RtI Leadership That Works

Relentlessly doing whatever it takes to sustain the change necessary to improve the achievement of ALL students

We are at a time of great challenge. We have an obvious challenge of fiscal limitations that are unprecedented. We have a challenge of continued sniping from one side of any educational issue to the other. At times like this, the solution is likewise obvious.


Times of limits and controversy bring a grand opportunity. The opportunity is for school leaders to step up and relentlessly push for those practices that have the strongest, evidence-based probability of improving results for ALL students.


Around the country, there are many examples of this sort of mission-centered leadership. None better is the following model for leadership.


In a November 2008 chatroom sponsored by EdWeek’s Teacher Magazine, Dr. Judy Elliott, Chief Academic Officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District, answered a question on Response-to-Intervention (RtI) leadership from Melissa McCain, Literacy Facilitator in Papillion LaVista Public Schools.

Melissa McCain:
What is the administrator's role in RtI?


Judy Elliott:
HUGE! Leadership is so very critical in this as well as any innovation or change in schools. The administrator is the leader, coach, data consumer, and the person that works to align all that goes on at the school site to support RtI. The administrator makes decisions of what goes to the back burner or off the stove so that RtI work can be done. This cannot and should not be rolled out as another initiative — it is a way to integrate and better coordinate intervention and efforts currently going on—and also assess things that are being implemented. What do the data indicate? The administrator is the leader that brings folks around the table to have open dialogue about what is working and how do we know — and what is not — and what do we need to do. Leadership is huge with this.

Dr. Elliott gave a typically complete, insightful, and passionate response. Since schools are tightly organized, predictable places where all the adults are good looking and the students are above average, this is easy work. Well, maybe in Lake Wobegon!


Schools are actually wonderfully chaotic places where all the adults ARE good looking and the students are just waiting to learn and achieve. The chaos of the school can be overwhelming even to the well prepared. There are many schools, however, that are "islands of excellence" (Learning First Alliance, 2003) wherein the adults and the students are successful at their relentless pursuit of excellence.


RtI is a systemic strategy that combines data-driven problem solving with a focus on research-based practice, implemented with fidelity, to maximize the achievement of ALL students. RtI has many different meanings, from Really Terrific Instruction (David Tilly) to Right to Instruction (Darryl Mellard) to Response to Instruction to Response to Intervention.


It is popular to suggest that RtI has its roots in special education. I offer an alternative etiology. I believe RtI has its roots in the pioneering work of such giants as Madeline Hunter, Siegfried Engelmann, Anita Archer, Ron Edmonds, Louisa Moats, Don Deshler, Sharon Vaughn, Jane Fell Green, Doug Carnine, Rick DuFour, Judy Elliott, Robert Marzano, and thousands of other educators and parents who decided that ALL of their students WILL learn. In other words, RtI does not come from a place; it comes from a unified vision of effective teaching and leadership that demands high expectations for all students.


The synergy of effective teaching and leadership has resulted in success in all environments from rural to urban, from wealthy to poor, from one color to many, from one language to many. Not only can it be done, it HAS been done!


To get back down to earth, the vision mentioned above requires effective leadership, leadership that is dedicated to principles that ensure high levels of success for all students. This leadership is symbolized by a collaborative style that is focused on the mission that all students will achieve, and not on ego. It is symbolized by frequent fidelity checks for curricula, interventions, and instruction to be certain that good intentions are translated into success. It is symbolized by a dedication to a simple premise that all decisions will be made based on the effect on student achievement. It is symbolized by strategic action.


Rick DuFour (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Karhanek, 2004), the father of the "Professional Learning Community," put it best:

While leaders need a few key big ideas to provide the conceptual framework and coherence essential to successful school improvement, it is equally imperative that they recognize the need for specific, short-term implementation steps to advance those ideas. They can paint an attractive picture of the desired future state of the school, but they must balance this futuristic vision of what the school is working toward with steps that can be taken today.

So, RtI leadership is pretty simple: Be a visionary realist moving urgently with deliberate speed. This leadership demands everything — personal and professional — that the administrator has, 100% of the time. It is the most fulfilling, overwhelming kind of leadership, leadership that succeeds.


Before analyzing that leadership, a point of reality: It has been said that every organization is perfectly aligned for the results it gets. If we can get past our self-imposed victimhood about the families of our students, about our students’ diversity, about limited budgets, about having to work daily with other fallible humans, then we can confront the reality of the idea that our schools ARE perfectly aligned for the results they get. The question is this: What will we do with the results we get?


Stephen Covey (1989) has uncovered a simple and elegant model that explains why every organization is perfectly aligned for the results it gets. Covey says that the way you see the world determines what you do and that determines what you get. This "See, Do, Get" model suggests that our schools are controlled by the deeply held perspectives of the adults in the school. These beliefs determine what the adults do. These belief-driven behaviors lead to very predictable results, both positive and negative.


The leader must be adept at diagnosing the reality of this see, do, get thinking so as to reinforce those principles that lead to student success and to identify those that do not. Then, he or she must have the courage to confront those beliefs that do not lead to success respectfully and directly. The effective RtI leader focuses all attention on those beliefs and actions that have a proven record of empowering high achievement.


