Response to Intervention

Reshaping RTI: Building a Better Triangle

The controversial three-tiered, triangular instructional model is getting stretched in new directions by educators who favor holistic, proactive support strategies over formal remediation.

Who couldn't use a little R&R?

Virginia Buysse is all for it. Except that in her case it's not rest and recreation she's pushing for, and clearly she's hoping for more than a little. A senior scientist at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Buysse directs a research program on recognition and response (R&R), a new method of universal screening she helped develop that looks to detect and address learning deficits through intervention in early childhood. While it is derived from the traditional response to intervention (RTI) model, R&R is specifically designed for very young children.

Following a successful pilot implementation carried out by Buysse and her colleagues in fall 2009 at 24 pre-kindergarten classrooms in Maryland and Florida that included more than 350 4-year-old children, R&R will soon be tested at public school-based pre-K programs in North Carolina, with funding from the US Department of Education. And while the program won't displace conventional RTI, "we'll have a chance to think about doing things a little differently," Buysse says.

How differently? What R&R does, Buysse explains, is shift RTI's notion of intervention as something remedial to something that benefits all students regardless of their developmental level. Teachers focus on early language and literacy development, conducting universal screening and progress monitoring for all children (recognition); offering a core curriculum for all children, plus small-group interventions for some (response); and making decisions and solving problems collaboratively, guided by data.

"We developed R&R to support every child, and we're the first to implement it with pre-kindergarten children," Buysse says. "We took the best ideas from RTI and then adapted them for a younger age group. It's just taking the model and doing some minor tweaking to make it relevant and acceptable to teachers of younger children."

Marking a New Brand
R&R is part of a movement in education to expand the objectives of RTI, an instructional framework that caught on with educators after it was mentioned in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into law 30 years earlier. Intended as an alternative to IQ tests for identifying achievement gaps, RTI provides techniques to spot at-risk students early on through universal screening, a stage known as Tier 1. Progress is then monitored through regular, technology-based assessments, and students deemed at risk for academic or behavioral learning deficits are moved into Tier 2 for targeted help. The goal is to help students remain in mainstream classes rather than channel them into special education programs. Only when Tier 2 interventions don't produce results is the student escalated to Tier 3 for more intensive remediation and referred for special ed services.

In 2006, Buysse and her research team published a report in which they reviewed the literature on RTI, with an eye toward "how it might pertain to pre-K," she says. In conjunction with the report, they recommended an alternative approach, renaming the new framework to set it apart.

"We wanted to brand this particular model of RTI for younger children," Buysse says, adding that the researchers were influenced by their own test marketing of the term RTI. "It didn't go over very well. People thought it sounded like special education." The same focus groups reacted favorably to recognition and response.

The key distinction between the two models is in the delivery of Tier 2 interventions to struggling students. R&R takes a more holistic approach, folding what students learn in small-group instruction into the general curriculum, as opposed to the explicit tutoring that RTI dispenses to school-age children. Formal diagnosis and labeling are deliberately avoided.

"We never refer to it as tutoring, for example," Buysse says. "What we do in small groups just looks like what teachers would normally do with a large group of children, but they're now doing it with a targeted group of four children or five."

Buysse says R&R supplements targeted instruction with "embedded learning opportunities"--those that are integrated into whole-classroom lessons (such as shared storybook reading) and allow students to call on the skills they practice in their small groups.

"At least in my reading of the school-age RTI models, that's not commonly talked about at all," Buysse says. "What I don't see in the literature is any discussion about what happens outside of the tutoring opportunities. It just talks about how often this happens, for what length of time, how long the sessions are. But there's never any discussion of, well, outside of tutoring, what are children doing? That's a key difference. We're seeing this not as just something that happens 15 minutes a day in small-group lessons."

In the FPG pilot study, teachers performed universal screenings of all the children and used those results to select a target group of four children from each classroom (for a total of 96 target children). The students received daily language and literacy support in small groups for two months and were monitored throughout the intervention.


In May 2009, T.H.E. Journal published a feature story explaining and analyzing response to intervention. Read "Instruct. Assess. Repeat." at

The researchers administered standardized assessments of language and literacy skills to both the target children and a comparison group before and after the intervention. According to Buysse, the results were statistically significant and showed that children who received the targeted interventions made greater gains in language and literacy (specifically, letter naming, vocabulary, sound awareness, and print knowledge) than their classmates. What's more, the pre-K teachers were able to implement the model easily, with 97 percent accuracy, and 92 percent said they would recommend it to other teachers.

