In response to my defenses of teachers and the American public education system, people often ask me, “Mona, so what are we doing to support these struggling students that we hear so much about?”
To this I answer, “RtI!”
All educators should be familiar with the term RtI by now, and I am sure that many parents have also heard it bandied about. Like many of the other education issues that we are focusing on here at Persephone Magazine, RtI is very complex and really deserves more than one post. However, I am going to try my best to condense it down.
RtI stands for Response to Intervention, and it is a government mandate aimed at helping students who are falling behind academically. RtI benefits both regular and special education. It is not solely a special education initiative; it is not simply another way to identify children for special education services. RtI belongs both to regular education and special education and focuses on all struggling students.
In the past, in order for a student to be diagnosed with a learning disability, said student needed to be functioning academically at a significantly lower level than their IQ. This was called the IQ discrepancy model, and I could go on at length about its drawbacks. Basically, a struggling student needed to fail before they would receive extra help (usually administered through the special education department), which gave rise to the nickname: the wait-to-fail model. Furthermore, under the IQ discrepancy model, there was a over-representation of minority students in special education.
Response to Intervention seeks to change this wait-to-fail model of service.
The philosophy behind RtI is to measure and respond to students’ outcomes throughout the year. RtI is made up of levels, or tiers, and all students begin in tier 1, which is the basic curriculum of the school. For about 80% of students, this basic curriculum should be enough in order for them to excel. However, for the other 20%, more intensive interventions are needed. 15% of students need tier 2 interventions, which are usually implemented in the classroom (however, they can be pull-out) and are not considered special education interventions. The remaining 5% of students will need tier 3 interventions, the most intensive. These interventions can be special education interventions but are not inherently so.
One of the best aspects of RtI is the fact that it helps out the “slow learner” that was not serviced by special education. Historically, these children were not considered to have a severe enough problem to warrant special education services and were then left to languish in the classroom trying to learn with all the other students and falling further and further behind. RtI identifies these children via universal screening assessments done three times a year. From the results of the universal screening, schools can identify those students who scored the lowest and decide, “Is there a problem warranting intervention?” and, “Is the core instruction effective?” If the answer to the first is yes, an intervention can be implemented. If for many students the answer to latter is no, the core instruction should be changed. Change happens right away, unlike the long periods of waiting for testing to be done, results to be computed, and meetings to be scheduled under the old model.
When implementing interventions in the classroom, teachers have to be flexible. Another reading group may need to be added, or a teacher may need to meet with some children more often. In the end, those 15% of students in tier 2 interventions are the responsibility of the teacher. However, the teachers have the vast resources of the school at large and the service team* when looking for ideas and research-based interventions on which to work with the students.
In many cases, only when a child is not responding to interventions (or responding at a very slow rate) will that child be considered for special education services.
Now, I know that I am going to get a lot of flack (particularly from current teachers) regarding my defense of RtI. Like so many other unfunded mandates, RtI is great in theory but lacks in logistical follow through. It has been left up to individual states, school districts, and even schools to create and implement their own versions of RtI. Some schools have taken the mandate and run with it! Others have avoided it and are now scrambling to put something together. Additionally, many schools are struggling with finding (and paying for) quality, research-based interventions.
I contend though, if implemented correctly, Response to Intervention can help teachers and schools reach all learners. One of the best ways to explain why the RtI is the best model for helping children is by stressing how the old model focused on the process, whereas RTI focuses on outcomes. By using the Response to Intervention model, all children will receive the help they need and we will leave no child behind.
*A traditional service team is made up of representatives from all areas of the school who meet regularly to brainstorm interventions and help teachers with struggling students. An example would be: a primary teacher, an intermediate teacher, an ELL teacher, a special education teacher, the school psychologist, and the principal.