Key issues in RTI implementation

Diverse Elementary ClassResponse to intervention (RTI) is a novel-enough concept that many educators are still busy figuring out what it is and what it is not.

In its shorthand version, RTI is often presented as a three-tier model for identifying unmet educational needs:

  1. Primary prevention–all students receive quality instruction and are screened for progress.
  2. Secondary prevention–at-risk students receive group interventions.
  3. Tertiary prevention–students at high risk academic failure receive individualized interventions.

Although it has its roots in special education (as a result of a provision in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act), evangelists of this latest movement in education often point out that it is not just about special education. They stress that it is both “rti” and “RTI.” In other words, it is both about general education and special education but less about classifying and labeling students as having learning disabilities than it is about focusing on high-quality instruction and interventions that will enable learning by all students. RTI, or rti, is less about finding out what is not working than about finding out what is working.

A recent issue of School Psychology Review flushes out this simple view of RTI and explores the many issues educators face as they shift to this new paradigm.

While most people think of this three-tiered model when they hear about RTI, in one article in the issue (“Service Delivery for Response to Intervention: Core Components and Directions for Future Research”) researchers write that another way to look at RTI is to think of it as having five core elements.

Five core elements of RTI

“The identification of at-risk students or those with specific disabilities via RTI is only an intermediate objective in achieving a greater end goal,” write Todd Glover and James DiPerna. “The greatest potential benefit of an RTI framework is its utility for determining responsiveness to instruction and guiding service delivery for students with unmet needs.”

The five core elements in RTI service delivery are:

  1. Multitier implementation
  2. Student assessment and decision making
  3. Evidence-based interventions
  4. Integrity or fidelity in delivering interventions
  5. Building systems-level capacity for shift to RTI

The last two elements are less often discussed at this stage of RTI implementation than the first three elements, but will play a key part in the success of RTI. Glover and DiPerna write that it is difficult to conclude that a student is not responding to an intervention if it has not been implemented as intended. Integrity or fidelity to appropriate practices in delivering an intervention is itself an important element of RTI service delivery. If there isn’t fidelity to these practices it could undermine the credibility of decision-making about students, they say.

One of the key lessons that has been learned from other service delivery reforms in recent years is the importance of building systems capacity for the changes ahead. Building and sustaining system capacity is accomplished through leadership, creating readiness in the organization, changes in policies and providing necessary support.

Another challenge is that the strongest research support for evidence-based interventions is in the area of reading. More data is needed about the efficacy of individualized interventions in other domains such as math, the researchers say.

Diagnosis of responses

Merely providing more of an intervention may or may not address a student’s lack of response if it is not the right match for the student. In another article in this special issue (“Varying Intervention Delivery in Response to Intervention: Confronting and Resolving Challenges With Measurement, Instruction, and Intensity”), Edward Daly and his team of researchers write that educators will need to become more adept at diagnosing student response to interventions under RTI.

“A diagnosis of the strength and generality of the response (based on careful measurements) will allow the educator to evaluate the appropriateness of instructional efforts and perhaps understand why the student is or is not pressing,” the researchers write.

One framework for diagnosing response and for guiding choice of intervention for each stage of student response is the Instructional Hierarchy developed by some of the same researchers. According to this hierarchy, learners progress through three stages as they become proficient with skills: acquisition, fluency and generalization. Educators need to become more sophisticated in evaluating and enhancing student response to instruction or intervention.

In building fluency in reading, for example, practice alone may be effective for students with higher fluency and lower error rates, but for students with lower fluency and higher error rates practice may need to be combined with performance feedback and reinforcement with rewards. When students have achieved fluency and can read words on flashcards, the focus moves to generalization tasks such as asking the child to recognize the words in phrases or sentences.

Another concept educators can use in enhancing student response is “stimulus control”. By improving the quality of practice time and improving the quality of instructional materials, educators can help increase the effect of an intervention.

RTI and special education

“What is unique about RTI is that educational need is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for SLD (specific learning disability) identification. Students also must not be responding to high-quality general education instruction (i.e., receiving educational benefit),” writes Mark Shinn in School Psychology Review (“Identifying Students at Risk, Monitoring Performance, and Determining Eligibility Within Response to Intervention: Research one Educational Need and Benefit from Academic Intervention.”)

In this dual-discrepancy approach for identifying students for special education, students may be in the 5th or 10th percentile compared with peers but may not be eligible for services if they are progressing satisfactorily with general education instruction, Shinn writes.

Curriculum-based measures provide a useful and appropriate way to monitor progress when measuring a student’s response to intervention as part of an eligibility process for learning disabilities. First of all, they can supply a local norm. The use of the same monitoring tool before and after special education placement provides continuous data and makes it easier for educators and parents to understand the student’s progress.

He emphasizes the importance of goal setting, sensitivity to improvement, and reliability of judgments in progress monitoring and notes that there is a limited amount of pre-service and in-service training for teachers in this area. A whole other unexplored issue, he writes, is how parents will view adequate progress.

“Service Delivery for Response to Intervention: Core Components and Directions for Future Research,” by Todd Glover and James DiPerna, School Psychology Review, 2007, Volume 36, Number 4, pp. 526-540. 

“Varying Intervention Delivery in Response to Intervention: Confronting and Resolving Challenges With Measurement, Instruction, and Intensity,” by Edward Daly III et al., School Psychology Review, 2007, Volume 36, Number 4, pp. 562-581. 

“Identifying Students at Risk, Monitoring Performance, and Determining Eligibility Within Response to Intervention: Research one Educational Need and Benefit from Academic Intervention,” by Mark Shinn, School Psychology Review, 2007, Volume 36, Number 4, pp. 601-617.

Published in ERN April 2008 Volume 21 Number 4

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