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Getting RTI Right

Tips for avoiding five common pitfalls of response to intervention programs.

In their first years of implementing a response to intervention program, ­teachers and administrators at the Coppell Independent School District in Texas developed plans, identified progress monitoring tools, set up committees and staff develop­ment, and waited for the positive results to roll in.

But they didn’t. That’s when ­educators realized RTI is a simple concept that is surprisingly complex in implementation.

“It is a mind-set shift for teachers,” says Mechelle Bryson, former director of school improvement for Coppell ISD, who worked with staff on setting up the program in the district. “For years, our educational system has looked at the struggling learner and said, ‘Something must be wrong with you.’ What RTI forces us to do is say, ‘Oh, maybe there’s something wrong with our instruction.’ What RTI requires is that we look to ourselves first.”

Getting RTI right was well worth the effort for Coppell ISD. The district implemented RTI in the 2006–07 school year and, after working out the kinks, saw achievement rise by 2010. Student performance on the state standardized assessment improved. The district had more at-risk students performing at or above grade level, and its state rating increased.

For schools or districts looking to implement RTI, or for those wondering why their existing program is underperforming, we’ve provided a rundown of five common RTI pitfalls, ones experienced at Coppell ISD and elsewhere.

1 | Spotty Screening and Medicore Monitoring
Problem: Quality data on at-risk students and student progress is unavailable. This is likely because tools are not in place, or educators lack the proper training to use them.

Solution: Several screening tools are available, but all require training and time to set up. At Coppell, the staff uses Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), which emphasizes measuring growth over grade.

Every student in grades K–9 participates in the MAP screener in both reading and math at the beginning and end of the school year. Students classified as “at risk” are also assessed in the middle of the year. In grades 10–12, the staff uses two literacy screeners—Maze and a fluency assessment. Staff members also constantly monitor data from district assessments and failure rates.

For progress monitoring, Coppell had been using end-of-chapter tests and other teacher-created measurements. These weren’t linked to end-of-year growth, though, so the data didn’t paint a true picture of student progress. RTI specialists and the district curriculum department decided to go with curriculum-based measurements that are nationally normed, such as Maze reading comprehension probes and Pro-Ed’s math concept and application probes. The district held progress-monitoring training sessions to support the transition to these tools.

2 | Inadequate Analysis
Problem: Effective RTI programs produce lots of data through weekly progress reports, universal screenings, and curriculum benchmarks. But without deep analysis, educators won’t get a clear picture of instructional weaknesses and intervention performance.

Solution: The first step to fixing this problem is emphasizing the need for data-driven dialogues, a clinical approach that puts the focus on facts. It’s straightforward: The data either indicate the intervention is working or it isn’t. Data from screening or progress monitoring tools should be evaluated against the quality of instruction, notes Douglas Fisher, coauthor of Enhancing RTI: How to Enhance Success with Effective Classroom Instruction & Intervention. “You need to be careful that you’re not making decisions about kids’ lack of progress because they were under-taught in previous years.”

At Jackson High School in Massillon, Ohio, data is gathered and analyzed by “mini data teams” of assistant principals and counselors who sit down every nine weeks to crunch the numbers. They look at factors such as grades, attendance, and discipline. “They’re looking at the whole child,” says Jackson principal Monica Myers. Data is viewed in the context of time; a failing grade in the first nine weeks isn’t the same as a second failing grade at 18 or 27 weeks.

3 | Poorly Planned PD
Problem: Programs falter when educators receive ineffective training or end up viewing intervention as an “extra” rather than as an integral part of classroom education.

Solution: If there’s a secret to effective RTI, it may lie in PD that includes job-embedded training, says Ann Cunningham-Morris, director of professional development for ASCD. “It’s more than doing a workshop. It’s combining and integrating what teachers are doing every day.”

At Coppell, when teachers studied Tier 1 instruction, they learned about differentiated instruction, thinking maps, and inquiry-based learning. Margaret Searle, author of What Every School Leader Needs to Know About RTI, says the focus should be on how every teacher can improve Tier 1. “When that tier is solid, you will significantly reduce the number of students who require Tier 2 and 3 interventions.” At Coppell, if administrators see a large number of RTI learners at any one campus, they assess whether Tier 1 teachers need extra support.

In-class modeling and coaching for teachers delivering the most intensive instruction in Tiers 2 and 3 are musts as well. This ongoing support is what separates “one shot” in-service sessions from effective PD. Teachers should also observe one another’s success and share data, says Searle.

4 | Left-Out Leaders
Problem: Busy principals, accustomed to delegating, can get left out of the RTI process, which hampers them from stepping in and holding teachers accountable if things go awry.

Solution: Some delegation is unavoidable, but principals need to be informed of major developments and strategies. They also need to know when data is being ignored or misused. Coppell administrators were trained in conducting data-driven conversations with teachers whose Tier 1 instruction appeared to be missing the mark. Such dialogues focus on the data revealing that the intervention isn’t working rather than whether an individual is a good teacher. The principals ask questions about a student’s growth trajectory, such as, “If growth continues at the current rate, will the student eventually close the gap?” Jackson High’s Myers says if the campus instructional leader doesn’t take ownership of the RTI program, it will not move forward, which is why the program is one of her priorities as principal.

5 | RTI Refferral Syndrome
Problem: Educators can fall into the trap of referring every struggling student to whatever intervention the district has invested in, says Fisher, who likens this approach to the saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ”In this case, it’s “I have this intervention program, so everybody gets it.” Another issue is viewing RTI as a referral tool for special education.

Solution: Although it’s possible a student will ultimately be referred to special education, the goal of RTI is to fill in academic gaps by delivering effective Tier 1 instruction in the general education setting.

Coppell moved oversight of the RTI program from the department of special education to that of curriculum and instruction, which made it clear the program applied to all.

At Jackson High, teachers are informed of the accommodations they can make without moving students out of general education classes. For instance, teachers can have students “double dose,” allowing them to use study-hall time to sit in on a second class of a subject they’re struggling with. Myers says her teachers devised another solution—the Learning Commons, a tutoring center in the library where students can go for Tiers 2 and 3 support. “This evolved from the passion of the teachers,” she says. “The sky’s the limit when you put your heads together.” 

Summer 2014—

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