Create Your Implementation Blueprint Stage 1: Exploration

Fixsen, Naoom, Blase, and Wallace (2007) refer to Stage 1 as “exploration,” and this stage begins with “pre-contemplation.” Often one staff member learns about Response to Intervention (RTI) at a conference or in discussion with colleagues from another school. This one person could be a classroom teacher, a special education teacher, a speech-language pathologist, or a school psychologist. What happens next is the initiation of the exploration stage, when a school begins gathering information about RTI to decide whether, or in what way, to implement it.


Typically, a district or school begins by assembling a small team to do the early information gathering. Selection of district RTI team members is critical. The team members will most likely become the internal experts in the district, and their support of the initiative will sway others to make a commitment later on in the process.


Consequently, staff members should be selected to serve on the RTI team not only because of their interest in the initiative, but also because these are the individuals whose opinions will be valued by their colleagues.


Who might be on a district RTI team?


Let’s take the case of a sample district with 19 schools, of which 13 are elementary schools. An RTI team is formed with the following members:


  • two elementary principals
  • one middle school principal
  • the curriculum director at the district office
  • the special education district coordinator


After the initial team decides to proceed, representatives from schools and teacher groups (classroom, special education, Title I, etc.) should be added to the district RTI team.


What does the district RTI team do?


Often the RTI team gathers information by attending workshops or conferences, reading and sharing articles and books, and possibly planning a field trip to another school that is further along in the implementation process. They move from information gathering to information dissemination, such as an overview presentation for other administrators so as to bring them into the process and help them develop an initial awareness of RTI. Even if RTI is initially going to focus on the elementary schools, it is common to include the principals or assistant principals from the middle and high schools in administrative overviews from the start.


Some steps for getting ready to disseminate information within the district may include the following:


  • Design a PowerPoint presentation or write a document for internal distribution.
  • Develop a 1-page tri-fold flyer describing RTI for distribution within the district.
  • Develop a chart with a 3–5-year timetable for gradual implementation across reading and math and all the grade levels. (See "Sample RTI Implementation Timetable for Elementary Building". Each school must develop a timetable specific to their individual needs and circumstances.)


Soon the team begins to move from “pre-contemplation” to “contemplation.” At that time principals often form an RTI team in each school. It’s important to form school-based teams relatively early in the exploration stage. Building buy-in is much easier when planning occurs at the building level early enough that it doesn’t feel like the schools were left out of the planning process. At this point the district RTI team broadens their efforts to a dual role—they continue to gather information and plan while also beginning to disseminate information to key staff at the district and school levels.


The focus of the dissemination stage at the school level is to begin building awareness among the entire staff in a school. At this early stage the information disseminated is basically an overview, definition, and history of RTI. The focus is on building staff awareness of what RTI is and the benefits for the students at the school. Not a lot of details about what it looks like or specifics about implementation are necessary yet. There are, of course, many options for how to share information. Here are some common approaches:


  • Passing out a short article for staff to read
  • Passing out a 1-page flyer with a three-tier triangle graphic
  • Arranging to take a couple of teacher leaders on a field trip to another school


In addition to information gathering and dissemination, there are several critical activities initiated during the contemplation stage. The two major activities—conducting a self-assessment and determining an assessment plan—are discussed below.


Activities During the Exploration Stage


During the exploration stage, the RTI team needs to determine two important aspects of the implementation plan: the timing and pacing of the rollout. When it comes to timing, consider whether this is the right year to take on a new initiative. If a school has unlimited resources to dedicate to the implementation of RTI, it would be easy to argue that this practice is good for students and should be rolled out to all grade levels simultaneously. Since unlimited funding is not a reality, districts and schools will be forced to explore how much they can reasonably take on at once.


After you consider resource availability, a plan can be developed that details the rollout schedule. I recommend that RTI be implemented in phases rather than all at once. From the district’s perspective, the phases can be planned in regard to the number of schools, the content areas, and the grade levels. Many districts implement RTI first in reading to be followed by math, and at a limited number of schools in the first year. There are so many aspects to customize to the school context that no two schools or districts use the same approach for implementation. Therefore, I recommend that the district select a cluster of schools to serve as pilots the first year. These sites will enable the district staff to learn about how to successfully implement RTI in the district environment, with the existing student population, culture, instructional materials, and assessment instruments. Selection of the pilot schools should include a couple of the lower performing schools so that success in these buildings will be evidence that if RTI can work there, it will work in other schools. There should be a sufficient number of schools included in the pilot so that all types of schools in the district are represented.


