When I first began teaching, RTI meant nothing beyond some variation of this pyramid of tiers:
My good friend and veteran teacher said that after all these years, RTI just means one inevitable RTI session in the beginning of the year, and a binder full of dense teacher forms that collects dust on the shelf all year. When I asked a first year teacher, he shared, hesitantly, that RTI is the list of things he has to do before referring a student to special education…maybe.
Herein lies one problem with the practical application of RTI. There was a well-intentioned rush to apply it swiftly, and on a broad scale. But without the support of proper training and staff, it was applied vaguely, theoretically, and squarely on the shoulders of teachers.
Not only that, but the pyramid seems to be based on the notion that 80% of a school’s students are functioning on grade level and making strong progress without any additional support. This is often an unrealistic assumption to make in a high needs, high-poverty school. My second year as an interventionist, my supervisor pointed to a very red excel spreadsheet projected on the wall and stated, in front of the entire middle school staff, that 60% of our students were Tier 3 students. I looked to my left and my right, meeting the eyes of the two other teachers that completed our entire intervention team, and drew a steeling breath. The pyramid was suddenly turned on its head.
(For those who can empathize all too well with my panic: What my supervisor most likely meant was that 60% of the students were well below grade level. This is the danger of simply using cookie cutter cut-off scores to determine tiers. It is impossible to have 60% of the student population in an intensive pull out group of 1-4 students. The group size inevitably grows and renders the interventions ineffective. When a high-needs school implements RTI, the 20% in Tiers 2 and 3 must be respected as much as possible. This can only happen when RTI starts with creating a robust Tier 1 that truly addresses the entire needs of at least 80% of the students. That may look different for different schools, but could include longer literacy blocks, more independent and guided reading, and time for stations that target below grade level skills.)
Through this series, I will address common misconceptions and challenges such as these. I hope you will not only understand what RTI is, but also how RTI can actually work in a high needs school. I’ll share the practical aspects of initially placing students, setting appropriate intervention goals, shifting students into different interventions through data-based decision making, and involving families. In the last seven years, I’ve worked within the RTI process as a classroom teacher, an interventionist, and as a coordinator both in the elementary and middle school setting. I hope that the wrong turns, insights, and breakthroughs that have resulted from my trial by error journey will save you grief and stress and multiply your successful student outcomes.
If I do not address an issue that comes up for you, please feel free to contact me at Sandra@GrowingReadersDC.com.