Promising Examples of RtI Practices for Urban Schools

This is the third article in a three-part series.



The discourse on Response to Intervention (RtI) and positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) has become a catalyst in facilitating reform in K–12 public schools across the nation. RtI and PBIS are frameworks that assist suburban and urban public school systems and their surrounding communities in navigating the complex structures and processes of our American educational ecology. These frameworks were established to support both teachers and students as they co-create positive academic and social experiences in schools. RtI and PBIS, at their best, should promise equitable outcomes for all students despite confounding factors (e.g., race, culture, gender, poverty, and disability) that can have an impact on a child’s educational experience. However, the development of RtI/PBIS has not particularly maintained a perspective for urban school systems fraught with complex structural and cultural challenges. In this article, we provide a conceptual and structural framework, as well as practical examples, that will support urban school-systems in successfully implementing RtI/PBIS.

Promising Practices in Effectively Implementing RTI/PBIS

For RtI/PBIS to be successful, everything hinges on the strength of Tier 1. Though it’s tempting and commonplace for schools to put their energies and focus into planning RtI models around the interventions of Tier 2 and above, this mindset can be detrimental to creating a process that fosters achievement for all. Like all good pyramids, RtI should build from the ground up to guarantee fidelity to a common cause and to ensure the maximum achievement of all students. Any tier is only as strong as the tier below it.


Tier 1

To guarantee the success of Tier 1, there needs to be shared understanding and belief that RtI/PBIS is not a system only for addressing and supporting struggling students. With that deficit model in mind, teachers may feel pressure to begin the school year identifying those students who will need interventions, as opposed to developing strong classroom management skills that incorporate basic accommodations and differentiated strategies embedded throughout daily lessons and routines. Starting the school year with the mindset that only 80% of students need to be successful undermines the intended effect of instructional practices. It is incumbent upon all educators to keep in mind that 100% of students are part of RtI/PBIS and Tier 1. Tier 1 is not, as some misguided models may suggest, made up of the quickest 80%, the most compliant 80%, or the highest achieving 80%. It is all students, always.

The following areas are key to effective implementation as well as challenges urban schools may face that could reduce integrity of effectiveness.


Integrity of Curriculum

At the heart of RtI/PBIS Tier 1 rests the core curriculum—a clearly articulated roadmap of what must be taught. This means that schools must have not only a comprehensive scope and sequence of skills and standards, but also a seamless transition from one grade to the next—from Kindergarten through graduation. Pacing guides, already included in many prepackaged curricula, and curriculum maps are not only easy and effective ways for schools to guarantee a consistent scope and sequence, but also an effective way to communicate to students and families what will be taught, and when. And, if deemed necessary down the road, a concise snapshot of the year’s curriculum will also facilitate better planning and implementation of Tier 2 interventions by providing academic support staff a well-defined record of which standards and skills have already been covered, and which are currently being taught.

Areas of struggle in urban schools:

  1. Curriculum with weak instructional guides: Urban school districts are fraught with novice teachers and heavily reliant on explicit curricular and instructional guides. Embedded coaching of curriculum must occur in urban schools.

  2. Literacy curriculum with emphasis on vocabulary development (e.g., sight words) but minimal attention to decoding. This results in children having word knowledge but no meaning attachment. There needs to be attention to curriculum that is responsive to levels of student capacity and expected development rather than the fad curriculum of the decade.


Integrity of Instruction

With a comprehensive core curriculum in place, teachers won’t have to spend their time determining what to teach, but instead can focus on the primary goal of Tier 1—good instruction. Good teaching is made up of many things: classroom management, differentiated instruction, scaffolding, positive behavioral supports, cultural responsiveness, and so on. All these pedagogies stress meaningful engagement. Students who are engaged in their learning demonstrate the academic and social behaviors that lead to greater achievement. Specifically, student engagement looks very different than the traditional classroom of “cemetery rows” (those rooms set up to maintain order by keeping students in quiet rows that face toward the main event, namely, the teacher’s sharing of information). Strategies that only strive to keep students compliant do not lend themselves to improved learning. Dale’s Cone of Experience shows how those traditional forms of teaching minimize the retention of the skills taught (Dale, 1969). Students who are more passive in a lesson are likely to learn and retain less critical information.

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Novice teachers do not want to teach in high-poverty schools (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2005). As a result, urban schools contain a range of teachers (e.g., unsatisfactory rated teachers, highly committed teachers, alternative route teachers). Urban schools need to develop ties with university/college teacher prep programs in order to connect with pre-service teachers and dispel myths about teaching in urban schools.

  2. Professional development typically occurs as an add-on to the school calendar and happens in a big auditorium. In addition, most of the professional development occurs as a workshop on “the next hot topic,” as a “hot speaker” who can inspire, and “the new hot tool.” Urban schools need to develop professional development lesson plans for the capacity teachers in their school and in relation to the academic development of students.


