Questions and Perspectives About RTI

Recently, my school, Tongue River Elementary in Ranchester, Wyoming, was identified in an article written by Kate Rix for the June ’08 Scholastic Administrator. The article was thoughtful, well written, and reflective. In the article, Kate Rix brought up some questions and perspectives that I thought would provide some dialogue about RTI and RTI implementation. Over the next few weeks, I will address some of the questions and perspectives brought up in that article. I would love to hear the thoughts of those in the field.


For school leaders looking to increase achievement and reduce costly special education referrals, RTI is extremely popular. You can’t go to a conference without hearing about it. But RTI is hard to define: It’s unproven in terms of large-scale research and, according to some, it’s really a thinly cloaked effort to reduce special ed costs, which hover around 14 percent nationally.

(Kate Rix, Scholastic Administrator, June, 2008).

Questions and my response

Is RTI hard to define?

Kate Rix states in the article, "RTI is very popular".  If you were to investigate educational literature, you would find a lot of information about RTI and RTI implementation. One of the most succinct definitions I have come across comes from the book Response to Intervention: Principles and Strategies for Effective Practice by Rachel Brown-Chidsey and Mark W Steege.  In their book, they define the RTI model as "…an objective examination of the cause-effect relationship(s) between academic or behavior intervention and the student’s response to a specific reading instruction".   They explain the model as a three-tier prevention based model that addresses instruction and student learning in the following manner:

Prevention-Based Model

Primary (Tier 1): Before any problems exist: Scientifically based general education instruction with regular progress monitoring;

Secondary (Tier 2): Intensive small-group scientifically based instruction with regular progress monitoring.  This tier is implemented at the first sign of problems;

Tertiary (Tier 3): This tier is designed to reduce effects of problems.  It consists of a comprehensive evaluation for special education services using a problem solving model.

For RTI to be truly effective in supporting student learning, Brown-Chidsey and Steege state that three essential elements including  effective instruction, data recording, and systematic review of data to inform instruction, be supported at each tier. 

In our school, we found the framework described above to be a roadmap that we could use to provide more meaningful and direct reading instruction for all of our students.  Knowing and providing skill based instruction at the child’s instructional level based on solid assessment data created a more focused environment for our teachers.  We have all become better reading teachers as we spend more time in directed professional development centered around reading, reading interventions, and the use of data to make instructional decisions.  As one teacher in my school put it… "I have become a much better reading teacher.  I now know that when I try a reading strategy with kids, I am getting immediate feedback that tells me whether I am having an impact on their learning".

So to answer the first part of the question, RTI is not hard to define.  It does take a lot of work to implement, and a lot of time needs to be spent in professional development, having conversations about learning, and time spent on data interpretation, but it is not hard to define.

Is RTI Unproven?

There are many research studies that demonstrate that early intervention, systematic and explicit instruction and a tiered model for instruction have been very successful in raising student reading achievement. You need to go no further than the new publication provided by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Response to Intervention: Research for Practice, to get a concise and up-to-date representation of research that supports the implementation of RTI. (Book is a complement to: Response to Intervention: Policy Considerations and Implementation).

On a personal note, our school has experienced an increase in the number of students who can read at grade level when compared with previous school years.  That is all the evidence I need to know that RTI is an effective model.


Is RTI "a thinly cloaked effort to reduce special ed costs"?

In my school, the implementation of RTI was never used as a method to reduce special education referrals.  We never talked about "reducing special education costs". Implementation was always about getting more children reading at grade level.  To do that, we knew we had to be more explicit and systematic in our instructional delivery.   We did have to address the cost of implementation.  To implement RTI, we knew we had to have a strong core reading curriculum that addressed the five ideas of reading instruction (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency) and be supported by reading research.  To support student learning, we had to research and purchase instructional interventions for each tier.  We used the DIBELS data warehouse at the University of Oregon to store our assessment data at $1.00 per child per year.  Altogether, a reading curriculum, intervention strategies, and a data support system can be costly.  Add time for professional development, and your costs go up even more. But, as we had more and more students reading at grade level, the benefits far out-weighed the costs.  Our focus was never about reducing referrals for special education.  It was about getting more children reading at grade level.
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