Conditions and Context Matter – A Lot!

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    At a national education conference I attended recently, there were numerous sessions on RTI and its application (in excess of 20 sessions). Each of the seven sessions on RTI that I attended was presented by those who were centrally involved in implementing an RTI program at the school level. There were two common threads running through each of these presentations. First, there was a detailed description of the various components of their RTI system (e.g., how universal screening was conducted — including tools used and mechanics of scoring and interpreting the data, decision rules used to make instructional decisions about students based on screening results, a description of the evidence-based practices used and how their fidelity of implementation was measured and the frequency of doing these checks, and how progress monitoring was conducted). Second, there was very little, if any, time spent describing the conditions or contextual factors that existed in their schools and/or districts that supported the successful implementation of the RTI program that they were describing.

    When practitioners hear about effective RTI models at conferences or read about their successful implementation in the professional literature, they need to understand the conditions or contextual factors in the school or district in which RTI was successfully implemented as much as they understand the elements or features of the RTI program being implemented. In other words, educational innovations like RTI gain most traction in settings that provide the necessary conditions to support their use. Less successful implementations elsewhere may be caused by an absence of supporting conditions, rather than because of the particular RTI procedures, per se. If this is the case, we need to spend much more time describing the supporting conditions that exist in a given school or district that enable an RTI program to be successful.

    Because RTI consists of numerous components (e.g., multiple instructional tiers, progress monitoring), it must function as a well-orchestrated system to be effective. Effective implementation is dependent on:

    • Significant and sustained investments in professional development programs to provide teachers with the array of skills required to effectively implement RTI as well as to deal with ongoing staff turn over.
    • Engaged administrators who set expectations for adoption and implementation of RTI, provide the necessary resources, and support the use of procedures that ensure fidelity of implementation.
    • District level support to hire teachers who embrace RTI principles and possess the pre-requisite skills to implement it effectively in their classes.
    • A willingness of teachers and other educators (e.g., school psychologists, special educators, speech-language pathologists, social workers, andreading specialists) to have their roles redefined in ways to support effective implementation.
    • The degree to which staff is given sufficient time to “make sense of” and accommodate RTI into their instructional framework, and have their questions and concerns addressed.
    • The degree to which decisions regarding the adoption of RTI is perceived by teachers and administrators as being one in which their voice has been heard and respected as opposed to having its adoption solely a “top down” decision.


    In short, a failure to ask questions about the factors that surround and support RTI implementation may prevent practitioners from understanding the complete picture. This may lead to adoption of another site's RTI model based on the incorrect assumption that the success of the other site’s model (as reported in the literature) is due to what happens in the classroom during the RTI implementation process. In reality, there are many situational factors that have supported and account for its successful implementation. These factors are as important to identify and understand as are the actual components of the RTI model itself.

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