Keynote Speaker: Michael Yudin - Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Strategic Initiatives, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


That’s a tough act to follow.  Thank you so much for inviting me here today for the opportunity to speak with you here.  Thank you for your advocacy, for your leadership, for your commitment to students.  I am sincerely honored to be a part of this forum.  This is such an important conversation and I am really pleased that you asked the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to come and speak to you about this issue.

As I was preparing for today, I was excited.  I was like all right.  I get to put my disability hat on.  I’ve spent some time doing disability policy and disability advocacy, and I was like great.  This is a great opportunity to put my disability hat back on.  And after I got through my first draft of my remarks I think I actually said the word disability twice.  So this is about struggling students.  This isn’t about what category the kid falls in. This is about struggling students.  So this is my spiel.  I’m the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, and you’re going to hear my spiel.

I think we can all agree that a world-class education is a prerequisite for success.  It’s a moral and it’s an economic imperative.  All kids deserve the opportunity to achieve.  President Obama has said that countries that out-educate us today, out-compete us tomorrow.  A generation ago the United States led the world in college completion.  Today we are 9th.  This is without doubt an economic imperative.  The President has set a goal that by 2020 the United States will once again lead the world in college completion.  And we know that this is a challenging goal, but it’s the right goal for all of our students.

So how are we going to do this?  First, we must raise the expectations for all of our students and for our schools.  It must be a national priority that every student graduates from high school well prepared for college and a career.  It means that we need to graduate all of our students with the skills to compete in the 21st century global economy.  Following the lead of the nation’s governors, we are calling on all states to develop and adopt college and career ready standards in English language arts and math so that students who succeed on these standards are able to enter college without the need for remediation.  Forty states have already adopted these standards.  We are thrilled.  This is a monumental undertaking.  This is a really, really big step moving forward to ensure that our kids actually graduate from high school ready to succeed in college.

To help our students meet these expectations we must focus on improving teaching and learning.  Too many kids are simply struggling and too many kids are not getting the academic instruction necessary to graduate with the skills to succeed.  As folks here may know, the PISA results were recently announced.  They show that America needs to urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive in the global economy.  Secretary Duncan said that, I’m going to quote him, Being average in reading and science and below average in math is not nearly good enough in a knowledge economy where scientific and technological literacy is so central to sustaining innovation and international competitive[ness].  Educators simply need a framework to improve instruction and improve student outcomes.

Response to Intervention originally came to the national forefront as an alternative means of identifying students with learning disabilities and as we all know in IDEA 2004 Congress included a provision to allow school districts to use the framework as part of their evaluation procedures.  But as schools began implementing RTI, educators soon realized that RTI is more than just a diagnostic tool.  It’s a comprehensive data-driven framework for enhancing instruction to improve student outcomes for all students in the general ed curriculum but particularly focusing on the lowest achieving students.  It has in fact become a mechanism for supporting struggling students in general ed.  And research shows that comprehensive RTI models can not only lead to a decrease in appropriate special education referrals, but it improves student engagement and increases student achievement as well.  I’ve met with superintendents who have successfully used RTI as their method of comprehensive school reform.

Implementing RTI requires educators to focus on the instructional supports they provide to students rather than the deficits in the students who are not achieving.  It provides the link between student achievement and instructional approaches.  As a framework for improving instruction and student outcomes, RTI is driven by individual student need for effective instruction as determined by on-going progress monitoring.  While there are multiple approaches to RTI and the Department does not support one particular approach, we define RTI as a multi-level framework to maximize student achievement by supporting students at risk for poor learning outcomes.  And it begins with a foundation of high-quality research-based core instruction for all students aligned with the states’ academic achievement standards.  All students, regardless of income level, native language, or disability status, must have access to core instruction and conditions must be in place for all students to be taught successfully.

Core instruction includes whole group instruction and small group instruction such as reading groups.  And we expect that such instruction will be differentiated, that is, using data to determine the proper teaching and learning tools to meet the needs of each student.  Differentiated instruction ensures that all children have access to the general curriculum, but in a manner that responds to their individual needs rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach.  It is important for me to note that while core instruction is the foundation of RTI it is an expectation that school districts and schools will provide that high-quality core instruction.

I know that everyone else here knows the key elements of RTI better than I do, but universal screening, increasingly intensive interventions, progress monitoring—I’m not going to go through all of those.  But I do want to kind of talk for just a few minutes about another kind of topic and that is while much of the work around RTI has been conducted in the elementary grades where the focus is on learning basic skills and quite simply it’s organizationally easier to implement RTI in the elementary grades, research shows that there is real significant promise for RTI for students at the high school level.  And specifically for monitoring the success of targeted interventions focused on transitions and dropout prevention.  With one in four U.S. public school students leaving high school before graduation, America continues to face a dropout epidemic.  We know the numbers, we know that the odds of graduating from high school are significantly worse if the student is African American, Hispanic, Native American or has a disability.  In 2002 the nation had 2,000 high schools that were considered dropout factories.  That’s about 15% of all of our high schools.  These dropout factories where 60% or less of the 9th grade students graduated four years later produced half, more than half of the dropouts in this country.  So that’s 15% of all high schools produce a majority of our dropouts.  And almost ¾ of our African American and Latino boys and girls dropped out from these schools as well.  So that was 2002.  America’s Promise Grad Nation report recently came out.  Six years later they looked at data from 2008.  Six years later the picture is not one of an unyielding status quo of failure, but actually of real change.  More than 900 of these 2,000 schools were classified as dropout factories no longer met this criteria in 2008.   Nationwide 400,000 fewer students were enrolled in dropout factories in 2008 than in 2002, a decline of 15%.  And the number of high school dropout factories fell from about 2,000 to about 1,750.  High school graduation rates have increased significantly across 29 states.  Tennessee and New York led the nation in boosting high school graduation rates with breakthrough gains of 15% and 10% respectively.

The Department takes this very seriously.  As folks may know we have our school improvement grants, our SIG effort, we have provided 3.5 billion dollars to turn around our consistently lowest achieving schools.  Out of these $3.5 billion already given out, 48% of these schools that are implementing one of our SIG models are high schools.  Turning around low-performing high schools is absolutely critical.  There is a strong body of research identifying which kids are at risk of dropping out of school and we can use the data to identify students for interventions through instructional framework like RTI before they fail, before they drop out.

Many of the risk factors associated with dropping out of high school can be identified in the first year of high school such as student attendance, grades, promotion status, and other engagement criteria.  In fact, we can actually get this data as early as the 8th grade.  And we can make sure that research-based interventions are available for those kids that are most at risk.  I believe that there really are a lot of opportunities to make some real improvements particularly in regards to this critical area as high school improvement.

I’m not going to talk all day.  I’d rather actually engage in some conversation so I’m going to actually wrap up my remarks with a couple of thoughts.  One is that successful implementation of RTI can only occur if teachers and leaders have the ability to implement RTI with fidelity.  Of course this means high quality and sustained professional development.  Because high quality instruction is key to the success of RTI, staff development is critical.  This underscores one of the Administration’s key principles:  that great teachers and great leaders matter.  And what happens inside those classrooms matter.  RTI is an important tool to be put in the arsenal of teachers, to help improve the teaching and learning in schools and it’s the Department’s mission to support practices and systems that help teachers and leaders improve their craft.

I look forward to sharing more, learning more, discussing more with you about your experiences with RTI and your thoughts on creating a world-class education system for all of our students.  All students deserve the best and I’m exciting to be working with you.  Thank you.Back To Top
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