Integrity of Classroom Management

Knowing that better engagement leads to better achievement, teachers need to become more skilled at flexible grouping to maximize active learning. More and more students who consider dropping out of school cite reasons of disengagement. These same students, as shown in the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement (Center for Evaluation & Education Policy, 2010), report feeling most engaged in classrooms where teachers use group projects, discussions, and debates within lessons. The true challenge of flexible grouping is to avoid keeping students in homogeneous groups while at the same time maintaining a high level of relevance and rigor. Successful teachers do this by explicitly teaching how to work within groups through good modeling and lessons designed to build collaboration (Slavin, 1987). Developing high expectations and trust within the group allows the teacher to coordinate multiple, independent student groups while still being freed up to focus on those students who need more direct instruction, such as those who are still struggling to master skills or those who have already mastered the skills and require enrichment.

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Some urban schools struggle with high mobility among student populations, particularly immigrant, homeless, and foster care students. The variation in classroom community alters the wellness of maintaining rituals and routines. Some schools have adopted transition rituals in which students welcome new students to a classroom (e.g., classroom tour guides, host “family” of students).

  2. Practitioners struggle with why a practice does not work with the student they’ve continuously sent to the office or viewed as nonresponder. Educators must understand the impact of their beliefs on practices (McKinney, Bartholomew, & Gray, 2010). The intervention is only as effective as the intervener. For instance, educators who are implementing interventions in urban schools with diverse groups of students must understand their biases (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002) and the relational experiences (e.g., racial group, cultural group, generational group, community group, family group, peer group, etc.) of students on multiple levels (Wells, 1990). This will ensure that they select interventions accurately and implement them with fidelity. School systems must implement cultural assessment tools periodically within RtI/PBIS to examine how educational processes and structures fail to engender teaching and learning for diverse student populations (Fergus, 2010; Skiba, Bush, & Knesting, 2002). These assessments should occur periodically, along with structured and unstructured methods (e.g., survey, interviews, focus groups, and dialogues).

  3. Practitioners’ resistance to accessing emotions and developing their interpersonal intelligence inhibits their ability to create a positive environment conducive to learning, where all students can thrive. This can only happen if educators value self-reflection as a part of their own learning as well as the learning they want to instill in their students (Seaton, Dell’Angelo, Spencer, & Youngblood, 2007). This need is imperative in environments in which there is cultural and linguistic diversity among practitioner and students.


Integrity of Relationships

Tier 1 is where behavior and achievement completely overlap. In managing a responsive classroom, teachers must not separate the two. Effective teachers work hard to build meaningful relationships with their students. Research shows that a teacher who does something as basic as personally greeting each student at the door at the start of the day, or period, can drastically affect academic, time-on-task behavior (Allday & Pakurar, 2007). Positive teacher/student relationships are simply that important. The teacher’s effectiveness at “reaching” his or her students cannot be overemphasized when we are talking about improving student learning (Brophy & Good, 1986). Students will work harder, and thus achieve more, for an instructor who shows interest in them as individuals. Schools need to help foster these skills in their staff. Professional development must include strategies that help staff build and maintain positive interactions, since how they relate with students will make or break the success of best practices.

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Urban schools are at times staffed with a range of racial/ethnic and linguistic diverse student and teacher populations, but minimal attention is paid to intentionally building cross-cultural capacity. In other words, some teachers struggle when engaging with low-income, racial/ethnic, and/or linguistically diverse students because of the “I may say the wrong thing” fear. Schools need to do intentional workshops and seminars on exploring what it means to feel safe in talking and behaving cross-culturally.

  2. Administrators and teachers struggle with understanding race/ethnicity and linguistic differences beyond festivals, food, and fashion. It is essential for school leaders to be attuned to the dynamic between identity groups (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and family), the organizational groups (e.g., position, hierarchy, power, and task) in order to manage diversity in an equitable manner (Alderfer, 1987; Skiba et al., 2006).

  3. Urban schools find themselves creating behavioral supports that are articulated into a code of conduct that is translated into the “way to effectively suspend.” Administrators, faculty, and staff have to understand that a discipline problem is a relationship problem (Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 20010 Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). It is defined by the interaction between the school climate, as well as the behaviors expressed by all school personnel, students, and community members. The negative interactions between any of these stakeholders can manifest as a discipline problem. We must understand academic and social behavior as one educational discipline that is influenced by teaching and learning experiences that require relationship building.