Core, Plus More
While R&R is still experimental, a shift in the basic implementation of RTI is well under way at many schools, generally with the same intent: to move beyond categorizing students to more inclusive procedures for dealing with academic deficiencies.

"What schools typically do is polarize kids," says Carol Gibbs, principal of North Elementary School in School District 62 in Des Plaines, IL. "They try different things for different kids. The kids who need the most work are pulled out from the core, are fractured. For us it's very simple--we try to get all the kids reading."

Gibbs says her district had been working with an RTI program for a couple of years, but it wasn't suited to the academic realities of her school. In the fall of 2009, 75 percent of the kindergartners coming into North could not name a single letter of the alphabet. "Most places," Gibbs says, "look at their kids and say, 'We have struggling learners, so what are we going to do? Well, we're going to put all those kids into Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions.'"

But ticketing three-quarters of the kindergarten class for specialized intervention wasn't feasible or constructive. And it would have meant leaping right to remediation without attempting to improve core instructional practices.

"You have to change that first triangle--Tier 1," Gibbs says. "People mess up RTI because they don't change the core. Not at our school. We clearly had to layer in other pieces. We had to amp it up--we had to look at technology. I had to change the whole model of how we do business."

The result was a new core--"core plus more," Gibbs calls it--that relies heavily on instructional technology, including a combination of materials from Fundations from Wilson Language Training and Jolly Phonics from Jolly Learning, as well as literacy programs such as Lexia Learning Systems' Lexia Reading, Taylor Associates' Reading Plus, and Pearson's Words Their Way.

"We allow all kids access to it," Gibbs says. "They don't have to be struggling, they don't have to be in an intervention. I would say 80 percent of our kids get core plus more, and it's still Tier 1." The school uses another Pearson product--AIMSweb (AIMS stands for Academic Improvement Monitoring System)--for thrice-yearly screening and assessment of all students.

Staying with What works

While adaptations of the response to intervention model are blooming, Keith Dreiberg, psychological services and RTI coordinator for San Bernardino City Unified School District (CA), chooses to stick with a rigorous RTI structure, which the district implemented six years ago. With 86 percent of the district's students defined as living in poverty and 66 percent learning English as a second language, Dreiberg says the only way San Bernardino can make any progress is through stringent academic monitoring and data-based interventions.

"You really need to be doing schoolwide screenings three times a year," he says. "Some groups are monitored more than three times a year. Poverty is a huge interference factor. You don't come prepared for learning and you're not reinforced for learning. We monitor progress weekly or biweekly for the greatest at-risk kids."

San Bernardino uses a battery of assessment and monitoring tools, ranging from Pearson's AIMSweb to a range of programs culled from What Works Clearinghouse, a US Department of Education online resource for educational products, programs, standards, and practices. "It's the Consumer Reports of education," Dreiberg says. "For example, if a kid has a problem with comprehension, there are multiple tools you can use to support that."

In light of the uphill academic battle his students face despite so much support, Dreiberg is skeptical of alternative educational techniques that claim to show the same results as a formal RTI program. He points out that what works for an affluent, homogeneous group of students simply breaks down when variables such as extreme poverty and severe learning deficits are thrown into the mix.

"Show me your data," Dreiberg says to his colleagues. "If you're meeting state requirements for student growth, you may not need RTI. But with the new federal focus on proficiency, the bar will be much higher. How can you be sure all your kids are making growth? They all need to be within 10 data points of one another."

To pull that off, Dreiberg says, requires an in-depth understanding of the philosophy of RTI, which tends to get overlooked in the debate over its implementation. "It's data-driven decision-making in the context of instruction. We look at it as a pyramid, with one side being problem solving, another side being instruction, and another side being data-driven."

Dreiberg lays emphasis on that third piece. "You need data points to see if something has worked or not," he says. "Without technology and without data analysis, we could never do it."

Gibbs' new "flexible and robust" core hit the target. Eighty percent of kindergarten students scored at or above the school's "green" (grade level) reading group at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, "which is what you'd expect," she says, "rather than the 75 percent at Tier 3, which is where we started."

According to Gibbs, the failure of many RTI implementations is that they suffer from a kind of cart-before-the-horse syndrome--an ingrained practice of letting programs determine what and how students are taught. "That's the other piece," she says. "Programs always drive instruction. That's the way our school system has worked. It doesn't work anymore.

"We have backed off from that model. What the kids need to learn should drive programs. There's no more ESL curriculum. There's no more special ed curriculum. It's all literacy. Our instructors are members of a professional learning community and are aligned under one vision and one goal--get those kids to learn how to read."

