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Tiered Instruction and Intervention in a Response-to-Intervention Model


The heart of any Response-to-Intervention (RTI) model lies in the use of tiered instructional processes. Although the assessment components of RTI (universal screening and progress monitoring) are essential elements of implementation, it is the instruction that occurs as a function of the outcomes of the assessments that truly drives the changes we hope to see in students who are identified as being at some level of risk for not meeting academic expectations. Tiered instruction represents a model in which the instruction delivered to students varies on several dimensions that are related to the nature and severity of the student's difficulties.

Typically, RTI models consist of three tiers of instructional processes, although some models discuss an additional fourth tier and other models subdivide the tiers into smaller units. At Tier 1, considered the key component of tiered instruction, all students receive instruction within an evidence-based, scientifically researched core program. Usually, the Tier 1 instructional program is synonymous with the core reading or math curriculum that is typically aligned with state standards. The intent of the core program is the delivery of a high-quality instructional program in reading or math that has established known outcomes that cut across the skill development of the targeted area.

Schools spend significant amounts of time, money, and personnel to make sure that the Tier 1 core program is well chosen from among the many choices available from commercial publishers. The teaching staff must receive sufficient and ongoing professional development to deliver the Tier 1 core instructional program in the way it was designed. The expectation is that if the Tier 1 program is implemented with a high degree of integrity and by highly trained teachers, then most of the students receiving this instruction will show outcomes upon assessment that indicate a level of proficiency that meets minimal benchmarks for performance in the skill area. Many who advocate RTI models indicate that around 75%–80% of children should, theoretically, be expected to reach successful levels of competency through Tier 1 delivery. Although these percentages represent the ideal level of expected outcomes, it may take several years of implementing RTI models to reach such outcome levels in schools with high percentages of students who are struggling.

In many of the schools in which we are working, we see levels of around 50%–70% in the early years of implementing RTI models as being strong signals of overall success. In these schools with high percentages of children not reaching proficiency in Tier 1, schools need to organize the RTI model in a way that allows for tiered instruction to be implemented by the available personnel. An approach to such organization is discussed later in this article.

Although we would like to find responsiveness to the core program at Tier 1 to be sufficient for all children, for some students the level of instruction is not successful in helping them achieve minimal levels of expected competency. All children receive Tier 1 instruction, but those children in need of supplemental intervention receive additional instruction at Tier 2 or Tier 3. Tier 2 consists of children who fall below the expected levels of accomplishment (called benchmarks) and are at some risk for academic failure but who are still above levels considered to indicate a high risk for failure. The needs of these students are identified through the assessment process, and instructional programs are delivered that focus on their specific needs. Instruction is provided in smaller groups than Tier 1 is (which would be all children in a teacher's classroom).

Typically, depending on the model of RTI being used, small groups consist of anywhere from about 5 to 8 children. Tier 3 consists of children who are considered to be at high risk for failure and, if not responsive, are considered to be candidates for identification as having special education needs. The groups of students at Tier 3 are of much smaller sizes, ranging from 3 to 5 children, with some models using one-to-one instruction. In such models where one-to-one instruction is used, Tier 3 is usually considered special education; however, in many models it is viewed as a tier that includes children who are not identified as being in need of special education but whose needs are at the intensive level.

Differentiating Tiers 2 and 3

Tiers of instruction can be differentiated on several dimensions. One dimension is the intensity of the instruction. Because students at Tier 2 are below expected benchmarks for their grade but have less intensive needs than those at Tier 3, interventions at Tier 2 involve instructional programs that are aimed at a level of skill development considered to be further along the continuum of skill acquisition than that seen at Tier 3. For example, a 2nd grade student who has been placed into Tier 2 for reading may already have well-developed skills in phonics and alphabetic principles underlying the reading process but may be struggling with the development of fluency in reading connected text. By contrast, a similar 2nd grade student identified as being at high risk and placed into Tier 3 may lack the more foundational skills of decoding and need intensive work on phonics. Clearly, these two tiers are being differentiated based on the nature of the instructional program, which is directly matched to the student's level of identified risk.

