Cultural Adaptations When Implementing RTI in Urban Settings

This is the second article in a three-part series.

Response to Intervention (RtI) is a multi-tier approach to scaffolding instruction for a range of learners. High-quality, research-based instruction and ongoing student assessments are essential components that must be rigorously implemented with fidelity within the RtI framework in order for the model to work well (see the RTI Action Network for examples). The implementation of RtI has moved the conversation of ensuring a free and appropriate public education to include the wellness of instructional and intervention support. In urban schools, this inclusion has extraordinary potential, but there are also structural and cultural dynamics unique to urban schools that complicate the development and implementation of RtI. These dynamics include lack of consistent attention to staff development for teaching students with a wide range of learning needs, intensity of racial and socio-economic segregation within the communities and schools, and an annual ebb and flow of resource allocation. With such dynamics, RtI in urban schools must make various cultural adaptations.

This article focuses on two areas of cultural adaptations that practitioners in urban schools must take into account when developing and implementing an RtI framework. These adaptations are based on our research and practice-based experience working with school districts on implementing RtI and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) in schools addressing disproportionate representation of minorities in suspension and special education. The first adaptation is the need for a deep culturally responsive lens among practitioners. Educators who take the time to heighten their awareness and understanding of the collective lived experiences of marginalized students have been found to be more successful at meeting the needs of these students in comparison to teachers who do not function from the same level of socio-consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1994). We propose that an RtI framework be built on a solid foundation (Tier 1) that encourages educators to consider perspectives beyond their own (Ladson-Billings, 1994) in a manner that promotes the three Rs of culturally responsive education: rigor, relevance, and relationships. The second adaptation we discuss in this article is the organizational structures that safeguard equity for marginalized students, specifically those surrounding the development and structure of RtI decision-making teams.

Adaptation 1: Depth of Culturally Responsive Lens

Schools are institutions that convey, respond, and reinforce cultural values and expectations. The question is to whom are these cultural values and expectations responsive? The research on culturally responsive teaching and schools emphasizes how school environments are responsive to middle-class and often White cultural values and devalues low-income and racial/ethnic minority populations’ cultural values (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Tatum, 2003). To help practitioners engage in the difficult conversations of creating school environments that are responsive to all cultural groups, and specifically to racial/ethnic and linguistic minority groups, the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education has found it helpful to facilitate the unpacking of what it is educators may not know about many students of color that can potentially reshape the perception of them and how instructional services are delivered. We focus on three specific dimensions of a culturally responsive lens: 1) the recognition of racial microaggressions, 2) the understanding of racial/ethnic identity development, and 3) the impact of stereotype threat. We recommend practitioners consider these important elements of a culturally responsive lens because they encourage consideration of power and privilege dynamics that are implicit in everyday interactions.

  1. Educators should identify the social/environmental cues imposed on racial and ethnic minority students that indirectly send these students messages of nonexistence or that their difference makes them inferior. Derald Wing Sue (2007) used the term “racial microaggressions” to describe social cues that adults give to students, most often unintentionally, that communicate derogatory or subtle racial insults. For instance, “Speak proper English” is a common phrase directed toward students who do not speak in standard English; “I don’t see your color” invalidates the lived experiences students may have that are tied to their race/ethnicity; and “how were you born in another country and you don’t speak with an accent?”and “how can you be Black and speak Spanish?” suggest the limited perceptions of linguistic and racial/ethnic diversity. Invalidations like these have been found to impede positive, trustworthy practitioner–student relationships, which is why the main consideration in these interactions is the outcome and not the intent (Sue et al., 2007).

  2. Educators working in urban school settings with high numbers of racial and/or ethnic minority students should have a strong sense of the patterns of racial/ethnic identity development. How schools respond, fail to respond, or even contribute to this developmental process can either mitigate or compound the academic and/or behavioral consequences for students of color (Cross, 1995; Tatum, 2003). Studies have shown that although healthy American children across all races and ethnicities go through physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and moral developmental stages, there is a significant developmental difference between many Whites and racial and ethnic minority individuals in the types of experiences that frame these developmental stages. For example, during an observation of one 7th grade English language arts class, a teacher demonstrating a Venn diagram as a compare-and-contrast tool used “illegal immigrants” and “U.S. Citizens” as the topic. The racially/ethnically diverse classroom described illegals as “doesn’t belong here,” “got no papers,” and “not nice neighbors,” while U.S. Citizens were described as “belongs here,” “nice neighbors,” and “got papers.” In this instance the students may have gained an understanding of the tool, but developmentally, there was a social and emotional assault—or racial microaggression—on the immigrant children in the classroom. Additionally, they were reminded of their “otherness” as part of their identity as immigrants.