Covey (1991) discovered another simple model for effective leadership that has relevance to RtI. He suggested that there are four roles of leadership: modeling, pathfinding, aligning, and empowering. The rest of this paper will apply these four roles to the RtI endeavor.




For a school, district, state, or federal office to have success with RtI demands total commitment to a set of principles. These principles do not start at the system level, nor at the interpersonal level. Total commitment must start at the personal level.


The effective RtI leader focuses on data-based decisions while building trust with all stakeholders to build a collaborative culture. Covey (2006) suggested that the basis of trust is trustworthiness. He defined trustworthiness as a combination of character and competence. The effective RtI leader combines these elements into a style and substance that empowers stakeholders to take the risks necessary to achieve success with all students.


What is the character needed? Integrity is obvious. Maturity is obvious. Covey’s (1989) definition of maturity is a combination of courage and consideration. The effective leader must be 100% committed to a set of principles. And — this is the rub — the effective leader must be considerate of the principles of everyone else. In schools, the leader should be committed to those practices with a proven track record of working to improve achievement. What if a key faculty member is committed to a practice that has a proven track record of not working? The trustworthy leader strives to encourage the colleague to change with respect and assertiveness.


The last part of the character needed for trustworthiness is to have what Covey (1989) called an "abundance mentality." The abundant leader provides leadership with optimism and a sense that limited resources will never determine outcomes for the students in his or her stewardship.


The other side of trustworthiness is competence. The effective leader must commit himself to building skills consistent with Collins’s (2001) Level 5 leadership. The Level 5 leader combines personal humility with professional will. The Level 5 leader makes decisions focused on mission and not on ego.


The Level 5 leader:


  • Demonstrates an unwavering resolve to do whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results and acts with quiet, calm determination, relying on inspired standards
  • Sets the standard of building an enduring great organization and channels ambition into the organization, including succession planning
  • Looks in the mirror, not out the window, to apportion responsibility for poor results and looks out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for success (Collins, 2001).


The bottom line of modeling is simple. The effective RtI leader does whatever it takes with character and competence.




Michael Fullan (2001) suggested that five forces affect school reform. They are:


  • Moral purpose
  • Understanding change
  • Developing relationships
  • Knowledge building
  • Coherence making


When these factors synergize, remarkable progress can be made.

Developing relationships and coherence making are discussed below in the sections on the leadership roles of empowering and aligning, respectively. Moral purpose, understanding change, and knowledge building all relate to the pathfinding role of leadership. Pathfinding is the act of matching what the organization is passionate about with what its stakeholders want and need.


The RtI Blueprints of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE, 2008) celebrate a change model with three steps: consensus building, infrastructure building, and implementation. Consensus must be built first around moral purpose. Until that moral purpose is collective in a school, that moral purpose cannot provide the foundation for infrastructure building and implementation (Fullan, 1999). The pathfinding leader actively engages stakeholders to find consensus on principles and strategies needed for effective RtI implementation.


Schmoker (in DuFour et al., 2004) urged that what schools need most now is to begin systematically harnessing the power of collective intelligence that already resides in the school to solve problems. DuFour et al. (2004) challenged schools to rally around "shared mission, values, and goals."


In the view of this author, the best statement of collective moral purpose was forwarded by Ron Edmonds in 1982 (in Schmoker, 2004):

We can, whenever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more that we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

This statement can drive the school forward. RtI provides a way of thinking that will help schools realize the potential of all its adults and students.


Rick DuFour and his colleagues (2004) have made a major contribution with their notion of the Professional Learning Community (PLC). A school/district that is practicing the principles of PLC are organizations that can realize the power of RtI. Three simple questions differentiate PLCs from traditional schools:


  1. Do you know what you want students to learn?
  2. Do you have a way of directly assessing whether students have learned?
  3. What do you do when students do not learn after initial teaching?


DuFour suggests that the answer to Question 3 differentiates traditional schools from PLCs. The clarity of purpose of a true PLC is to ensure high levels of learning for all students. The Pathfinding RtI leader is unswerving in her dedication to success with every student. The bottom line for the pathfinding leader is to encourage all stakeholders to embrace the principle: We do whatever it takes!




Lezotte (in DuFour, 2004) summarized the power of what we know that will promote high levels of achievement. He said:

The effective school research challenged the long-standing belief that only those who have won the genetic lottery were capable of high levels of learning. Compelling evidence was presented to support two bold new premises: first, "all students can learn" and second, "schools control the factors necessary to assure student mastery of the core curriculum."


The effective schools research provides a blueprint for school leadership, organization, and classroom practice. This dynamic research base (compiled in Cotton, 1999, and Marzano, 2007) provides the base for the aligning leader in his quest to build and monitor the consistent implementation, with fidelity, of effective, research-based practice. Schmoker (2006) found that the practice that can have the most impact on achievement is not expensive. That practice is a deep commitment to effective instructional practice.


