RTI and SLD Identification in Pennsylvania

Beginnings: Establishing the Response to Instruction and Intervention Infrastructure



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    In the fall of 2005, Ed Shapiro (Lehigh University) and I approached officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education to discuss the new language in IDEA 2004 regarding the use of response to intervention (RTI) as an alternative assessment procedure in the identification of specific learning disabilities (SLD). Although the IDEA regulations were still to be enacted, it was clear to us that Pennsylvania needed to get started on planning for RTI. Those initial meetings were successful and soon a planning group of technical assistance consultants from Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) were working with us on rolling out initial training for Pennsylvania school districts.

    Our initial thrust in providing training for school districts during these early years was the premise that a school district should not use RTI for eligibility decision making unless it had first established an infrastructure of supports and procedures that would allow scientifically based interventions to be implemented with a high degree of fidelity. It was our belief, then and now, that it is inappropriate to attempt to measure a student’s RTI if appropriate instruction and robust interventions could not be verified. In essence, you can't assess a student’s “R” (response) if you can’t verify the “I” (intervention). Consequently, the bulk of our training for the first 5 years focused on how schools could develop a multi-tier system of supports (i.e., a three-tier model). The components of that model included standards-aligned core instruction, universal screening of basic skills, teaming to analyze data and plan interventions, research-based interventions linked to assessment results, flexible scheduling to provide time for interventions, and progress monitoring. Information about PaTTAN’s training models can be accessed through the Response to Instruction and Intervention section of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) website.

    As with similar efforts in other states (e.g., Florida), the development of this infrastructure was positioned as a general education initiative for systems change, rather than as “a special education thing.” In fact, the initial statewide training session, which was attended by hundreds of Pennsylvania educators, was entitled “RTI: A Schoolwide Framework for Student Success.” Further, within a few years of implementation, Gerald Zahorchak, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Education, re-labeled the initiative as “Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTII)” to emphasize the importance of establishing robust core instructional practices in general education. Secretary Zahorchak also sent a memo to the field indicating that RTII would be the vehicle for implementing Pennsylvania’s Standards Aligned System, which is the central operating principle of the PDE. Thus, from its early days, Pennsylvania's RTII program had as its goal the improvement of outcomes for all students rather than primarily being an alternate method for identifying students with SLD. In line with this orientation, PaTTAN established an RTII advisory group consisting of stakeholders from all branches of Pennsylvania education, including parent advocacy organizations.

    Initial training for RTII was carried out with a three-pronged approach. First, seven elementary schools were selected from a competition to serve as pilot sites where intensive training could be conducted and training modules could be honed. Ed Shapiro and I, along with training consultants from PaTTAN, spearheaded this effort. Second, general informational sessions on RTII were held throughout the Commonwealth. Finally, technical assistance consultants from Pennsylvania's 29 intermediate units (IUs) received special training in the RTII components. Along with PaTTAN, IUs provide support to Pennsylvania school districts, providing local expertise to RTII implementers.

    In regard to the use of RTI in the identification of students with SLD, IDEA has allowed states a number of options in terms of implementation. States are allowed to mandate RTI or to leave the choice to local school districts. Because of our belief that school should not use RTI for eligibility decision making until the necessary infrastructure is developed, Pennsylvania has chosen to allow RTI to be a local school district option rather than mandate it across the board. In fact, PDE requires local school districts to apply for permission to use RTI for SLD identification. School district must pass stringent criteria to be approved. These criteria and the approval process will be described in a future blog post. One group that seemed to be appreciative of this approach is parents of children with SLD. I recall meeting a parent at a statewide forum on Pennsylvania's special education standards that featured an explanation of RTI. Paraphrasing her comments, she expressed dismay at replacing an “objective” identification system with a “subjective” one. After I explained the rigor that was being built into the RTI training and the then-proposed approval process, her very on-target comment was “Don't make it look easy!” I think that PDE has succeeded in meeting her expectations.
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