By Dr. Patti Ralabate
NEA Senior Policy Analyst on Special and Gifted Education
Those of us who've been engaged in the education profession long enough have seen many "hot" topics come and go like fashion fads, without seeing much fundamental change. But once in a while an initiative surfaces that is transformative in nature -- Response to Intervention (RTI) is surely one.
How can I make such a broad statement? Every day I talk with educators across the country who share how difficult it is to meet the needs of growing diversity in their classrooms while budgets are shrinking, resources are diminishing, and demand for higher achievement is increasing. All of the students who are struggling are not likely to qualify for special education services -- which is sometimes the only way to provide extra academic or behavioral support in many districts. Effectively implemented, RTI offers support to students who need it by focusing assistance on them without labeling or putting them through a complicated process. Educators who have been fortunate to work in districts and states that are using a well-designed RTI approach are excited about how it helps them address the needs of students who are having difficulty. They are delighted to see the system working for those students who need it most.
The National Education Association (NEA) views RTI as a general education initiative, even though it derives its impetus from the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Yes, you can use RTI data to identify students who need to be considered for special education services. RTI data added to other diagnostic information helps define a student’s strengths and needs and clarify whether a learning disability may be affecting his or her progress. However, if RTI was only identified as a framework that helped students with disabilities, its impact would be extremely limited.
When implemented well, RTI can enhance how you teach all students. By viewing RTI as a whole-school or whole-district approach that involves multiple tiers of increasing supports and interventions, teachers continuously assess how students are doing and provide assistance as soon as it's needed. RTI can be viewed as education's "triage approach." Students don't fall further behind or fall through the cracks. They get immediate access to small-group instruction targeted to whatever gap appears without being isolated from ongoing classroom instruction. And, once those students are "caught up" and no longer in need of extra support, that extra support is available to other students who might need it. No labels. No long process.
That's a powerful change in how we address student needs. But that's not what makes RTI transformational in my mind. To implement RTI well, schools and districts need to evaluate how they are teaching the general education curriculum to all students. Exemplary school leadership can use this opportunity to completely assess the goals, curriculum, and instructional practices used in all classrooms for all students. In order to do this, a team of classroom teachers and specialists should systematically, grade by grade, analyze whether the curriculum and instructional methodologies are research-based and effective. Do all students have access to an engaging learning environment? Do the curriculum materials provide multiple ways to present information? Do they respond to the cultural diversity of our students? Are there built-in adaptations that allow teachers and students flexibility within defined student performance goals and expectations? Do classroom teachers know how to assess student performance and regularly monitor progress? Are there universal screening tools available to help identify quickly which students may be falling behind?
If schools or districts skip this step and just jump to what interventions can be provided to students who are struggling, they miss a critical opportunity. By enriching the general education curriculum and instruction using a team approach, educators within a school or district enhance their own practice at every level. The focus changes from defining student deficiencies to determining how to make the whole system as effective as possible. In other words, instead of asking "What's wrong with this student?" we ask "How can we support the learning of all students, no matter what barriers may exist for them?" This is why I feel RTI is transformative when implemented effectively.
What do you think? Do you see the potential for fundamental change that RTI can provide? Have you experienced it? What makes it happen?