only when performing old work (skills already mastered), not in performing new mental work (skills in the process of being learned). There are misguided beliefs regarding mental learning when they when comparing mental learning with physical work. As a result, we have false sayings such as "Just believe you can do it." or "Just put your mind to it" and you will succeed. They sound good but still follow the harmful teachings of fixed intelligences.
True academic knowledge and skills accumulate over time through intrinsic reward and enjoying the long-term process of learning. This long-term learning requires more stability, knowledge, and support from others to maintain that learning and motivation to learn. We need to teach our students to slow down when approaching newer mental work even to the point of simply reflecting on the information. As we gain knowledge and experience, our mental frames for that knowledge will grow and form more connections to add more quickly knowledge regarding that newer mental work creating more speed and maintain enjoyment of learning more complex information regarding that material.
As for psychological suffering and escapes: as a person accumulates high, "maintained layers of mental frictions", he begins to experience two bad things; he experiences psychological suffering and his reflection time shortens. His desires, goals, and methods of problem solving become more simplistic, short-term, and less thought-out. The psychological suffering and much shorter reflection time create a powerful need for relief. Persons experiencing this over time will eventually begin to lose feelings of self-worth that can easily create fatalistic violence and suicide as an option for them. This condition makes drug/alcohol abuse, violence, and suicide more appealing in view of the immediate, temporary reward from layers of mental frictions such escapes provide. By helping students and adults maintain lower layers of mental frictions, we can help prevent this psychological suffering and extend reflection time, hope, and create longer-term thinking. This skill can be enhanced with training.
By showing students how their individual environments greatly affect their ability to think, learn, motivation to learn, and grow mentally and emotionally (and not genetics), students will have much more respect and esteem for themselves and for others. We can then, immediately release students and adults from that horrible myth of genetic permanence in ability, which does not recognize any environmental variables continually affecting our lives. This in itself will boost student esteem and feelings of self-worth for all of us. Then by providing students and adults with tools to approach their lives more delicately and differently to continually change and improve their lives over time, students will have a continuous hope of developing in time, many if not all of the qualities they admire in others. Students and adults will then have a continuous hope of changing and becoming newer and better persons with each passing day. This will reduce much hopelessness, many harmful escapes, and other problems created by the terrible teachings of fixed intelligences in school such as dropouts, drug/alcohol abuse, catharsis of violence, and suicide.

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