Response to Intervention, RTI, is a phenomena resulting from the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA. There are no laws controlling how this intervention is to occur, by whom, and for how long. Its intent is a good one. It addresses the legal requirement to rule out whether or not the child’s problems are caused by lack of instruction or poor instruction before consideration of special education services can be made. An entire system of federal organizations and grants arose around RTI, as well as a specific vocabulary. Its goal is to prevent the need to refer to special education, having the child’s problems solved through general education. It is intended to apply to two categories of students. One is a disproportionate enrollment of racial and ethnic minorities into special education, segregating them from the general population. The other targets those students who would be considered to have a learning disability. It does not consider developmental issues or the essential timing of the mastery of basic skills. Reading is a primary focus of much of RTI. Its added layer of bureaucracy for parents, children and teachers is a growing irony, all victims of the “Look and Guess” method that avoids both objective evaluation and special education. In the end, RTI is actually a staff development tool to help teachers better individualize instruction in the general classroom. It is a combination of Inclusion mania, a mandate for teachers to update their skills to meet a student’s special needs, and a magic trick to make it seem that less and less children require special education. Meanwhile, student reading levels of the United States have been stagnant for at least 20 years.
In October 2011, the National Center for Learning Disabilities published “A Parent’s Guide to Response-to-Intervention” by Candace Cortiella, Director of The Advocacy Institute (http://www.ncld.org/publications-a-more/parent-advocacy-guides/a-parent-guide-to-rti?t). “RTI is not a special kind of program or book. It is a way to help all students succeed, including struggling learners. Ultimately, the goal of RTI is to prevent failure and make all students successful.” We are told that the manner in which states do RTI varies greatly, so parents are to check with their individual schools. Among the important terms to know are:
Benchmarks: The expected grade-level performance of the student. (How do we know what to expect?)
Curriculum-Based Measurement: A method teachers use to find out how students are progressing in basic academic areas such as math, reading, writing and spelling. (Teach to the test long enough to make sure students pass it.)
Data-Based Decision Making: The use of student data to guide design, implementation and adjustment of instruction. (Where does this “data” come from? Is it objective? Or does the result of teacher and staff guessing become data?)
Fidelity of Implementation: Using instruction or materials in the way they are supposed to be used. An RTI process must be implemented with fidelity. (Are you overwhelmed by nausea? Has anybody been in a school lately?)
Intervention: A change in instructing a student in an area of learning or behavioral difficulty to try and improve performance and achieve adequate progress. (How do they know what adequate progress is?)
Progress Monitoring: A scientifically based practice used to assess students’ academic performance and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. Progress monitoring can be implemented with individual students or an entire class. (Whoa, Nelly! You mean I can use the average of the entire class to monitor an individual student’s progress? Now that is really good scientific practice!)
Scientific, Research-Based Instruction: Curriculum and educational interventions that are research based and have been proven to be effective for most students. (Who did the research? The company selling the books or program. And how about the use of the phrase “most students”? How individualized can it be for one student in trouble?)
School-based team: A group of school personnel who work collaboratively to address the needs of struggling students. Schools use a variety of terms for school-based teams such as educational support team, instructional intervention team, multidisciplinary team, problem-solving team, student assistance team, or student progress monitoring team. (Now it’s getting scary. The blind leading the blind. And there are no rules as to who sits on these teams.)
Universal screening; A step taken by school personnel early in the school year to identify or predict students who may be at risk for poor learning outcomes. Universal screening tests are typically brief, conducted with all students at a grade level, and followed by additional testing as required. (If a child is at risk, they must be referred to special education. Yet, with RTI, they will likely go to the school based team and not receive comprehensive evaluations.)
This little booklet reminds us that there is no single model of RTI and that everybody does it differently. The author presents three tiers of intervention:
It is suggested that parents request written intervention plans. The suggestions for the content of that plan mirror the content of an IEP, though the author is careful to point out that this written plan is not an IEP. Even so, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck- well, there you are.
The National Assessment of IDEA Overview was published by the U.S. Department of Education in July of 2011. It explained the identification of students needing special education and the basis for creating “Coordinated Early Intervening Services (CEIS)”.
The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA introduced several interrelated changes related to the identification of children with disabilities. These changes focus on two broad areas. First, the 2004 reauthorization attempts to address over- representation of racial and ethnic minority students in special education (“disproportionality”) by allowing districts to use some of their IDEA Part B funds to develop and implement Coordinated Early Intervening Services for students who are not yet identified as needing special education but who need additional support to succeed in a general education environment. Second, the 2004 legislation introduced changes in the identification of students in the disability category of Specific Learning Disability (SLD). Response to Intervention (RTI) is linked both to CEIS and to changes in eligibility criteria for students with SLD. CEIS funds can be used to implement an RTI process and data from the RTI process can be used as one component of the eligibility determinations.