    Theories of racial/ethnic identity development (Cross, 1995; Phinney, 1992; Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone, & Zimmerman, 2003) provide educators an understanding of what may be happening to racial and ethnic minority students who are subjected to racial microaggressions before, during, and after adolescence. It is critical to stress that these models are not intended to be used to pathologize racial and ethnic minority groups. Rather, their purpose is to heighten educators’ awareness of a developmental process often shared by many—but not all—individuals of color encountering prejudice in a variety of forms. As stated earlier, practitioners must understand the ways that adults and institutions respond to and support students of color that contribute to their outcomes.

  3. A truly culturally responsive lens involves practitioners regularly examining school practices through multiple tiers (i.e., society, local community, school, and individuals) in order to identify whether practices are creating or supporting a stereotype threat. More specifically, “stereotype threat” refers to the risk of confirming a stereotype of your group (Steele, 2010). Urban schools, particularly with a multicultural enrollment, enact practices that encourage the presence of this threat. The following are examples of such practices:
    • Tracking methods (including soft tracking in K–3, pre-tracking in Grades 4–6, and tracking in Grades 7–12) are often organized along racial and/or gender lines.
    • Segregated special education and/or in-school suspension rooms are primarily housing Black and/or Latino boys.
    • In some schools we find the novel selections for Grades 6–12 as primarily having Black and Latino characters as the antagonist and White characters as the protagonist. Such subconscious portrayals maintain notions of these marginalized groups as “problem seekers.”
    • In schools with high suspension rates, the behavioral support system is based on “getting tough” and that involves isolating certain behaviors adults find offensive to their cultural frame of reference. Unfortunately, some of these behaviors tend to correlate mostly with boys’ behaviors and specifically the behavior of Black and Latino boys. For example, we’ve seen school hallways with discipline conduct charts that contain additions made with markers and then re-laminated—additions, such as “NO SAGGIN’ PANTS,” “NO DO-RAGS,” and “NO SPEAKING SPANISH.” These organizational arrangements devoid of a culturally responsive lens allow for the continuation of stereotypes.  

In sum, these elements of a culturally responsive lens involve practitioners making informed decisions about macro school issues by looking on the micro level—examining not only how culture is reflected in schools, but also from whose perspective we come to make these determinations. It’s when we are able to have multiple perspectives that we are most likely to make the desired improvements.


Adaptation 2: Developing a Culturally Responsive Problem-Solving RtI Team

While such activities are occurring, we have found it critically important to also intentionally redevelop school systems to operate as guardians of equity. System frameworks like RtI and PBIS have the potential to be these guardians, but it requires the empowerment of gatekeeping teams that are generally tasked with implementing these frameworks to operate within a culturally responsive lens. In the next cultural consideration, we explore this further.

After walking educators through a deliberate and enlightening process aimed at broadening the cultural lens through which they view their work and make decisions, we encourage them to identify the organizational structures that need to exist in their schools to lessen the risk of vulnerability among students of color. Tracking, narrowly defined suspension policies, the lack of rich curriculum, and the dearth of quality instructional supports for teachers are some of the structural elements that have been found to perpetuate the disproportionate underachievement of racial/ethnic minority students in urban schools. We’ve recognized that developing culturally responsive practices (Ladson-Billings, 1994) requires understanding and development of a culturally responsive lens. However it takes time to develop this lens because it involves re-framing an individual’s worldview, but in the meantime our work has centered on developing systems that operate as guardians of equity. For the purposes of this article, we will briefly explore some of the work districts have done to develop a culturally responsive problem-solving RtI team in order to build teacher capacity.

A strong RtI framework would not be complete without a team of gatekeepers working together to assist teachers in enhancing their classroom practices so as to narrow the skill gap many at-risk students are identified as having. Although most schools have some type of instructional support team already in place prior to developing an RtI model, our experience working with various districts has been that most of their teams are not set up to respond to students in a way that is data driven, researched based, preventive, and culturally responsive. Without a strong, competent team of professionals to oversee and support the implementation of effective instructional practices, even the most well thought-out RtI framework can fall apart. Although our work with school districts continues to evolve and is not limited to what we share in this brief, we find it important to highlight three practical suggestions practitioners may find useful in developing structured teams that function within a culturally responsive framework.

