Panel #4: “Capacity for Fidelity of Implementation–What is Needed to Realize RTI’s Potential?”

Sustainability, Capacity, and Leadership for Fidelity of Implementation—What Is Needed to Realize RTI’s Potential?

By Edward S. Shapiro, Ph.D., Director, Center for Promoting Research to Practice, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010

This paper addresses the identification of children with learning disabilities (LD) in a service delivery model based on a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework. I will discuss the alignment of identification and the RTI framework under IDEA 2004 and with research on the definition of LD, will discuss the nature of the comprehensive evaluation, and will address other viewpoints for evaluation and eligibility.


Leadership at all levels of the RTI implementation process starts with the state level, where a clear and directed set of policies aimed at linking RTI to the existing statewide efforts at school reform becomes an essential step toward sustainability. States such as Colorado and Delaware that have made the RTI process the only accepted methodology for determining identification for students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) have clearly established the opportunity for sustainability. However, because the large majority of states are not likely to require RTI for purposes of SLD determination, mechanisms by which the state education agency indicates the support for RTI within the school change process emerge as a key indicator of sustainable change. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Department of Education in September 2009 issued an important joint statement coming from both the top general and special education leaders that RTI (or RTII—Response to Instruction and Intervention as its known in Pennsylvania) was endorsed and connected to the state’s School Improvement Process as well as the assessment and instructional framework to organize and implement Pennsylvania’s Standards Aligned System. While not requiring that schools implement RTI, this statement places the RTI model into a high level of recognition of importance within existing system reforms already well known throughout the state’s 500 school districts. Such statements set the tone for subsequent leaders at district and building levels to support RTI.

Leadership at the local district, both central and building level, makes the sustainability process possible. Commitments to both the philosophical and practical aspects of RTI are needed. Central district administrators must fully understand the conceptual framework of the RTI model, place the RTI process as central to the district’s operating principles, and provide the needed support in time and resources for implementation to building-level administrators. Support cannot just be at the level of “lip service,” but needs concrete and active engagement in implementation. Placing RTI within the context of a district’s central mission and strategic direction ensures that the process will transcend any anticipated changes in central office administration.

At the building level, leadership is equally critical within the instructional and support staff of the building. Teacher leaders must play a key role in RTI implementation. Those teachers and support staff who quickly “get it” and fully embrace the methods and intricacies of implementation need to become the mentors for fellow staff. When leadership emerges from the instructional and support staff, there is far greater acceptance and maintenance of the RTI change process far into the future.


A true partnership requires the ability for groups of individuals representing different perspectives to come together in a true give and take of ideas and operational implementation. One group that must be engaged in a more systematic and thoughtful process to effectively sustain RTI is the teacher unions. RTI requires significant changes that have an impact on the teaching process. Accountability plays a significant role in an effective RTI process. Teachers must recognize the importance of assessing fidelity of core instruction and tiered intervention, they must be capable of differentiating instruction for all students, and they must engage in collaborative data-based decision-making processes. Assessment at the levels of entire grades, classes, and schools plays a high profile role in RTI, and the potential strengths and weaknesses of specific teaching practices are likely to be a part of conversations. Successful sustainability must engage teachers in full discussion, understanding, and agreement on the principles of RTI. I firmly believe that by engaging teachers in these discussions as part of contractual agreements, we are likely to ease the inevitable tensions that arise between teachers and administrators into more collaborative agreements. In situations where the teacher union contracts were not considered in RTI implementation, failure of the implementation process was quite evident.

An example comes from an implementation we conducted in a low performing school that was a part of a federally funded model/demonstration project. Support for implementation of RTI in that school was evident from the highest levels of the central administration and through the building principal. However, the district had been through difficult labor/management discussions in the past and the distrust between the teacher union and administration was well known. In trying to implement a needed change to improve the continually failing nature of the school, and despite strong teacher support (and knowledge) of the need for the change, we continually ran into roadblocks brought through the filing of grievances about things such as the changes in the nature of the reading instruction, the presence of consultants observing in classrooms, and asking teachers to engage in collaborative problem solving. After several years of implementation and disagreements, the RTI process finally took hold once the teacher unions were brought on board to be a part of the negotiations in implementing RTI. Indeed, recent teacher contracts in major urban cities such as Pittsburgh, Denver, Detroit, and Baltimore have resulted in significant changes that are examples of the importance of engaging teacher unions as part of the change process.

Partnership is also needed between disciplines within the schools. At times, philosophical differences become significant roadblocks to sustainability. For example, a district had asked me to present an in-service to their elementary teaching staff on the use of universal screening and progress-monitoring measures in reading. Before starting my presentation, someone in the front row informed me that they were an “anti-DIBELS school district.” This was amusing since the administration had asked me to present the DIBELS data collected from that district over the past 2 years! Despite showing that a 1 minute reading sample taken at the end of 1st grade predicted the same student’s 3rd grade outcomes on our state assessment around 80% of the time, the workshop was not successful in changing the viewpoint of the staff. Recently, after a substantial change in the central and building administration, and after relentless continued efforts at showing the district the value of these data for decision making, changes in philosophical attitudes are evident. Still, the sustainability of RTI in this district is questionable given the deep rooted philosophical divide in the valuing of the DIBELS measure.

