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Responsiveness to Intervention: Implementation in Schools

Read about the essential components of this new approach for identifying learning disabilites -- and how it can be applied to help your child learn.

By Daryl Mellard, Ph.D.

With the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states and school districts were given more options for how to evaluate public school students for specific learning disabilities (SLD).  One new approach to evaluation that has gained increasing interest is "responsiveness to intervention," or RTI.  In this article, Daryl Mellard, Ph.D., a principal investigator at the Center for Research on Learning Disabilities at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, describes important features of RTI and how this approach might affect school practices, including parent involvement.  This is the second of two articles on this topic; the first article focuses on why and how RTI emerged as an alternative to traditional methods of evaluation for SLD.

Could you describe the practices that must be in place in order for a school to effectively implement the "responsiveness-to-intervention" (RTI) approach to evaluating students for learning difficulties and learning disabilities?

A number of essential RTI components are associated with successful RTI implementation, and parents will want to find out how those components are being implemented in their schools.  Essential components for which the school is responsible are:

  1. Monitor students' progress in the curriculum with technically adequate assessments.
  2. Choose and implement a scientifically proven intervention to address students' deficits.
  3. Follow explicit rules to decide which students are not making sufficient progress or responding to the intervention.
  4. Monitor the student's outcomes in the intervention with at least weekly or biweekly assessments.
  5. Ensure that the intervention is delivered with accuracy and consistency.
  6. Determine the intensity of the support that a student needs in order to be successful.
  7. Provide parents notice of referral and request for a comprehensive evaluation if a disability is suspected.   (Note: The question of when this evaluation should be initiated is somewhat controversial; parents should ask the school to explain its procedure.)

These seven components are essential to rigorous implementation of RTI at the school level - and to scientifically supported practice and high-quality instruction in general education classrooms. In fact, in order for RTI implementation to work well, the general education environment must provide high-quality assessment, curriculum, and instruction for all students, as a foundation on which RTI is added.  If these components are implemented with integrity and in a rigorous manner, the parents and school staff will have a good idea of the type and intensity of intervention needed for each student to succeed.

For the purposes of identifying a specific learning disability (SLD), the seven RTI components address a critical question: Is a child's low achievement due to instructional or curricular factors? When RTI is implemented with rigor, a parent can assume that the child is receiving high-quality instruction and that any persisting achievement or performance problem that arises will be addressed with specific interventions.

From your perspective as a researcher, what are the biggest challenges teachers and schools will face if they decide to adopt the RTI approach to identifying kids with SLD?

School staff face multiple challenges in implementing components of Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI).  One critical task is implementing the technologies of RTI--student assessment (e.g., academic and behavior screening, and progress monitoring) and interventions (e.g., scientifically based interventions that involve multiple tiers, and are of varying intensity).  Especially if we are using this assessment information as a basis to determine if a child has a specific learning disability (SLD), we want to be certain that the information is accurate and answers the critical question: Does the student's academic performance lag behind the performance of other students, in spite of the fact that he has received high-quality instruction?  To use RTI for determination of SLD, we must be certain that the instruction was of high quality and that it was delivered consistently and accurately.

While technology is important, implementation of RTI will only work when school staff integrate RTI as part of their vision for educating children, and for their roles and responsibilities as professionals.  As part of that process, RTI requires changes in personal and social interaction among administrators, teachers, parents, and other professional staff. These participants in the RTI process must make significant changes in their roles and responsibilities.  For example, school staff other than the school psychologist or special education teacher will have a much larger role in terms of time commitments and responsibilities than they have had previously. School-wide screening, as an example, means that all students will be given a common test (e.g., timed reading of a word list) and students' performance will be compared to one another. This is a big change because, typically, the only common school-wide screening measure is a school nurse's health screening for vision problems or scoliosis, not an academic measure. Then staff must review the results, begin discussions about individual students' and classes' performance, and make decisions about which individual students or classes might need further assistance.  You can imagine that if students in one class tend to lag behind students in other classes that some questions will be raised about the quality of teaching in the class that's behind; and then someone will have to figure out how to improve those students' performance.

Another significant challenge of RTI is integrating the approach into the existing structure and/or culture of a school. When a child is struggling with learning, the common goal among well-intentioned staff and parents' is to "get the kid help" so he can achieve on a par with his peers. For the past 25-plus years, "getting the kid help" has meant a referral and assessment for special education services. The presumed advantage of this approach was that the students would receive the help that they needed through special education's additional resources (e.g., small group instruction and teachers with specific training).  RTI is a different system that provides help to a student by working with all students in a class, administering frequent assessments,  and delivering interventions that are specific to an individual child's needs. These components of the RTI model are additional responsibilities for staff, beyond those of the SLD identification model that schools have used since the 1977 IDEA regulations were adopted.

To date, a number of schools, with both large and small enrollments, have successfully focused their RTI efforts in a prevention model, and a much smaller number have implemented the approach as a component of their SLD eligibility decision process. 

Comments from readers

"This article does not discuss the 3 tier system that is part of the structure of RTI. Read this on other sites. This article does not adequately address the names and kinds of programs that are approved as meeting the RTI criteria or where you may find a list of them. And, it does not discuss the use of out of classroom personnel (such as reading specialists and ELD specialists) that would be used as support personnel for students who don't respond to classroom program changes and and yet shouldn't be referred to special ed. yet. "