By Daryl F. Mellard
Center for Research on Learning, University of Kansas
In this posting I’ll describe the conceptual organization of levels of interventions. You may have heard RTI referred to as a “tiered system of instruction,” in which each tier provides increasingly intense services to students. The results of screening and progress monitoring assessments are used to decide students’ appropriate placements among these levels, either to prevent academic or behavioral difficulties or as an intervention framework for students experiencing difficulties.
The whole point of these screening and progress monitoring assessments is to provide an objective, accurate, and reliable framework in which to make student-focused decisions about the appropriateness of the preventative efforts. We use those assessment data to decide if a student’s placement level should be maintained, increased (more intense), or reduced (less intense).
As shown in the figure below, three levels of intervention (primary, secondary, and tertiary levels) are available to support students. These levels reflect the same organizational framework applied in public health and community psychology intervention planning.
While I’m using the generic levels of prevention, some schools have organized the levels so that they include multiple tiers or layers. For example, a school might have two tiers within a level; this would suggest that they offer a similar level of intensity but might have a different organizational schema. One tier might have a standard treatment protocol while the other has a problem-solving protocol – and together they make up a single level of intervention.
At the primary level, all students are provided with high-quality general education instruction and progress is monitored regularly. The focus at this level is on effective core instruction and strategies for all students. So to emphasize, the primary level is for all students. Students at any grade level will receive the core curriculum.
Since the primary level is a common experience for all students, it is clearly the most important foundation to successful RTI implementation. If our primary level curriculum and instructional practices are not meeting the needs of at least 80% of the students, improving this level has to be the focus for professional development, curricular decisions, instructional practices, incentives, resources, budgetary allocation, and other school improvement tools. Accommodations and modifications are implemented as needed in the primary level.
The secondary level applies to some students who demonstrate inadequate responsiveness despite receiving high-quality core instruction at the primary level. These students are given an intervention in addition to their general education instruction, and progress is continually monitored. For many schools, this secondary level will be the “test” of whether or not a student will be responsive to instruction that has proven itself successful.
A small percentage of students do not respond to this secondary intervention and are provided with a more intense intervention at the tertiary level. In some RTI models the tertiary level consists of special education; in others it results in a referral for special education evaluation upon further evidence that the interventions are not effective.
The levels of RTI. The intensity of intervention and frequency of progress monitoring increase as a student moves through the levels. The size of the instructional group decreases, ranging from entire class participation at the primary level to individualized attention at the tertiary level. The placement of special education varies by model.
Several unanswered questions remain regarding tiered interventions at the secondary level, including the proper class size and the frequency and duration of each intervention.
With regard to the class size, most educators would likely agree that as the interventions increase in intensity, the group size should decrease. However, a meta-analysis by Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, and Moody (2000) did not support the belief that individual one-to-one tutoring is far superior to “small group” instruction. Furthermore, Vaughn and Linan-Thompson (2003) found no significant difference in outcome of reading ability between group sizes of 1:1 and 1:3, but both small classes scored higher than a class size of 1:10. Although these studies were conducted at the elementary level, these results may also apply to secondary school students.
Regarding length of intervention, NRCLD recommends for elementary schools that the secondary and tertiary levels of intervention last for 9 to 12 weeks and be repeated as needed (Johnson et al., 2006). Additionally, they recommend three to four intervention sessions per week, each lasting 30 to 60 minutes. Studies of interventions on secondary students may show the need for different lengths/frequencies of interventions.
Some of the organizational issues were addressed in previous postings on this blog. I feel confident that many of the technical issues of RTI implementation can be resolved. My concern, though, is the degree of our willingness to organize a tiered level of increasingly intense services, since these related activities cut across so many of the structures within our schools, e.g., class content, graduation requirements, scheduling, staff responsibilities and skills, space availability, and duration and frequency of classes.