Another dimension may be the frequency of the delivery of the tiered instruction. In some models of RTI, the same intervention may be used for students at Tiers 2 and 3, but the difference is the amount of time that the student spends within the tiered instruction. In one model, students may spend 30 minutes per day, three days per week with a particular intervention focused on enhancing vocabulary development, while those students at Tier 3 spend 30 minutes per day, five days per week in the same intervention.

Some models of RTI combine both the intensity and quantity of supplemental instruction. In these models, students in Tier 2 may receive this additional instruction 30 minutes per day for 5 days per week, while those in Tier 3 receive the instruction 45 minutes per day, five days per week, plus an additional 60 minutes each week. RTI has the flexibility that allows schools to define the nature of the tiered instruction along one or a combination of these dimensions.

Another key differentiation between the tiers is the level of progress monitoring that is used at each tier. Given that progress monitoring is being used to assess the students' response to instruction, students at Tier 2 typically receive progress monitoring less frequently than those at Tier 3. In some models the frequency of progress monitoring is defined as weekly or every other week for Tier 2 and twice a week for Tier 3. Again, RTI has the flexibility of allowing the school to establish the level of progress monitoring that is both feasible, given the instructional demands of the classroom, and meaningful in obtaining knowledge of a student's response to instruction.

Where Does Special Education Fit In?

How special education fits into a tiered instructional model is always a question that occurs within RTI models. Different models have placed special education in different ways within the process. In some models, Tier 3 is defined as special education. This level of intensity is typically for children who have not been responsive to the Tier 2 level of instruction and, therefore, are considered in need of more individualized instructional delivery consistent with individualized education programs (IEPs). Some RTI models contain three tiers of instructional intensity, as described above, prior to special education, where special education is viewed as "Tier 4." In other models, however, special education is not considered a separate tier. Instead, special education is viewed as a service delivery model that is integrated within the tier of instruction matched to the student's skill needs (see Figure 1 below).

When an RTI model is introduced to a school, one must consider how to fit those already-identified students with IEPs into the model. Although the large majority of identified students in these models are placed at Tier 3 (that is why they are identified as in need of special education), a percentage of these students may be found to have skill deficits more consistent with those nonidentified students placed at Tier 2. The effectiveness of special education for these students would naturally result in some students having skills that are more consistent with those in the "some-risk" category than those at high risk. Of course, identified special education students found to have skills consistent with students placed into Tier 1 should be considered for possible declassification. Indeed, RTI offers a clear mechanism for students to move out of special education classification based on the data reflecting levels of skill acquisition. Some individuals may question the difference between a student at Tier 3 who is not identified and an identified special education student who is at Tier 3.

The key differences lie in the development of an IEP for the identified students that will bring multiple accommodations across many parts of the student's school life, beyond the instructional process taking place at any level of the tiered model. In addition, these students are afforded the legal protections and accountability that are required by law.

Figure 1: Organizing the School for Tiered Instruction

sugai_pyramid
The key to providing tiered instruction lies in the establishment of a workable schedule that maximizes school personnel resources and a high degree of collaboration among all members of the teaching force of a school. We have found that in many schools using RTI models, the assignment of specific blocks of time each day devoted to tiered instruction proves to be a workable mechanism for organization. Schools use various terms for the tiered instructional block such as "tier time," "power hour," or "skill groups." For instance, in the school schedule for implementing RTI for reading only in an elementary school, depicted in Figure 2 below, a block of 30 minutes identified as "Tier time" (turquoise) is scheduled each day for each grade, including additional periods labeled "X-time" used for students at Tier 3 only.

The schedule assigns specific teachers to each block, with general education teachers assigned mostly to Tier 1 (green), reading specialists typically assigned to Tier 2 (yellow) and Tier 3 (red), and special education teachers assigned to Tier 3. In addition, general education teachers trained on the delivery of specific instructional programs are also periodically assigned to Tier 2.

A somewhat unique aspect of this particular model is the fact that during "tier time," those students currently at benchmark are grouped together and teachers design instructional lessons that are viewed as enrichment to the core reading program. These groups are usually as large as or larger than the regular classroom size and can range up to 20 students. Teachers are encouraged to be creative and add dimensions of instructional lessons that are standards aligned to the core curriculum but may go beyond the existing required 90 minutes of core reading instruction delivered to all students.

