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October 1, 2010
Vol. 68
No. 2

Doing RTI Right

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A school district in Texas figures out what it takes to make RTI work districtwide.

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Classroom Management
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In education circles, Response to Intervention (RTI) is everywhere, like iPhones. Google it, and you can expect at least 520,000 hits. Amazingly, it gets even more hits than differentiated instruction does. You can't attend an education conference without at least one speaker discussing the structure and virtues of the RTI pyramid.
To understand and accept that educators must close achievement gaps for all students is to understand and accept the ideology of the pyramid. So why doesn't every district implement RTI?
It turns out that systemic change is anything but simple, as we in the Coppell Independent School District in Texas found out. Located just north of Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport, Coppell is a highly progressive suburban school district serving 10,000 students. The district has nine elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools. Seven of our schools are Title I campuses.
During the first four years that our district implemented a comprehensive and ambitious RTI process, we identified struggling students and developed intervention plans designed to close learning gaps. We created progress-monitoring tools, new committees, and staff development that touted the benefits of the pyramid of tiered instruction. We put in long hours during those first four years—but without the expected results.

What Got in the Way

Why didn't we get those results? Because we placed too much emphasis on theory and not enough on practical application. We spent too much time focusing on the pyramid of tiered instruction and not enough time working out the details of who was responsible, what interventions we would use, and where we would find the time to implement those interventions. It appeared to the teachers that RTI was more about paperwork than about closing achievement gaps.
We realized that to effect real change, we needed to address four roadblocks.

Roadblock 1: The Student Deficit Model

This model was the first, toughest, and most complex obstacle we faced. When a student struggles with learning, this model points to deficits within the student and focuses attention on fixing the student, instead of considering the quality of instruction. Our district needed to place greater emphasis on what Doug Reeves (2006) calls the two major variables in student achievement: teacher efficacy and curriculum alignment. We had to shift our focus to effective classroom instruction.

Roadblock 2: The Big Handoff

In the past, if a student needed help, the general education teacher tended to hand off the student to a specialized program, such as remedial literacy or special education, transferring the primary teaching responsibility away from the classroom teacher. This transfer of responsibility denied the student access to grade-level curriculum, reduced opportunities for peer-assisted learning, and removed the student from the general education environment where important social learning opportunities occur. This practice isn't equitable and has no place in 21st century education. RTI requires that general education teachers maintain their primary responsibility of providing effective education opportunities to all learners throughout the tiered process. We needed to replace the "big handoff" with the "empathetic helping hand."

Roadblock 3: The Teacher Just Knows

There was an entrenched belief in our district that a teacher's intuition was as reliable as quantitative student data in defining student progress. Intuition, which is often based on qualitative data such as anecdotal notes and classroom observations, should always be a part of the equation. However, qualitative data should not drive instructional decisions. Quantitative data, collected through weekly progress reports, universal screenings, and curriculum benchmarks provide a more accurate picture about what—and how quickly—a student is learning. To overcome this obstacle, we needed to transform our teachers into consumers of quantitative student data through staff development and guided practice.

Roadblock 4: A Pathway to Special Education

The last roadblock in our district was the erroneous belief that RTI is the new pathway to special education. Although a few students move through the tiered process and eventually need a referral for special education services, the goal of RTI is to fill in academic gaps through delivery of effective Tier 1 instruction—not to qualify students for special education.

Addressing the Roadblocks

To address these roadblocks, we developed a plan with three essential components.

1. Realigning the Initiative

  1. High-quality, research-based Tier 1 instruction and interventions,
  2. Universal screening of academics and behavior.
  3. Progress monitoring.
  4. Data collection.
  5. Data-based decision making
  6. Fidelity of implementation.
We added Performance Series, a computer-based growth model assessment program, as a universal screener to identify students at risk of not meeting end-of-year grade-level expectations. We established RTI campus teams to oversee the RTI process to ensure that all decisions were data driven. In addition, we expanded staff development opportunities on effective Tier 1 instruction to include such topics as differentiated instruction, thinking maps, inquiry-based learning, and problem-based learning.

2. Designing an Infrastructure of Support

We created three new staff positions called RTI specialists and placed them on special assignment. The specialists, teachers with expertise in RTI, have become part of the campus staff and spend one day a week at each campus they serve.
In accordance with Andrea Ogonosky's (2008) view of RTI "as a seamless problem-solving process that enhances the learning of all children by using consultation and support among all educators," the specialists worked closely with teams composed of principals, assistant principals, counselors, literacy coaches, and teachers to identify and review current district interventions and assign them to the appropriate tier. For example, effective Tier 1 strategies in reading included literature circles, reader's theater, and in-class free-choice reading. Tier 2 and 3 strategies included independent reading on the student's reading level and using Chipper Chat, a laminated language and articulation game. The RTI specialists also helped teams review universal screening data to identify students who needed instruction on one of the higher tiers.
In addition, the specialists helped review and align progress-monitoring tools. Teachers used end-of-chapter tests and other teacher-created probes to determine student growth, but these had often not been linked to targeted end-of-year growth projections, such as oral reading fluency and math computation, so the data failed to give an accurate account of student progress. After much research, the RTI specialists, along with the district curriculum department, determined that the most effective probes were curriculum-based measurements that are nationally normed and valid, such as Maze reading comprehension probes from Vanderbilt University and math concept and application probes available through Pro-Ed. To ensure fidelity, we provided progress monitoring training sessions districtwide.

3. Changing the Mind-Set

Deeply entrenched beliefs and practices, rooted in a student deficit model, prevented the true spirit of RTI from prevailing. So we moved the oversight and supervision of RTI from the department of special education to the department of curriculum and instruction. This pivotal switch reinforced the idea that RTI applies to all struggling students.

Looking Forward

We're now becoming a district of data-driven decision makers. Teachers plan effective Tier 1 instruction as well as Tier 2 and 3 interventions based on the analysis of student data. Students now receive a more individualized program through differentiated instruction; targeted small-group instruction; and customized, intensive interventions. As a result, the district's performance on the state standardized assessment improved, the state rating of the school increased, and more at-risk students now perform at or above grade level. When special education testing is warranted, we find that our progress monitoring data align with the data collected by our district diagnosticians. Last and most important, the number of special education referrals has declined by 23 percent.
We now understand that Tier 1 instruction is the cornerstone of a successful RTI program. As the quality of delivery of research-based best practice instruction increases, the need for Tier 2 and 3 interventions decreases. Our next step is to create meaningful staff development for all teachers on effective Tier 1 instruction.
We have also begun the difficult task of ensuring equity of interventions and training across the district. We want to ensure that if Read 180, Scholastic's adolescent reading software, or Neufeld Intervention Math Software is available at one campus, it's available on all campuses.
This has been a difficult journey to navigate, filled with emotional roadblocks, unnecessary detours, and pesky potholes. But one essential thing we learned is this: For RTI to succeed, it must begin in the classroom.
References

National Association of State Directors of Special Education. (2008). Response to Intervention: Blueprints for implementation—District level. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Ogonosky, A. (2008). The Response to Intervention handbook: Moving from theory to practice. Austin, TX: Place Park Publications.

Reeves, D. B. (2006). The learning leader: How to focus school improvement for better results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Mechelle Bryson is the director of school improvement for Coppell Independent School District (ISD).

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