Integrity of Teacher Supports

Ideally, Tier 1 will help schools make a distinction between students who are merely different and those who may be disabled by making sure everyone has access to a strong core curriculum, and by ensuring that the school staff has the skills to maximize student engagement. The best way to support Tier 1 effectiveness and make informed decisions about those students still struggling is through the use of an effective instructional support team (IST). If a good IST is in place, schools should encourage teachers to access the multidisciplinary classroom strategies and basic accommodation ideas that can be shared by the members of this team. IST members, directly supporting classroom teachers, reduce the need to refer those students who learn differently to special education. It’s when ISTs provide services directly to the student instead of supports to the teacher that we see large numbers of students identified as disabled (Gravois & Rosenfield, 2006).

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Because of the high turnover rate and fluctuating resources in urban schools, ISTs are also revolving each year, with new teachers, literacy coaches, and social service staff (i.e., social workers, psychologists), which limits the maintenance of expertise. Urban schools need to invest in the full development of an instructional and behavioral support system. This means constant professional development for members of instructional and behavioral teams.

  2. Because of a paucity of staff, schools are unable to free up the professionals needed to meet regularly as an IST. Urban schools often find themselves in crisis mode because of this inability to structure time to be reflective of wellness of instructional and behavioral support systems.


Tier 2 and Above

Interventions at Tier 2 and above should be in sync with Tier 1, not a divergence from it. For those students who still struggle within the well-designed classroom, additional supports that parallel the curriculum are appropriate. Before any student receives any intervention, a clear protocol is needed to answer some key questions. What are the specific skills being targeted? What assessment and/or procedure will be used to identify the skills to be targeted? Which intervention best matches the skills to be addressed? What will be the frequency and duration of the intervention? When and how will progress be monitored? One of the most challenging questions that needs to be answered is, when and where should this intervention take place? Students’ academic lives should be minimally disrupted. Ideally, a student will not miss out on crucial instruction in a given subject as a result of being pulled out of the classroom for an intervention. This would only serve to place the child in more academic jeopardy.

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Interventions must be sure to target the specific skills and standards the student has not mastered. Too many times students are placed in academic instructional support (AIS) groups that are working on a broad array of skill sets within a given subject, setting up the same situation that has not worked for him or her within the classroom. Schools need to avoid these customary support groups that lead to placing students in “slots” that are open in an AIS provider’s schedule, and instead should create flexible scheduling that matches the core curricular concepts. With a coordinated curriculum, the AIS providers can plan ahead to develop appropriate lessons that will accommodate those students who have not mastered targeted skills. Successfully managing the comings and goings of the students is reliant on good progress monitoring. Data gathered on each skill over the short term will show the trends of progress and the effectiveness of any given intervention. A standardized and electronic process can help facilitate and maintain an easy way to monitor progress and share data with staff and family.


Monitoring data as an instructional and curricular methodology

Data-driven interventions are a relatively new way of life for schools that has resulted in the gathering of vast amounts of data. Schools districts are inundated with numbers reflecting everything from demographics to achievement. These vast amounts of data can overwhelm purposefulness and use. Within an effective RtI/PBIS model, a focused and meaningful collection of data is crucial. Policies that delineate what data to collect are required. At each grade level and at each tier, screening and assessment tools must be carefully chosen to provide the appropriate data for the needs at hand and cull extraneous information. The fidelity of these instruments must be maintained.

Areas of struggle in urban schools

  1. Screening tools are not diagnostic nor should they be used as such. Diagnostic assessments should be used when interventions are deemed necessary and become the basis of progress monitoring.
  2. All instructional staff need to be able to confidently manage their own data. Simple training on ways to monitor progress is necessary. To help oversee this work, data teams work well for many districts. These teams are more than districtwide administrators who crunch numbers for reporting; they are building-based, grade-level, and departmental teams that monitor their own areas of focus to make sure classroom instruction and interventions are actually successful. Too many times the data are not managed by those it should affect the most, namely, the teachers who should be using this information to answer important questions about the effectiveness of their instruction.


The challenge of implementing RtI/PBIS in urban schools lies in also providing school administrators with the resources (i.e., funding, qualified staff, leadership and managerial development) necessary to address the systemic issues that plague these robust systems. It is important to note that the challenges facing urban school systems are not necessarily unique to metropolitan areas, nor are all urban school systems challenged in the same ways. Urban schools do, however, share some unique physical and demographic characteristics that differentiate them from suburban and rural school districts. Unlike suburban and rural school districts, urban school districts operate in areas of high population density, serving significantly more students. In comparison to suburban and rural districts, these urban school districts are frequently marked by higher concentrations of poverty, higher racial and ethnic diversity, higher concentrations of immigrant populations and linguistic diversity, and higher rates of student mobility.
While sociodemographics are not themselves the challenge of urban school systems, they speak to broader social and economic inequities facing such populations that invariably frame the work of urban schools. And the work of building an effective Tier 1 or core program is framed by the nature of whom urban schools are educating, and the financial and resource distribution context of these systems.


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