Opening Keynote Speaker: Don Deshler, Ph.D. - University of Kansas (KS)

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


As several of you will get to know, this is a strange podium up here.  Historically speaking, where does RTI fit into the bigger scheme of things?  We have many things to be optimistic of.  Take a look at recent or pending legislation, the Learn Act, the comprehensive literacy act before Congress.  Embedded within that language is MTSS, multi-tiered system support.  A great deal of effort is being put forth to have it embedded within ESEA.  Those kinds of things give us reason to be optimistic.  On the other hand are some other things happening that could say where this might be in just a little bit?   So the question becomes in ten years RTI will be broadly scaled or will it be a footnote?  I’d like you to ponder that as I share a couple of thoughts with you today by way of roadmap.

First of all, I asked some of you who are going to participate some input as I gave you a couple of questions to answer.  I’m going to share with you some things that emerged and surfaced to the top.  Secondly, a few of the things as I’ve been involved in various RTI efforts that I’ve been observing in the field and then finally being bold enough, since I’ve been around for 40 years in the field, you know, I’m just going to make a few suggestions.  What the heck?  A few years ago I never would have done that (chuckles).

In terms of report on findings, first question I asked was, Given your understanding of the development of implementation and what’s happening currently in the field, what do you consider to be two or three of the most significant achievements or advancements?  Here are the things that surfaced from those in this room who were polled on that in terms of what they saw as being the most significant things having happened to this point in time.  I’ll just let you quickly scan that list and I’ll make these available to you as well as a detailed summary of all the responses that were made we’ll post on the RTI Action Network.

The second question that was posed is, As you look to the future, what do you see as two or three of the most significant questions and/or barriers that we’re facing as a, as we work to scale RTI?  Here are some of the issues, some of the questions, some of the barriers that surfaced relative to what are the long-term outcomes.  What about that Tier 3 and some validated approaches?  We’ve given much more attention to the lower tiers, perhaps.  Can we indeed scale it?  How can RTI be operationalized in content areas that require high-level literacy skills and not just foundational?  How can we progress monitor there?  A broad range of questions, and I think you’ll really be interested in seeing some of the other responses that came through.  It really gives a beautiful snapshot of where some key things for us to be taking on.

Attraction No. 2 on our roadmap, some lessons from the front lines.  This is all again my limited perspective on things, but as I…one of the things that I take great confidence in is the fact that I think that in the time that RTI has been in place, a relatively solid foundation has been put in place around such things as universal screening, tiered intervention, progress monitoring, fidelity, that language, and the way we’re seeing it implemented, while there’s clearly variations, there’s a lot of common threads.

I’m not going to be addressing with the exception of my first point the things that are happening largely within the classroom.  I am going to mention just a thing or two in this first point and then move on to a broader perspective.   We’re interested in moving kids and closing that gap.  We need to be as powerful as we possibly can because the time is so limited.   Are we leveraging those instructional behaviors that get the biggest bang for the bucks?  Some very interesting work has been done by John Hattie from Australia and his colleagues looking at the effect sizes through some major meta-analyses of the quantitative literature, and this is a—you can see the effect sizes in the middle.  On the right hand side in red are the agent of having the change.  You can see the impact of teacher.  In a recent book that Hattie has published, he takes each of these factors in various areas—teaching, teaching methods, the home, the curriculum, the effect of school—and has determined what are the various effect sizes.  Take a look at what kind of life must he have doing 800 meta-analyses and syntheses over them?  (laughter)  Nonetheless, he calls it “visible learning” because with each he provides a visual on the effects of that particular variable.  For example, here, self-questioning and self-verbalization, the effect size is fairly high.  Likewise with direct instruction it is.  Many however that we think are high and that we see in great frequency in schools are quite low.  And it’s important that we attend to these issues with greater regularity if we want to fine-tune and empower what’s happening within the classroom.

I made mention of fidelity in dosage.  There’s some wonderful work being done and I have a list of citations and bibliography that I won’t be going through but I think they’re valuable resources for you to turn to.  Chris Hulleman and some of his work in fidelity.  And I cited a paper there.  The business of dosage. Some of you’ve heard me talk about that.  We can have high fidelity but if you just do fidelity on Monday and then don’t do the behavior until the following Monday, you may have great fidelity but very limited dosage.  And we need both if we’re going to close the gap.

The next factor I’d like to focus on in terms of what’s happening at the front line is what Alan Bain in his book refers to as the next generation school reform.  The reason I point this out is the following.  The data on school reform research tells us this: You take all the efforts in school reform, and there have been a truckload full, the average effect size is .15.  Bain asks the question, If we can get an effect size of .95 for modeling as in instructional behavior within a classroom, what happens within a school?  The best is Success for All is .22.  Bottom line, effects are relatively small when measured against time/effort/money expended.   Inasmuch as RTI is indeed a school reform effort in many ways, we need to consider that.  Here’s through some research that Bain has done, and I’m going to highlight some very quickly and I’d encourage you to look at his work, he approaches school reform within a school from a totally different standpoint.  These are pretty impressive effect sizes compared to others that we see in different reform literature.  We need to carefully study some of the organizing principles that he uses and I just cite them here because of time.   I won’t go into it, but you have his citation there.  I think we need to study Bain and some colleagues that he’s working with.