  1. Define the purpose of the team. Research conducted by Rosenfield and Gravois (1996) has found that the most effective instructional support teams recognize their purpose as supporters of the instructional development of teachers rather than serve as educators who attempt to change students. In addition to this, we suggest teams include, in their definition of who they are, language that stresses to all staff the role they take as guardians of equity in their building and district. This sends the message to other staff that the team is not only an instructional resource but also a group committed to analyzing data trends identifying which students are failing and investigating how their behavior or academic performance might be read or misread based on their at-risk status (i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.).

  2. Pair teachers with instructional coaches and include building administrators as key team members. In our observations of multiple instructional teams in one school district, groups that had the most impact on changing teacher practices in order to improve student outcomes were those that had instructional leaders, such as a literacy or math coach, work directly with the teacher in the classroom. These individuals not only modeled best practices and gave feedback to instructors, but also conducted observations that provided pertinent data necessary for identifying an instructional goal(s) and plan for the teacher.

    In general, most would agree this is a good practice for all students; unfortunately, as shown in research on schools serving mostly urban students, these students often have limited access to quality resources and practices such as pre-K instruction, before- and after-school enrichment programs, and highly qualified teachers, just to name a few. In environments like this, pairing teachers with well trained instructional coaches helps improve the quality of teaching to mitigate the effects that limited resources, such as those previously mentioned, may have on the academic performance of students living in these communities.

    In addition, we cannot forget the significant involvement of administrators in this process as well. Teams that had a building principal present for all or most instructional planning meetings were found to be the most productive in executing plans and establishing a culture focused on equity since administrators have the decision-making power to ensure this occurs.

  3. Build the capacity of team members to implement a culturally responsive problem-solving model to determine whether cultural conflict in the classroom is a possible root cause of poor student outcomes. Unfortunately, in too many of our urban schools, the explanation for underachievement of students of color has its roots in a deficit model, which locates the problem within the student, their families, and their communities. Schools have always been culturally responsive. The question instructional support team members must always ask is “to which culture have practitioners been most and least responsive?”
    A defining characteristic of RtI approaches is the implementation of a decision-making process for determining the core issues contributing to student failure. All approaches essentially encourage team members to 1) identify the problem, 2) devise an action plan, and 3) monitor implementation and student progress. What is missing in the standard framework of RtI is the recognition of culture and its role in learning. Cultural considerations must be written into the decision-making procedures to serve as key points for meeting facilitators to refer to in order to rule out cultural misinterpretations as a possible root cause.
    If it is determined that the perceived inability of the student to learn or behave is rooted in cultural differences, team members must be trained to respond appropriately to this. The following cultural considerations may prove to be helpful in guiding teachers’ reflection on whether their practices are culturally relevant:
    • Staff must keep in mind that all students come to school with prior knowledge and experiences. Although many of the lived experiences of students may differ from those of their teachers, team members must take the time to recognize the strengths that exist in them even when, on the surface, they may be perceived as deficits. Speaking with the student and parent/guardian to collect information about her or him would be essential prior to meeting.
    • Remind team members that when students are learning a new language, cultural references, and so on, this is done with the perspective that the role of the school is to, first, value and embrace the cultural norms students bring before adding new language and other skills/concepts to their toolbox. At the same time, it would be wise for staff to become familiar with and consider the cultural norms students and parents bring with them into school when interacting and working with them. This is to avoid the traditional approach of getting students and parents to conform or assimilate by getting them to shed their cultural reference points.
    • The intervention plan must include specific adult practices that need to be modified in order to change student outcomes.
    • Parent engagement takes many forms other than physically showing up in school. Parents should have a voice in the decision-making process and be linked with supports whenever possible.
    • The rate of progress differs from student to student, and many variables, including culture, may have an impact on this rate. For instance, a student who has grown up in a home where problem solving is a shared, interactive process among all family members may need assistance in developing independent problem-solving skills but at the same time excel when provided opportunities to participate in cooperative group activities. Identifying these differences and recognizing that they do not equate with disability is critical in any RtI problem-solving model.


In conclusion, we suggest that a culturally responsive RtI approach is one that 1) continually provides training and development of all staff to broaden and deepen their cultural perspectives in order to 2) create structures and practices that consider the cultural needs of students in the learning process. Getting educators to develop a broader, critical lens via the support of problem-solving professionals may not immediately make teachers better at what they do (Picower, 2009); however, it will likely have a long-term impact on both their teaching practices and students. The goal of any individual or group of individuals working to enhance the pedagogical skills of practitioners is not to get them to reach a final destination, but, rather, to ensure that they are able to engage in habits of thinking that promote changes in instructional practices and interpersonal relationships among students from diverse backgrounds. This is essential for making the important shift in changing the trajectory of these students’ performance and how success is normalized.

Read the third article in our urban school series >>



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