For example, in this school one 4th grade teacher during a unit in the core reading program devoted to poetry had students learning how to write haikus, something not included within the core reading program but clearly aligned to the reading standards for that grade. Another 2nd grade teacher chose to use reader's theater, a well known intervention program in which students "rehearse" the presentation of reading material to their classmates in a play or dialogue format, to increase the development of fluency. By dividing the entire grade into tiered instruction, the model provides to students who are already achieving at benchmark levels opportunities for enrichment that go beyond the core instructional program. Another aspect of the aforementioned school schedule, as illustrated in Figure 2, was the inclusion of assigned times each week when progress-monitoring data (grey) would be collected on students in Tiers 2 and 3.


Figure 2: Sample School Schedule Using a Daily Time Block for Tiered Instruction

MONDAY

TUESDAY

WEDNESDAY

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

9:00 - 9:30

TIER Time
Grade 4

TIER 1
Gen Ed T1/
Gen Ed T2

TIER 2 
Rdg Spec 1/Interv 1

TIER 3
Redg Sp 2/SpEd 1

Tier 3 Gr. 5
X-time - Sp Ed

9:30 - 10:00

TIER Time 
Grade 1

TIER 1
Gen Ed T3/
Gen Ed T4

TIER 2   
Rdg Spec 1/Interv 2

TIER 3
SpEd 1/Rdg Spec 2

TIER Time
Grade 1

10:00-10:15

TIER Time
Grade 3

TIER 1
Gen Ed T5/Gen Ed T6

TIER 2
Gen Ed T6/Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3
SpEd 1
Grade 3

TIER 3
Grade3

10:15-10:30

TIER Time
Grade 2

TIER 1
Gen Ed T7/Gen Ed T8

TIER 2
Rdg Spec 1/Gen Ed T9

TIER 3
SpEd 2/
Rdg Spec 2

TIER Time
Grade 2

10:30-11:00

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

 

 

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

Tier 3 Gr. 6
X-time –
Rdg Spec 2

11:00-11:30

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

 

 

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

TIER Time
Grade 4

11:30-12:00

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

 

 

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

12:00-12:30

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

 

 

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

12:30 - 1:00

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

TIER 3 Gr. 4
X-time

Rdg Spec 1/
Rdg Spec 2

TIER 3 Gr. 4
X-time 

Rdg Spec 1/
Rdg Spec 2

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

1:00 - 1:30

Core Team/
Progress Monitoring

 

 

Progress Monitoring
TIER 3

1:30 - 2:00

TIER Time
Grade 5

TIER Time
Grade K

TIER 1
Gen Ed T10/
Gen Ed T11

TIER 1
Gen Ed T12/
Gen Ed T13

TIER 2
Rdg Spec 1

TIER 2
Rdg Spec 2

TIER 3
Rdg Spec 2

TIER 3
Rdg Spec 1

TIER Time
Grade 5

TIER Time
Grade K

2:30 - 2:30

TIER 3 Gr.2
X-time
Rdg Spec 2/SpEd 2

 

TIER 3 Gr.2
X-time
Rdg Spec 2 /
SpEd 2

TIER 3 Gr.1
X-time
Rdg Spec 2/
SpEd 2

TIER 3 Gr.1
X-time
Rdg Spec 2/
SpEd 2

2:30 - 2:45

TIER Time
Grade 6

TIER 1
Gen Ed T 14/ Gen Ed T 15

TIER 2
Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3 
Rdg Spec 2

TIER 3 
Grade 6

2:45 - 3:00

TIER 3 Gr.3
X-time Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3 Gr. 3
X-time
Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3 Gr.3
X-time
Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3 Gr.3
X-time
Rdg Spec 1

TIER 3 
Grade 6


Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
TIER Time Progress Monitoring

"All" (Not "My") Students

One of the key aspects of tiered instruction is the importance of collaboration across all education professionals in the building. During tier time, general education, remedial education, and special education teachers, intervention specialists, and any paraprofessionals must be mixed together in a way that is not typical of most school structures. The beauty of this approach is evident when teachers engage in discussions about how students are performing during tier time.

