Why Adopt an RTI Model?

Answering the question "Why adopt a Response-to-Intervention (RTI) model?" can be approached from several different perspectives, including legal, historical, best professional practice, and, indeed, political. As is often the case, an understanding of what we do today and of how we came to be in a particular place at a particular time is often best gained in the context of history. In this case, looking briefly and with broad strokes at aspects of our special education history since 1975 provides a good bit of the context in which an answer can readily be found to the question "Why adopt an RTI model?"

When President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act (EHA), in 1975, it was against a backdrop of public school practice that had systematically denied students with handicaps access to a public school education. On the heels of judicial review that began in the late 1960s and challenged these denial practices, Congress acted to rectify the wrong. In that context, the focus of EHA was to ensure that all students with a handicap would have equal access to a public education. Two major themes dominated this first-ever federal special education law.

The first major theme focused on finding and identifying students who might have a handicap and who were not enrolled in a public school. States and local school districts were required to take affirmative steps to find students with handicaps. These programs were titled Child Find, and the primary purpose was to develop initiatives that would "find"all those students who had been denied access to a public education. Based exclusively on categorical designations (e.g., mental retardation, specific learning disability, etc.), the purpose was to find these children (through individual assessment), identify them as handicapped by applying a categorical label, and place them in a "program" that had the same title as their label (e.g., "he is in the program for the mentally retarded"). The effort worked well. Children were found and identified in record numbers, numbers so high that special education enrollments ballooned, and by the early 1980s the federal government imposed a cap on reimbursement based on disability category as a way of slowing the enrollment growth.

The second major theme created by EHA in 1975 was the provision of procedural safeguards as a major component of the identification process. Procedural protections established for parents included requiring written consent for assessment and placement, adherence to assessment timelines, creation of an individualized education program (IEP), and regular reviews (annual and triennial) of placement status. The import of these procedural safeguards became paramount in the special education service delivery system. Their impact was measured by the fact that audits of local special education programs by state departments of education focused almost exclusively on these safeguards, with little to no attention paid to academic outcomes for students identified as handicapped. The important documents that school districts needed to have were referral forms, consent forms, placement permissions, and IEPs.

These two themes formed the basis for the structure and practice of special education for the next 25 to 30 years. It was a system developed and delivered based on entitlement, categorical structures, and rigid adherence to procedural safeguards. What was not a part of practice was any focus whatsoever on student outcomes, either academic or behavioral. Little to no attention was directed toward outcomes (of any kind) for students who had been identified as handicapped. In almost every school, district, state, and throughout the nation, students with disabilities were systematically excluded from any assessment systems that were targeted at general education students. No separate systems were developed or put in place for assessing the performance outcomes for students involved in special education programs. Data collected by states and submitted to the U.S. Department of Education focused exclusively on incidence rates by disability category, graduation rates, placements by race and gender, and so on. At no time were data collected that would address student academic or behavioral outcomes or that would speak to the efficacy of special education programs. In other words, the entire focus of the special education delivery system for a quarter of a century was about identification and placement, not about student outcomes and the delivery of effective interventions as measured by student outcomes. Once placed and programmed, the system failed to ask "How is the student doing?" While individual special education teachers certainly focused on answering that question, it was never part of a larger system.

At the same time that special education was working with great success to identify and place students, the impact on general education was subtle yet profound. General education programs and teachers came to understand that when students failed to learn in a general education setting, it was expected, if not required, that the student be referred for special education consideration. Over time, this practice had an impact on both systems (general and special education) in two significant ways. Special education experienced ballooning enrollments, with too many students identified as disabled—not because they had a disability, but rather because they had not been successful in a general education program. Failure to succeed in a general education program meant the student must, therefore, have a disability.

The second major impact was on general education. Over these 25 years, general education experienced a narrowing of expectations of student performance. That is, when a student was not learning at an acceptable rate or was not at grade level, general education learned to look elsewhere (i.e., to special education) for assistance. Failure to achieve at grade level was too often understood only in the context of something being wrong with the student. Insufficient systemic attention was directed at general education programs for addressing poor academic performance.

After 25-plus years of practice that reflected this approach (often described as "Refer, Test, Place"), a few professionals asked if we could do it better. Given the historical understanding of the general/special education relationship, reform addressing these problems needed to be understood to include both general and special education. System reform that brought about a focus on carefully and frequently monitored student outcomes could only be successfully accomplished if reform efforts were inclusive of general and special education. So while RTI began as a response to addressing student outcomes for special education students, it quickly emerged as a general education initiative, as obtaining successful outcomes for students requires an integrated education system that does not operate as two distinct entities. In other words, could we focus at least as much, if not more, on student outcomes? In that question RTI was born.

Finding, identifying, and placing students "in" a special education program was no longer sufficient. What needed to be addressed was the creation of a service delivery system that was more oriented around how a student responded to research-based interventions delivered with integrity. That meant beginning with general education programs that understood a key piece of the research-based evidence, namely, that successful academic outcomes meant not waiting for students to fail, but rather meant implementing RTI beginning early (such as in kindergarten) in general education. Could we hold IEP meetings where the first question posed was not whether a student satisfied criteria for a specific special education category, but instead related to how well a student has responded to effective interventions, or asked about what effective interventions the student needs? And if effective interventions were not a part of the education history, could we insist that those interventions be delivered? Both the challenges and concerns of 25 years of practice were captured in the President's Commission on Excellence in Special Education (2002), as were the proposed solutions.

RTI has emerged, in part, as an answer. It is a knowledge base, skills, and a service delivery system that is intended to provide an educational experience to all students that is focused on delivering effective education and intervention programs and on frequent progress monitoring of student outcomes using those measured student outcomes (RTI) to adjust and change programs and interventions and necessary. That is the essence of RTI and that is also the answer to "Why adopt an RTI model?" RTI is a cornerstone of a problem-solving service delivery system. Delivering scientifically based interventions with integrity and monitoring (frequently) how the student responds to those interventions provides an invaluable data base of important information about the need to change or sustain the intervention in a timely fashion. An RTI approach to determining educational need—as opposed to relying on categorical labels (remember, learning disabilities is not a need) keeps the focus of our professional resources where they need to be, on student outcomes. The allocation of special education resources is then a function of student RTI, not arbitrary cutoff scores from standardized tests that have little to do with developing effective interventions. Students who need special education services are those who respond well to interventions yet require major resources to sustain the progress, or those who show progress but will not be able to close the gap with their peers, no matter the intensity or frequency of the intervention.

Adopting an RTI model is about adopting best professional practice, insisting that we do what is best and necessary for all students in our schools, and, finally, rising to the challenge of doing that which is socially just. That is why we must adopt an RTI model and implement it with integrity in every school throughout the nation.
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