A final area of partnership needed is better links with parents. Although parental involvement is given “lip service” in most RTI models, active inclusion of parental engagement in understanding and being an active participant in RTI is sorely needed. Parents in schools need to be fully informed about the process, its implications for students, the nature of instructional interventions when they are being implemented for their children, the nature of the data collection and interpretation process, and the importance of parent input into the RTI process. We have seen successful use of communication with parent–teacher organizations as well as the use of parent advisory councils in the implementation of RTI. We have also seen the distrust that can emerge when parents are not well informed of the RTI process in their children’s schools and how the mistrust can lead to potentially serious divides between schools and parents. At times, such mistrust can lead to serious legal concerns for schools, especially for children who are moved toward eligibility decision making for special education as a function of the RTI model.

Capacity of Knowledge and Practice

Over time, changes in personnel at all levels are likely to have an impact on the continued knowledge and practice of RTI. Consequently, ongoing professional development is considered a critical element of any successful RTI implementation process. At the instructional and support staff levels, changes in the developing knowledge base around assessment practices need to be continually incorporated into implementation. For example, the future of assessment processes is likely to use computer adapted testing (CAT) as a major component of diagnostic evaluation. Currently, RTI implementation has been most influenced by the assessment processes consistent with curriculum-based measurement and curriculum-based assessment. Recently, a major contract by the U.S. Department of Education was awarded to two companies to develop what are likely to be the next generation of state assessments. One of these, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Coalition, will specifically use CAT and will create a series of interim tests used to inform students, parents, and teachers about whether students are on track. As states adopt such statewide measures, the likely examination of such measures for purposes of benchmarking and progress monitoring within RTI systems is certainly going to be evident.

Although in-service professional development is considered a requirement for sustainability, a large and unattended concern for professional development is evident on the pre-service side of training. Institutes for Higher Education are notorious for their rigidity and resistance to change. Unless university faculty are provided with a mechanism to bring new knowledge and systems of instructional process such as RTI into their existing courses, the requirements for teaching new staff how to work within a system delivering RTI will lie entirely with the in-service model. Those graduates who exit their university programs already knowledgeable and skilled in the processes consistent with RTI models are likely to have a huge edge in the job market as well as be the future leaders for sustainable practice.

In Pennsylvania, we began a series of regional Higher Education Forums on RTI offered to all universities throughout the state led by university consultants linked with statewide trainers of RTI. Located strategically across the state to make attendance convenient for interested faculty, a total of five forums were held in 2009–2010. Materials developed for the forums were focused on helping faculty bring the components of RTI into their existing classes and practica experiences. The forums also offered opportunities for intellectual exchange on conceptual and practical aspects of RTI. Although too early to tell if these forums will stimulate changes in course requirements for degrees within higher education programs, survey responses from the participants in the initial year’s forum found that 94.3% indicated they plan to infuse content learned in the forums into their coursework for students, and 62.9% said they plan to redesign entire courses.


Everyone has stories to tell, good and bad, about RTI sustainability. To relate one very good story, Pennsylvania recently asked national, well-known researcher, Dr. Rita Bean, professor emeritus of reading from the University of Pittsburgh, to conduct interviews with elementary school sites in our state that all had at least 3 years of sustained implementation of RTI in literacy. The objective of the interviews was to more fully understand the changes that occurred in staff knowledge and skills in a sustained model of RTI. In these highly effective sustainable implementations, she discovered that staff shared a common language regarding literacy instruction. The staff noted the importance of data-based decision making, that teachers often felt empowered to share expertise, and that they developed an understanding of the sophisticated processes for data analysis. Other key elements of the teacher’s responses reflected understanding of differentiated instruction as well as the importance of collaboration across all educational staff. In addition, staff reported a commitment to real and job embedded life-long learning through the process. Finally, staff reported that although each school had a different approach for shared leadership, all principals recognized the importance and influence that teachers had on the RTI process.

Certainly, there are equally not so good stories to tell. One example was a district that failed to attend to the need for differentiation at the core instruction level in setting up their elementary RTI model. Instead, the school determined that the emphasis would be only on students in need of Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions. The district hired staff as “interventionists” who were required to provide the needed supplemental instruction to these students during a time period designated each day in the schedule. When minimal change in risk level was observed over several years, a blame game began where general education teachers were blaming the interventionist teachers for not getting the students identified as struggling to move forward. The result was that after 3 years of implementation, RTI was abandoned as a “failed experiment.”

The bottom line for sustainability is actually simple—leadership, leadership, leadership! Sustainability will be evident when the leaders at all levels—state, central district, building, and parents—work together in a collaborative framework toward the same goal. The RTI model needs to maintain continual professional development at all levels, and especially needs to consider professional development at the pre-service level, not just the in-service level. As research evolves and solidifies its findings, RTI needs to evolve. New assessment methods are emerging that may address concerns about diagnostic validity of existing methods. New instructional designs are evolving that provide universal design for curriculum that is better linked to state standards. The recent developments of potential national state standards for instruction also are likely to have an impact on RTI. All of these developments and new ones yet to come, must be considered.

Sustainability is clearly a goal and a reachable outcome for RTI. By never resting on our accomplishments and successes alone, we will reach our common goal—the success of ALL children in our schools. This is our goal and RTI is a proven means of successful organizing our resources to reach that goal.


Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A., Friedman, R. M. & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature (FMHI Publication No. 231). Tampa: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, the National Implementation Research Network.

Copyright © 2010 National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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