An Ounce of Prevention
Gibbs has a kindred spirit in Greg Firn, who is also something of a contrarian with respect to RTI. "Personally, I believe RTI is flawed," he says. As superintendent of Anson County Schools, a rural district about 45 miles east of Charlotte, NC, Firn, like Gibbs, developed an alternative way to tackle academic deficiencies after a standard intervention method wasn't working. "We have changed the whole RTI model," he says.

Unlike Gibbs, he put a name on his modified approach: "We wanted to move from an RTI model to a PTI model, which is 'prevention to intervention.'"

What that means in practice is a systematic, technology-centered instructional program whose first principle is to avert, before having to remedy, learning deficits. As an example of how it works, Firn cites incoming Anson County seventh-graders, all of whom take a reading-progress assessment from Fast ForWord, a literacy program developed by Scientific Learning. Students who don't demonstrate proficiency on the test receive strategic interventions that vary according to the level of the students' struggles. That may conjure up the RTI model, but Firn says the interventions are done early and in tandem with vigorous assessment to apprehend problems before they grow into something that requires strict remediation. The standard RTI implementation intervenes only after the student has shown an inability to learn.

"We are intervening, but we're intervening with aggressive strategies to prevent further failure to learn," Firn says. "Something failed with respect to instruction. There was a disconnect between teaching and learning. We're recognizing that if we don't use these strategies, we cannot curb the failed learning that the student encountered in grade 6."

It's also recognition that the root of students' struggles needs to be diagnosed and addressed, which, according to Firn, RTI bypasses by emphasizing remediation. "We need to know whether or not instruction is effective. RTI is the wrong term. It really needs to be 'response to instruction' that determines the type of intervention the teacher does."

Firn shares Gibbs' goal, and that of a lot of other educators, of getting away from explicit designations and categorizing. He says his method "minimizes the dissonance between special ed and regular ed." All Anson County students have access to technology-based instructional programming. For example, every middle schooler does a regular protocol that supplements existing instruction with Fast ForWord software to build reading skills. Depending on need, some students are on the protocol every day, some every other day; some 55 minutes, some 30 minutes.

"Our advanced learners benefit just as much," Firn says. "They just get through the program quicker." Students can access Fast ForWord both in school computer labs and through their own laptops, so they can participate in the session anytime, anywhere.

The makers of Fast ForWord call it a reading program, but Firn says it "crosswalks over to math," citing research on the importance of literacy on math comprehension. "It's about building cognition skills," he says of the program. "It's about developing stronger and clearer pathways for thinking. Basically, it's brain exercises."

Firn's interest in the neurology of learning is personal. "Why I'm very passionate about it is that my sister had a massive stroke at the age of 40, and I was watching her brain trying to heal itself," he says. "There was some type of cognitive disruption. I realized there's so much we can do to build the neural pathways. It's possible to build a 'superhighway' in the mind even for normal kids."

All told, Anson County uses five software products to supplement instruction: In addition to Fast ForWord, the district uses a second Scientific Learning product, Reading Assistant, for reading comprehension and fluency; two reading and comprehension programs from Headsprout; and a TeachTown product called TeachTown: Basics that is designed for pre-K and kindergarten students with severe language problems. Each of the programs includes assessing and reporting tools, which are "at the heart of intervention," Firn believes.

"We're not waiting to the end of a lesson, unit, or grading period to ascertain if instruction worked," he says. "If you have a very robust formative assessment model, you can know within a week, certainly over two weeks, whether or not a student is progressing toward meeting standards."

There's proof, Firn says, that his method delivers. Last year, the second year of the districtwide implementation of the PTI model, Anson County's exiting eighth-graders turned in higher scores on high school algebra and geometry tests, and in reading, 59 percent of ninth-graders achieved proficiency in English, up from 37 percent last year--results that Firn attributes to the use of Fast ForWord. He also points to a pilot implementation in a Connecticut school district, where reading proficiency improved districtwide from 88 percent to 94 percent.

"If I can prevent a student from failing," Firn says, "either supplementally or because of the diagnostics we do on a daily basis in the classroom, then I don't have to respond to intervention. I'm actually preventing intervention. We need to see how kids are responding to the water before rescuing them from the rapids."

"If I can prevent a student from failing, either supplementally or because of the diagnostics we do on a daily basis, then I don't have to respond to intervention. I'm actually preventing intervention."

--Greg Firn, Anson County Schools

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of THE Journal.