Most districts and schools phase RTI into all grade levels across several years. The focus in the first year often is on kindergarten and first grade, followed by Grades 2 and 3 the second year (or K-2 in the first year). Occasionally Grades K–3 will be launched in the first year, although it is very difficult to implement RTI across the entire elementary building in the first year.


Activity 1: Complete a Self-Assessment


A self-assessment can be done at either the district or school level. Eventually it will be completed at both levels. Obtaining a rubric or outline for a self-assessment is a wise choice (See the Self-Assessment of Problem Solving Implementation for one such tool.) Perhaps the most important reason to complete a self-assessment is to determine the degree of need for RTI in your school. It is much more difficult to implement a change of this magnitude in schools where the data indicate high levels of student performance. Teachers will question why they need to fix something that’s not broken. Implementing the numerous and complex processes involved in RTI takes a lot of extra work, especially in the first year of implementation. If the need for the change is not clearly understood and articulated, teachers will question it and may advocate going back to the way they have always done things.


A needs analysis allows the leadership team to articulate the motivation for implementing RTI. In schools where students’ scores are low and have been stagnant or declining for a while, making a case for this innovation is not difficult. Where scores are generally higher, one important step is to analyze the subgroups of students and, once the data are disaggregated, determine if there are groups that are lower performing. If that is the case, then the motivation for RTI can be clearly stated. It is far better to know why the school is implementing RTI from the beginning than not to have answers when teachers confront the administration with these questions. It can’t be just a good thing to do overall; it has to be the right thing to do for specific students in your school. Even if the district or state is requiring schools to implement RTI, it is still best to articulate why students in your school will benefit from this. One thing you’ll need for this step is baseline data, preferably from the screener that you’ll be using in the future.


Activity 2: Evaluate Organizational Priorities


For RTI implementation to be successful, it must be a high priority within the school or district. RTI is no small undertaking and it cannot be added on top of multiple other time-consuming initiatives. Launching RTI under these circumstances usually leads to a great deal of frustration.


Before launching an implementation, it’s useful to look at how this initiative fits, or conflicts, with all other district initiatives. Consider the curriculum adoption years. For example, if the school is adopting a new reading curriculum next year, you may want to use next year as the planning year for RTI, a year in which the focus will simply be to build awareness. Teachers are likely to be overloaded if they are asked to learn to teach a new curriculum the same year RTI is launched. It is even difficult to have enough inservice days to provide sufficient training in the new basal in addition to the new practices for assessment and data analysis for RTI.


Some initiatives require the attention of the same staff, while other initiatives are compatible with RTI. For example, RTI in K–1 reading can be combined well with a new school focus on professional learning communities (PLCs). RTI in early reading can become the content for the PLC process, and the dialogue during collaboration time in PLC study groups can focus on learning about data analysis and small group intervention for below-benchmark students.


Another view of priorities is to examine how RTI fits with the personal passions and goals of important leaders in the organization. What are the superintendent’s passions? How does RTI fit within his or her goals for the district? Sometimes it’s a matter of showing the link between the superintendent’s goal to improve reading or math achievement and how RTI can become a process that is aligned with and useful in reaching that goal. It may be necessary to wait a year to “clear the deck” and finish other initiatives before launching an RTI initiative.


Activity 3: Assess Readiness to Implement


The RTI team needs to explore the school’s or district’s readiness to implement RTI. It’s helpful to anticipate the degree of culture change represented by RTI. Although it’s impossible to always fully predict readiness, the team can contemplate the degree of staff acceptance or resistance they expect to see. Some buildings have predictable politics and a pattern where particular teachers have repeatedly blocked change initiatives in the past. Sometimes teachers have a history of bringing issues to the union’s attention whenever a new initiative appears to require teachers to work more hours.


