Response to Intervention

Response to Intervention and Instruction in the K-5 Synchronous Online Classroom

Elementary cyber schools are challenged to support struggling learners in the virtual classroom environment. What does a K-5 response to intervention and instruction program look like in an online environment?

In my early weeks as a cyber principal, I learned that all cyber schools are not cut from the same cloth. Most cyber schools are not designed to rigorously support diverse learners or expect much of students academically. These cyber models have cultivated a negative image of cyber schools generally and closed off much of the collective educational community to the capabilities and potential of online learning.

What the educational community has yet to see, is cyber education done right. To meet the needs of all learners cyber educational models must employ three components simultaneously:

  1. Differentiated curriculum and instruction;
  2. Authentic assessments; and
  3. A variable synchronous learning environment.  

With these three components in place cyber schools can be highly responsive and adaptive to students' needs and can intervene when they know students are not getting it.

An Online RtII Program is Possible
When students struggle in any learning environment it is the responsibility of the school to provide a comprehensive system of supports to ensure students receive individualized interventions that meet their needs. The best way to do this is through a response to intervention and instruction (RtII) program. Most cyber schools do not have RtII programs. This is because RtII programs are difficult to implement in a cyber environment: they are logistically complicated, require curriculum and instruction that can be differentiated, and need a synchronous learning environment in which students are required to meet routinely with teachers and engage in authentic assessments. In the quest to attract students and keep costs down, many cyber schools give students almost unlimited freedom to complete coursework within a "canned" curriculum, loose or year-long deadlines, auto-graded tests and quizzes, no authentic work submissions and little or no interaction with a teacher. Clearly, it would be impossible to implement an RtII program in this type of learning environment.

The reality is cyber schooling does not have to look like this. In fact, there are a growing number of cyber schools in the United States and throughout the world that hold high expectations of students, implement rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum, instruction and assessments, require teacher-student and student-student interaction and possess an educational model that can support an RtII program.

The concept of an online RtII program is relatively new, though the core components of a cyber RtII process are the same as most brick and mortar schools. First, students are screened to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes. Next, students are grouped into tiers based upon the data and curriculum and instruction is modified and interventions are put in place to meet students' needs. Finally, students' progress is aggressively and continuously monitored to ensure students are meeting their learning goals and the support system is working. This process cycles all year long to support the individual student within the school. Though the steps of the RtII program are straightforward enough, they necessitate cyber schools do the following:

  1. Utilize a universal screener in a proctored online classroom;
  2. Differentiate curriculum and instruction; and
  3. Provide a synchronous learning environment in which students turn in work and meet with a teacher regularly.

Our cyber school has spent the last year putting these three criteria in place in preparation for implementing our RtII program. The next sections will describe how our cyber school is implementing a K-5 RtII program and some of the unique solutions and considerations that come into play when designing an intervention program in an online environment.

The Universal Screener: Logistics and Reliable Data
In the cyber setting careful consideration must be paid to the selection and implementation of the universal screener. Cyber schools should choose a universal screener that is easy to use online and can be administered by a teacher in the virtual classroom. Some popular screeners can now be used completely online and others can be adapted for online use in the live virtual classroom.

Logistics are a big concern in the cyber environment. Clearly students are not right in front of us, so organizing and administering an online test for more than 600 students that can take anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours is certainly an organizational feat, but it is possible. One way of doing this is to contact parents to sign-up for small group testing times during which the teacher proctors the test "live" in the virtual classroom. Teachers can watch students test through their webcam to ensure a high degree of test validity.  Authenticity is critical to getting an accurate picture of students performance, and cyber schools must dedicate the time and resources needed to test students in a teacher proctored environment.

A sound RtII program requires multiple data points to pinpoint student performance at any given time. Our program chooses to look at student performance through the lens of curriculum-based measures, performance in the online-classroom, data from adaptive online programs in reading and math, PSSA, and DIBELS data.  This data is uploaded, stored and viewed through an online student data warehousing solution called Datablender. This software allows us to view and compare multiple data points for any given student, student group, class or grade level at one time or over a period of months or years.

After reviewing the data, if conflicting data points are found for a student we do something most public schools do not: we call the parents and ask them their opinion. In a cyber setting, parents are truly the school's partner and we do more than pay lip service to this connection, we depend on it. Incorporating parent feedback can give a full picture of student performance when data alone does not tell the full story.