Imagine this situation: You are a general education 2nd grade teacher with 20 students in your classroom. During tier time, you teach a Tier 1 (benchmark) group of 20 students that includes 13 of your students but seven coming from two other teachers. Of your 20 students, four go to Mrs. Petrie (the reading specialist) along with three others from another second grade teacher for Tier 2 instruction for students needing fluency building, two go to Mrs. Robb (the intervention specialist) plus three others from the third 2nd grade teacher for students needing work in comprehension strategy development, and one goes to Mr. Deitz (the special education teacher) plus two other students across teachers. Mr. Dietz, a Tier 3 instructor during tier time, is working on basic foundational skills in decoding.

During a grade level team meeting held monthly, all teachers sit together to share data and discuss the progress of students. When you discuss your students, the other two 2nd grade teachers are of course very interested in how "their" students are doing during your benchmark instructional group. When Mrs. Petrie discusses how the students are doing in her fluency building Tier 2 instructional group, you of course are very interested since you have these students during the core reading instructional period. Likewise, Mrs. Petrie wants to know how well the instruction she is delivering during tier time is impacting the student's performance during core reading instruction. The bottom line is that suddenly conversations are about "all" students, and the "my students" terminology so common to schools disappears from the discussion.

Another advantage of this particular organizational framework is that many students in need of tiered instruction can be accommodated under such a structure. Because personnel resources are always limited in schools, using the concept of a blocked set of time in the schedule for tiered instruction across all groups allows for the opportunity to provide Tier 2 and Tier 3 instruction in schools where the level of Tier 1 performance has not yet reached the desired 75%–85% level as discussed previously.

Movement Between Tiers

As indicated above, another key to an RTI model is the need for periodic meetings when teachers, along with other school professionals, review the progress of students receiving supplemental instruction. The frequency of these meetings varies by the context of the school's model, but they should occur no less than every six weeks. At these meetings, the students' progress-monitoring data are examined, along with additional data sources that can assist in the decision-making process. Student progress is compared against the rate of progress expected of typically performing students at the same grade level, and how well a student is progressing over time is examined against his or her past performance.

Teams of teachers, assisted by those who are familiar with data interpretation, make judgments about whether students are making sufficient progress to remain in their current tiered instruction, should be moved to a different tier, or whether the instructional process being used within the tiered instruction is well matched to the student's current skill needs. For example, a student may be assigned to a Tier 2 instructional process focused primarily on fluency building in reading. When the team meets, they note that the student's progress-monitoring data shows that the student is now reading at levels above the benchmark for end-of-year performance for that grade.

However, when looking at the student's development as indicated by data reflecting gains in reading comprehension, it is found that the student's skills in comprehension strategy development is lacking. The team may elect to keep the student in Tier 2 instruction but move the student to the group emphasizing comprehension strategy development while continuing to monitor the student's performance. Likewise, in another case a student showing strong gains in all reading skills may be recommended to be moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1 and assigned to a benchmark group.

Finally, the team may look at data from a student at Tier 3 who is still not making sufficient progress to reach benchmark goals for the end of the year and recommend that the student be considered to be evaluated for eligibility for special education. Clearly, movement between tiers is an important decision very much reflecting the impact of the tiered instructional process.

Challenges to Tiered Intervention—Questions to be Answered

RTI presents many questions to schools. Perhaps the largest question is related to time. How do schools find the time for the increased collaboration across school professionals and the time for data analysis, preparing data materials for presentation to teachers, and so forth required by a tiered model of instruction? In the early stages of an RTI model, all of these issues can loom so large as to make the prospects for going forward seem quite remote. Often, school personnel ask "what do I have to give up in such a model?" More specifically, the question is asked that "if I teach more in the area of reading or math, do I now need to sacrifice other areas of content-based instruction such as science and social studies?" These are real problems that schools must face and address. Certainly, as states add new areas of high stakes assessment to the already strong demands for development in basic areas of reading and math, the opportunities to provide supplemental instruction are squeezed thinner and thinner. At the same time, schools are being asked to prioritize their instructional delivery requirements. If students do not have sufficient literacy development, they are unlikely to be successful in any of the content reading areas such as science and social studies. If students do not have foundational skills in mathematics, success in higher level math such as problem solving is unlikely.