Assessing the background knowledge of staff is another important factor. Schools that have received Reading First funds have useful background knowledge because they have participated in extensive professional development about reading instruction, assessment, and tiers of instruction to meet the needs of below-benchmark students. On the other hand, schools that deliver nearly all instruction in a whole-class format will need preparatory professional development. Classroom management techniques for how to keep the rest of the students fully engaged in independent work stations are needed so that the teacher can focus on instructing an intervention group.


The RTI team often determines that a school is not ready to implement RTI in a particular year and may experience a “false start” if launched. Selecting schools as the pilot sites for the first year can be tricky and critical. The district will need to move forward in at least a few buildings to gain experience in how to implement RTI; it is wise not to wait for state guidelines to be fully articulated. Begin in a limited way and learn along with the state department of education.


Activity 4: Develop an Assessment Plan


One critical activity the RTI team must complete during the exploration stage is to evaluate the assessment instruments that the school already uses. What type of data is provided by each of the current assessments? Do these assessments provide outcome, screener, progress-monitoring, or diagnostic data?


If the district or school doesn’t have an assessment instrument for universal screening, the team will need to select one. Most districts start RTI with reading, or reading combined with behavior. One of the reasons reading is selected over math is that curriculum-based measurements (CBMs) are more readily available. Most likely, the district will select a CBM such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) or AimsWeb for universal screening. The tool selected will then be the assessment given to all students (typically three times per year (fall, winter, and spring)) to identify the students not at benchmark in important early skills. Other assessments will also be needed, including informal diagnostic measures used to pinpoint more precisely deficit skill areas flagged by the universal screener as students’ weaknesses. Although research about diagnostic assessments may begin during the exploration stage, selection of these screeners can wait until the baseline data have been collected and the installation stage is launched.


One of the main reasons that districts select a universal screener during the exploration stage is to begin collecting baseline data. Many times the district or school will train a small team to administer the screener during the exploration stage and train all the teachers later. Analysis of baseline data is critical for articulating which student populations are not well served by the current instructional approach. Determining the schools’ overall scores and identifying underperforming subpopulations of students is critical in order that a principal be able to articulate in a school-specific and personalized way why RTI is needed.


Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with dozens of principals as they implement RTI. While researching for my latest book, Implementing Response to Intervention: A Principal’s Guide, I interviewed principals about how they had implemented RTI. I discovered that in the schools where the implementation went smoothly and student results were evident within the first 2 years, the principals each had a way of articulating their motivation to change former practices. These principals talked about why practices needed to be different. Their comments were noticeably passionate, specific, and related to their school’s student population. They didn’t say that they were jumping on board because the district or state was going to require it. In their interviews their voices changed as they made comments like “there is no way 29% of our students should be in special education” or “we are not going to be the lowest school in the district in reading any more.” The RTI team can use baseline screener data to talk about where students are now, and to explain why—in order to raise the achievement level—some things will have be done differently in the future.


In addition to articulating a motivation for change, the team will begin exploring what needs to be in place to effect this change. They will begin to discuss a professional development (PD) plan, the details of which will be fleshed out much more during the installation stage. The PD plan can unfold gradually; the only things to do right away are a) determine how much awareness building is immediately necessary and b) launch the training for the assessment teams that will administer the baseline universal screener. In later stages, plans can be developed to train teachers to work with small groups, data analysis techniques for identifying student skill deficits, procedures for placing below-benchmark students in intervention groups, and techniques for planning and delivering differentiated instruction to the groups.


One decision that the RTI team may make during the exploration stage is to consider whether to hire a consultant to help. A consultant needs to have two things: expertise about RTI and expertise in how to successfully implement RTI at the school or district level. If you decide to hire a consultant, you will want one who has experience in helping a team develop a phased approach to rollout, who can provide professional development at all levels, and who has expertise in data analysis, grouping decisions, and teaching teachers to use available materials to teach differentiated instruction.


The exploration stage ends when a decision is reached to implement RTI. Although the boundaries between one stage and another are fuzzy, in general once the district or school decides to proceed, it enters the installation stage.




Fixsen, D., Naoom, S., Blase, K., & Wallace, F. (2007, Winter/Spring). Implementation: The missing link between research and practice. The APSAC Advisor, 4–10.

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