The next is the importance of us looking at district effects. There’s been a spate of significant sources that have come out recently that addresses the importance of district.  And by and large, our conversations in RTI have not addressed districts.  We’ve looked primarily at schools.  The question is can we have an effect?  In recent meta-analysis that Marzano and colleagues did, they found that across 1,400 studies on district effects, looking at the effective, the correlation between district leadership and student achievement, correlation of .24.  What does that mean?  If you have an average superintendent and an average group of students, and the superintendent improves his or her leadership behavior by one standard deviation, the outcome in terms of student achievement goes up 9 percentile points.  In other words, district effects can be powerful, and if we really want to move the needle at the school level in RTI we need to be tending to some of the high-leverage points and these are ones that surfaced through the meta-analysis and you’ll note how they all focus around alignment toward achievement and instruction.

The next point that I think is important for us to consider is the power of social capital.  Umm (sighs), perhaps I would put this at close to the top of the list on books that I’ve read in the last year.  Payne has devoted his career to change within Chicago public schools.  And this is a report on data that he and colleagues have collected there over several decades and here’s a couple of conclusions that they drew.  The social dimensions of the problem are the least understood and most often ignored or minimized.  The quality of relationships among adults determine much of what did or did not happen.  You can forget the power of everything else, but if we don’t have adults talking and working well and trusting one another, it doesn’t happen.  Question:  How much time in our thinking about RTI are we devoting to these kinds of factors?  Robert Putnam in his book, first “Bowling Alone” back in the early 2000s, looked at the sort of breakdown in social capital and social organizations.  A more recently published book, “Better Together,” he talks about two kinds of social capital bridging across groups of divergent perspectives and bonding.  He says, “Bridging social capital takes time and continual nurturing.”  How much attention are we giving to this if indeed it’s that powerful?

Next, in terms of sense-making and iterative refraction, ahh, just want to, and again this book is listed on your references by Supovitz and Weinbaum, they present a model called “iterative refraction” which basically says as policy announcements or a new perspective comes in, every professional, every level of organization within a school district, within a school, makes sense of that and in turn it’s like a light going through a prism, it gets refracted and reinterpreted.  Given the complexity of RTI, what are the implications of that?

Finally, in the last couple of minutes that I have, suggestions for us as leaders.  Five quick ones.  Number 1.  Researchers’ mantra is and note the size of the print:  What interventions for what students, under what, can you read it?, conditions?  Big emphasis is describing the kids, next is describing the interventions and virtually no attention is given to the conditions that surround it.  (sighs)  It’s one thing to understand what a slope is, what a cut point is, what universal screening practices are, but it’s another to understand under what conditions they have been successful or have not.   We must turn our attention to that issue.  Number 2.  Your iPhone or cell phone tells you this.  Any intervention that we come up with to provide to the front lines must be a combination of powerful, we’re generally good at doing that, but it also must be easy to use.  Study the literature on reform and the adoption and sustainability of interventions.  They fail generally because of the latter.  They’re not easy to use.  Number 3.  What’s our language?  What’s our narrative?  We’re good at talking one to another.  How broad is our tent?  For example, there was marvelous effort done by the International Reading Association on an RTI initiative.  But some colleagues, Bob Aaron(?) who was part of that group, said you know it was very informative to see just how far we need to go to ensure that everyone is understanding and talking the language that we are.  And that we are working deliberately at not disenfranchising.  Number 4.  Several of you have heard me recommend this book in the past.  “The Influencer.”  Powerful because of the core concept that it presents, and it is the notion of vital behaviors.  Making the point that given the broad array of things that we can do, and certainly in RTI there is a broad array that you can take on, the point made here is what are the most vital?  Which have the biggest bang for the buck?  The biggest result and the biggest effect size, and what is the sequence of introducing those to staff, introducing those to individuals and so forth? And the final point (sighs) is we argue in RTI in order for it to be successful on the front lines professionals of different perspectives, different values, must come together and kumbaya.  The real question is, how well do we kumbaya?  How well do we dialogue one with another?  How open are we to varying points and perspectives?  Bohm’s book on dialogue is a powerful reminder of what is truly involved in professional dialogue.  Seeking to get to enhanced understanding and not merely to more loudly state what we believe.  Schultz’s recent book on “Being Wrong,” first chapter’s entitled “Wrongology,” underscores the power of making mistakes and really understanding those mistakes and sharing them through that learning process.

So the question in ten years, where will RTI be?  Will it be broadly scaled or will it be a footnote?  (sighs)   As I have thought about that a lot in preparation for today, and I know it’s a little presumptuous perhaps for me to say this, but it is my opinion in now 40 years in the field, if we have a chance of scaling RTI and it’s an extraordinarily complex innovation, we need to be pulling together in the same direction.  If we can’t, (a) we can’t expect those on the front lines to do it, and if we can’t, I fear in ten years we may be a footnote because we just needed to study the reform literature in education.  I’m optimistic with the progress we’ve made. I feel daunted with the challenge before us because of the data and what it’s telling us.  I look forward to the next several hours together.  Thank you.

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Read what others had to say...

  1. As someone who is on the ""front line"", the RTI process is very powerful for learning and motivating for teachers. However, the time required to universal screen, progress monitor, and address the differentiated needs in a classroom of 25+ kids is immense. These are just the tip of the iceberg of problems that need to be addressed. I suggest that you involve teachers in the leadership forum in making this process "do-able" with front line problem solving becoming an on-going discussion. You would be wise to involve the AFT and NEA immediately and allow them to help take the lead to make this something that will be broadly scaled to transform education rather than be nothing more than a footnote.
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