We know so much about the education of our students. The effective schools research, the 30 years of research from the National Institutes of Health on reading problems, the national research base of the Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) movement, the empirical research of RtI leaders in almost every state — we know what to do if our goal is high achievement for all students. The aligning RtI leader works tirelessly to be certain that well grounded strategic plans are implemented with fidelity.


In 1987, Tom Peters published a book whose title is iconic: Thriving on Chaos. With that simple phrase, Peters captured the challenge of effective leadership. Schools are wonderful, chaotic places. Perhaps 10% of a day’s plan actually proceeds sequentially … on a good day! The school leader has a choice, not about the inevitable chaos of the day, but about the choices the leader makes to confront that chaos.


This author suggests that the effective leader can choose to thrive on the chaos by aligning the school around the following research-based components:


  1. Teaching to student success
  2. High expectations
  3. Realization of the potential of RtI
  4. Improvement based on data
  5. Validation of curricula based on student success
  6. Effective interventions, implemented with fidelity


The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) succinctly made the case for RtI:

RTI has the potential to deliver measured doses of scientific research-based instruction in a timely fashion to prevent the consequences of reading failure and provides a general education alternative to special education eligibility as a source of meaningful intervention. It also allows the efficient use of resources by differentiating pupil need, thereby permitting the differentiated use of time, effort, materials, and human resources. However, it is the instruction that is actually being delivered that is the critical foundation on which the success of RTI depends. The weakening of the discrepancy formula, the movement toward the prevention of reading failure, the use of RTI within general education, and scaling the capacity to deliver reading instruction informed by research along a differentiated continuum of need, together have the potential to improve reading achievement for all children. (IDA, 2006)

The aligning leader focuses on a simple rule. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop doing it.


More eloquently, DuFour et al. (2004) stated that "We acknowledge the need for schools to move beyond pious mission statements pledging learning for all and to begin the systematic effort to create procedures, policies, and programs that are aligned with that purpose."


In the PLC, time and resources are variables. Whether students will learn is not. In the PLC, the credo is this: All students WILL learn! It is a cultural, not a cosmetic, shift that makes a difference. RtI can only be a catalyst for change that matters when all stakeholders dedicate themselves to evidence-based instruction and intervention, implemented consistently with fidelity.


To make the most impact, instruction and interventions must be delivered in a context that is intervention friendly, collaborative, and data driven. As an example of such an aligned context, the National Center for Learning Disabilities' (NCLD) School Transformation Model (2013) depicts the systems change needed by our schools to empower all, some, and few students to achieve to high levels (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: NCLD's School Transformation Model                                       


The seven components of system change are leadership, empowering culture, professional learning, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and data-driven decision making. These components must work together with coherence and synergy, while being nurtured and supported. From this model’s perspective, the first line of support is the development and maintenance of an empowering culture, a culture of collaboration and problem solving. Professional learning is the next nurturing influence. Only with a comprehensive system of professional learning can the district/school ensure intervention fidelity and success. Nurturing all of the above-mentioned components is, of course, strong and strategically focused leadership.

The aligning role of the effective RtI leader is to make certain that evidence-based practice is the rule and not the expectation. The bottom line is that the aligning leader does whatever it takes!




The fourth role of leadership is empowering. Covey (1991) made it clear that one person could not empower another person. The empowering leader must set the conditions for empowerment. It will always be the choice of the follower to be empowered or not.


The word empowerment demands some clarification. Empowerment that leads to student success is not simply flexibility. It is flexibility with accountability. The empowering leader encourages staff to do whatever they wish so long as those choices result in improved performance.


DuFour et al. (2004) challenged schools to attend to two simultaneous strategies. The first is to develop a system of timely interventions. The second is to implement those interventions with fidelity in the context of a collaborative culture that focuses on student learning.


Building a collaborative culture is the surest way to develop an environment that maximizes the chances that staff will choose to be empowered. Collaboration is not natural. An anonymous sage once said that collaboration is "an unnatural act performed by unwilling and unconsenting adults despite their mutually benefitting goals!"


The key for empowering leaders is to dedicate themselves to losing control to gain influence. Collins (2001) found that "great" organizations purposefully dispersed leadership throughout the organization.


Kouzes and Posner (2003) found that "leadership is a team performance." They concluded that "collaboration is a social imperative (and) without it, people can't get extraordinary things done in organizations."


Investing in sharing power and authority is the mark of the effective leader. For RtI to work, the leader must facilitate the establishment of a dynamic, empowering culture that brings forward the strength of all stakeholders around achieving better results for all students. The bottom line is now not surprising. The effective, empowering RtI leader does whatever it takes!




It is hoped that this paper unlocks useful insights into RtI leadership. When the four roles of leadership — modeling, pathfinding, aligning, empowering — are combined and synergized, nothing can stop the leader or the school.

Doug Reeves (2006) said it best:

Will we choose to enter an "era of unprecedented effectiveness" or will we succumb to the siren song of secure sameness? We know how to make dramatic improvements in educational achievement and equity. The only question is whether we have the political and personal courage to do it.

The bottom line IS that we must do whatever it takes to ensure that all students succeed. What it takes is personal commitment — personal commitment to evidence-based principles that ensure better results for ALL students, NO exceptions!




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