So we see that:
In order to understand the intention of RTI, then, it is crucial to distinguish between these two educational agendas. Districts can use up to 15% of its IDEA money “to develop and provide services for children who are not yet identified as in need of special education.” RTI is mandated if a local school district is sited by the State as having a disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic groups in special education…
These services are for students K-12, with particular emphasis on grades K-3. 82% of the school districts using Part B money for RTI services use it for literacy instruction, behavioral and math interventions are 63%, adaptive and instructional software is 55%, educational evaluations is 43%, and behavioral evaluations is 47%. 93% of RTI mandated services are at the elementary school level.
Relative to a child’s eligibility for the category of Specific Learning Disability, OSEP has funded several national centers addressing RTI. That information can be used as one component among many when considering eligibility. Of particular interest, OSEP allowed both behavioral and educational evaluations to occur without parental consent as part of RTI, “as a possible means of implementing RTI.” Currently, all but two states have RTI task forces. It is used in 61% of all elementary schools, 45% of middle schools, and 29% of high schools. Funding for RTI services show that 80% comes from general funds, 46% from Title 1, 41% from IDEA and 13% using IDEA Coordinated Early Intervening Services funds, or a total of 54% from IDEA. I’m not sure how all of this actually breaks down, but have taken these numbers directly from the federal report.
As difficult as it is to understand the uniform standards and requirements of IDEA, it is impossible to fully grasp exactly what is happening with RTI. It is a grey fog spreading over all of public school education, clouding clear concepts, clear numbers, and clear results. Based upon the most recent publications, it is evident that states, the federal government and local school districts are making it up as they go along. Children are supposed to be able to read by the end of third grade at the latest- no question about this. Yes, that does not hold true for ESL students and those from impoverished childhoods. On average, everybody agrees that third grade is the line of demarcation in reading mastery. But all of a sudden with RTI, there is a vast new group of entrepreneurs who are selling reading programs for middle and high school students. (See http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2011/10/13/01moore.h05.html) Reading tutor, Al Moore, is working with a high school freshman boy, the sunlight shining in on his blank face as his adolescent body sits in a chair, Mr. Moore standing in front of him. “Moore aims to identify effective reading programs for struggling students based on their individual need.” Then it says that Moore specializes in “cognitive based programs designed to address the neurobiological dysfunctions correlated with reading disorders and learning disabilities…he has more than 10 years in the reading remediation field.” Honestly, this makes me crazy! The guy is selling remediation snake oil when any kid who isn’t reading by 9th grade, or 4th, needs immediate and intensive help from somebody who knows that we are not giving remediation, but special education. If you want a list of the recognized reading programs and their websites, go to http://www.bestevidence.org/reading/strug/top.htm). Intervention standards for a general education student are far weaker than in special education because general education students are not considered to have a handicap if they are not classified. Therefore, any look and guess method of generic reading intervention is acceptable. Add budget cuts and politics to this poisonous brew. Lie down and drink the Kool-Aid because we’re all done for. It is a Jim Jones doomsday scenario that is completely unnecessary. Do it right in the beginning and we won’t have to fix it later.
Finally, Robert Slavin wrote an Education Week blog, “Building a Better System of Special Education” on 11/16/11 (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/sputnik/2011/11/
He talks about the majority of special ed kids having learning disabilities “that can be prevented or solved using well-established interventions. For example, most children with reading difficulties just need effective classroom teaching supplemented by proven small-group or 1-1 tutoring. Most children who have emotional difficulties just need effective classroom management and proven behavioral strategies.” He bemoans that “the overwhelming focus in special education has been on laws, regulations, and policies, rather than the nitty-gritty of how to help teachers ensure success in the first place.” He wants to fix the broken school system, concluding “the only way to reduce damage to the last car in the train (the special ed student) is to build a better train system, which ensures that all cars make it to their destination successfully.” He wants improved teacher training as do we all. But RTI must not serve as that laboratory where we experiment with the lives of children while teachers learn how to individualize programs and diagnose instructional problems. He is both right and terribly wrong. We don’t know how to improve the system and teachers do not know how to ensure success. Their teacher training programs are abysmal, so that his train wreck starts with the locomotive that pulls the train and not the little caboose at the end of the track. Meantime, the idea of IDEA is the only protection children with suspected disabilities have.
On this Thanksgiving week, I give thanks for many things. But those do not include this mess of miscommunication and intent called RTI.