The reality is that devoting the extra time to the development of reading and math in earlier grades will most certainly limit the development of larger, more difficult problems in content area instruction later in children's school lives. Time is clearly a finite quantity in schools, and one must choose wisely on how best to invest the time available. Using a model in which tiered instruction is given defined parameters, such as in the example provided, is a good start in the effort to ensure that tiered instruction becomes integrated as a regular part of the school schedule.

A second major challenge is the shifting role of school personnel. Every school using a tiered instructional model must have a "data specialist." This person is responsible for managing, maintaining, and facilitating the interpretation of the data sources being used for decision making. The specific individual assigned this role needs to be someone who really enjoys working the data and finds that aspect of the RTI process exciting. A natural for this position might be the school psychologist, whose professional training makes him or her well suited to working with, interpreting, and understanding data. However, in some of the schools we have worked with the best person for this role was someone who had a natural enjoyment for data analysis—the high school baseball coach, who also happened to be a special education teacher! Again, the critical component of finding a data specialist is that schools must recognize the important role that this person plays in the RTI process, that this role will take time, and that the time it takes will be time no longer available for other regularly assigned duties. Becoming the data analysis specialist for the school cannot be viewed as something "piled on" to already existing roles and assignments.

Another aspect of role definition that school personnel find challenging is the changing nature of teaching personnel. In an RTI model, collaboration across teaching personnel is critical. One must break down the adage of "my" and "your" students. Every student must be viewed as "all" of our students. The way to establish this collaboration is through altering the structure of the tiered instructional process. In schools we have worked with where general education teachers are assigned both Tier 1 and some Tier 2 groups, reading specialists are assigned to Tier 2 and Tier 3 groups, and special educators are assigned to Tier 3 and some Tier 2 groups, we find that a real shared responsibility perspective develops. In those schools where general education teachers are always viewed as only Tier 1 instructors, remedial teachers as Tier 2, and special educators as Tier 3, we find that breaking down the natural "mine" versus "ours" dimension of thinking about collaboration across instructional concerns is more difficult.

Often, questions emerge about students in special education within RTI models. In those models where special education students are assigned to the tiered level of instruction matched to the intensity of their need, we find less concern. Essentially, these students have IEPs that often include the nature of instructional delivery consistent with what may be the content of Tier 3 instruction. However, there will be specified individual accommodations such as progress monitoring occurring at instructional rather than grade level, differentiated instructional processes while teaching the student during the core instructional time, and other important alterations in the methods and approaches during assessment or other such activities. In models where special education is Tier 3 or a specialized Tier 4, the individualization of special education is clear in the delivery of this instruction. However, our experience has been that when students with identified special education needs are included within the tier that is matched to their skill needs, these students' instructional needs receive substantial attention.

A challenge faced by schools in implementing tiered instructional models relates to the need for ongoing professional development and training. The delivery of effective tiered instruction depends on teachers being given the professional development needed to provide instructional programs with high degrees of fidelity and integrity. This means that teachers need to learn the methods prescribed by the instructional programs they deliver and provide these as determined by the research substantiating that delivery of the instructional program is likely to lead to strong outcomes. Unless teachers are well trained and adherent to the specifics of instructional programs, it becomes impossible to know if a program is failing because it was not being delivered in the way prescribed or because the student is not responding to effective instruction.

A related challenge that schools face in the delivery of tiered instruction is that school personnel will change from year to year. The need for professional development to be well constructed to accommodate new teachers entering the system, as well as for renewing skills in existing personnel, is critical to an effective tiered instructional model. Such professional development must include processes that involve mentoring and modeling by existing expert implementers for novices of the tiered instructional process, as well as a recognition that instructional programs advance with new developments from the research, and that schools have a responsibility to have the staff remain current with the research findings.

Finally, the delivery of an effective tiered instructional model requires strong communication across all stakeholders. Teachers need to have clear and direct lines of communication with parents, administrators, education specialists, and members of the community external to schools who typically interact at times with school personnel (e.g., physicians, psychologists, and counselors who see students in the community because of school-related problems). These individuals need to fully understand the nature of the model and how instructional decisions around students are made to be successful in interacting with parents and students in their private practice environments.

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