A Trifecta of Intervention
Once the screener is administered and data is collected and analyzed, students are tiered according to the RtII model. In our school, Tier 2 and 3 students who require behavioral or other social/emotional supports enter into ongoing, individualized support programs either through our guidance department, Bridge to Student Success (BtSS) program or both. These programs include parent and student support groups, parent training and classroom interventions, such as the implementation of a behavior plan that includes tracking and progress monitoring in the virtual classroom.

Students in Tier 2 and Tier 3 who require targeted interventions in their curriculum and instruction receive interventions in three ways:

  1. Through their posted lessons in our learning management system (LMS);
  2. Through their lessons with a teacher in the live virtual classroom; and
  3. Through their Personalized Intervention and Enrichment Time (P.I.E. Time!) course.

The Posted Lessons
In an online RtII program, curriculum and instruction must be responsive and adaptable to meet the needs of all learners. Differentiated instruction is critical to meeting students' needs (Goddard, 2007) and the RtII program requires that students' curriculum and instruction be modified to include interventions. For this reason, a "canned curriculum" will not do. All students receiving the same curriculum and instruction regardless of their performance will not provide students with the scaffolding and targeted instruction required by the RtII program. Teacher-created curriculum or curriculum that can at minimum be modified by a teacher is essential, as is the capability to differentiate online curriculum and instruction.

In our program, students are required to turn in assignments daily or by the end of each week. Students routinely submit authentic products to their teacher (not a computer) including recordings of themselves reading, singing or answering questions, projects, written work, worksheets, photographs of artwork and math journals. Our teachers work in grade level teams of three or four teachers to evaluate student work and differentiate the next set of assignments students receive based upon student performance. Students are also grouped in our LMS to receive assignments based upon their RtII tier. Teachers have the freedom to challenge or remediate students on a lesson by lesson basis by creating a unique "learning path" for them through the curriculum. In this way, teachers can assign more or less practice or enrichment to students based upon their individual learning goals.

The Virtual Lessons
In each student's learning path, attendance at weekly reading, math, writing and social studies or science lessons in the live virtual classroom is required. Students are grouped for lessons based upon tier and the lessons are organized so two to three teachers are holding lessons at the same time. This structure allows us to flexibly group students; students can be moved from group to group based upon their learning goals on an as needed basis without disruption to their schedule. We also take care to heterogeneously group students for lessons whenever possible to build classroom community and ensure struggling students have exposure to on-level and above-level students in the classroom.

Class sizes for these lessons are relatively low, with five to seven students on average in a small group lesson for reading or math and 10-15 students in a whole group lesson for writing, social studies or science. Special education teachers, interventionists and our reading specialist hold additional virtual lessons with students who are below level in reading and math; these intervention classes average three to seven students. Our specialists work collaboratively with the classroom teachers in an online co-teach model to remediate students on their individual learning goals. This team approach, flexible lesson scheduling structure and mandatory live lesson attendance requirement ensures that we know each of our students and have the ability to modify every aspect of their online educational experience.

P.I.E. Time!
At our school, all K-5 students have the option to enroll in the P.I.E. Time! course. This course integrates remediation or enrichment lessons personalized to each student based upon his or her interests and learning goals. On and above level students can chose to design their own projects or tutorials, challenge themselves through a variety of adaptive learning programs, or work on higher level academic and technology lessons created by teachers during P.I.E. Time!

Below level students in reading and math are assigned remediation lessons on their specific learning goals for P.I.E. Time! Tier 3 (intensive) students in math and reading also have the option of working with an interventionist in additional live virtual lessons on their math or reading goals. In coming months, we are working toward incorporating student goal setting into the P.I.E Time! course to encourage students to take ownership of their learning and become active contributors to their learning paths.

What it Takes To Meet K-5 Students Needs Online
An online RtII model requires student-centered approaches that include differentiated, synchronous instructional design models that are executed by teachers and hold high expectations of all students. Cyber schools need to take the plunge into authentic online learning, and do away with canned curriculums, no due dates, no student-teacher interaction and auto-graded everything. This will be the first and critical step towards becoming a cyber school that can implement an RtII program. Cyber schools that take this plunge will find a complex and vibrant learning landscape with an inherent capacity to deliver precise, individualized interventions to each student.

Goddard, Y. L., & Goddard, R. D. (2007, November). A statewide study of the effects of differentiated instruction on fourth grade students' mathematics and reading achievement. Paper presented at the University Council for Educational Administration annual conference, Washington, DC.

National Center on Response to Intervention. (n.d.). Home page. Retrieved from