Panel 1 Speaker: George Sugai, Ph.D. - University of Connecticut (CT)

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


Good morning everybody.  (audience responds)  Great.  It’s good to be here.  I appreciate the opportunity to have a 9.45 minutes to be able to share (laughter) a little bit of comments from David’s presentation.  I apologize a little bit.  I’ve got a little bit of a sniffle.  I think I caught it from my wife who’s a principal who catches it from her teachers who catches it from her kids, so I apologize for that as well.

Second part is if I would have known what the pre-test was I would have taught more, organized my remarks more around the questions but I didn’t do that very well so I’ll try to do the best I can.  And those of you that know me, if you like my tie press 1 on your clicker (laughter).  If you don’t press 2.  All right.

This is great to have a chance…I had the opportunity to read his paper which is also quite a neat thing to be able to do and it’s a couple of things I want to emphasize that you did not get to see out of the paper that he emphasized in his presentation.  One is this important notion about that systems change is fundamental to this whole process of thinking about implementation of RTI.  He also talked about we have high quality differentiated instruction but our progress isn’t very adequate given the quality of that instruction.  And that’s something we need to be thinking about as we go through the rest of the day.  The third thing that I took out of his paper that I thought was important was the falling short with kids with disabilities and with exceptionalities, and how they fit into the whole model of RTI, whether or not we’re really responding in a way that’s appropriate to those kids.  If you had a chance to read his paper though, at the very end he’s quite optimistic about the possibilities and he also spends quite a bit of time talking about there are some realistic outcomes and opportunities but we’re going to have to really buckle down and take advantage of looking at our systems.

So what I’d like to do is given those sort of big ideas from the paper is describe for you four or 5 big ideas that I got out of his big ideas.  And to have you think about it as you go through the rest of the session.  As I look at many of you out in the audience I’m the token behavior guy here, and one of things I’d like you to think about is where is behavior in RTI?  And one thing that what Charlie and I and others know is that the quality of the school climate, the quality of the classroom climate is directly related to the quality of our instructional impact.  And our ability to engage kids is linked to how well kids are able to attend to the social norms of those particular settings.

Second big idea I’d like you to think about is, and he’s already mentioned it, we need to be really careful about how we go about the process of identifying who fits into the RTI logic.  We are now labeling kids by tier.  She’s a Tier 2 kid.  He’s a Tier 3 kid.  And if you are a special educator like I am, you know that it’s very important that we not label kids, that instead we use person-first language.  The truth is we have kids with strengths and weaknesses and those weaknesses require Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3 strategies.  So what we should be really labeling are the interventions, not the kid, and I think it’s really important because in my world of behavior we’re creating this little group of kids called “red zone kids.”  And I’d argue that they are not red zone kids but they have some red zone needs for which we have to be clear about in the RTI logic.

The third thing I’d like to have you think about from what I, was triggered out of David’s remarks is if we’re going to go forward with defining what’s an evidence-based practice, what’s high quality and we’re going to maximize the impact, I think we’re going to have to come to some kind of agreement about what is teaching and learning.  Until that’s clear, we’re going to have a hard time convincing people that they should or should not own responsibility for the outcomes associated with what they do.  So we probably need to be thinking about you know where is teaching and learning and what’s the relationship and how do we define those.  I would argue that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum and it occurs because we arrange opportunities for kids to get access to content that they are good at or not good at.

I’d also argue that student performance is one of the best indicators we have of our ability to teach, but we oftentimes don’t associate kid performance as an indicator of our quality of our instruction.  And related to teaching and learning, I’d also suggest that one thing we need to think about is that the learning success and failure are the responsibility of a teaching organization.  It’s not just the teacher, it’s not just the curriculum, but it’s the collection of the curriculum, the design, the leadership and so forth, and it’s the organization which is the systems element that Dave was talking about that I think it’s important to pay attention to.

And the last one is I think it’s going to be pretty important that we decide for ourselves where do we really want to invest.  I think there are certain content areas that are probably a more, bigger, higher priority for us than others, and we should probably be helping schools make those decisions.  For example, I’m really biased.  I really think that literacy, numeracy, and social skills are probably high-skill areas that need to be maximized, but we’re not making some decisions about where we allocate our instructional time and resources.

I think my time’s okay.  A couple of more big ideas, sort of the bigger ideas, if you will, to respond to David’s comment about improving systems which is the theme…five minutes, thank you very much…is to think about what does it mean to improve systems?  And I’d like you to think about systems as being not just collections of people, but actually organizations and I like Rob Horner’s kind of looking at organizations as having three critical features that define an effective organization.  One is that an effective organization has a common vision, a common set of values about where they’re going, be it a classroom, be it a school, be it a district, be it a state.  A second feature of an effective organization is it has a common language by which you can communicate and engage in the activities of its particular organization.  And the third feature of an effective organization is that it has a common routine or experience, meaning that kids, teachers, administrators and so forth know what’s expected of them, know how the schedules are supposed to operate, know what the responsibilities are and so forth.  If you look at our top businesses around the country, they have those three characteristics.  If you think about schools, classrooms and districts, we ask the question do they have those characteristics or not:  A common vision, a common language, and a common experience.  Another feature about organizations and improving systems, I think, is we, this is my bias again, is that we probably should be conducting functional behavioral assessments of our organizations.  David does a great thing talking in his paper about silos and our need to bring those silos together.  I don’t know that we can bring those silos together until we identify what are the triggers that trigger silo behavior, and what are the things that maintain the organization’s activities.  Until we understand what triggers and maintains what happens in those silos, we’re going to have trouble I think bringing them together especially when they’re in competition with each other.

The fourth thing I’d like to indicate to you or think about with respect to improving systems is this notion that effectiveness or efficacy, which is what many of us in this room do as researchers is important, but there are some other criteria that I think are important for looking at organizations.  One is efficiency, which means how well we do it.  Relevancy, which is it culturally and contextually relevant to the members of the community for which we’re applying the RTI logic?  Is it something that’s durable? Will it last longer than the 90 day warranty which is associated with a lot of the consulting I do.  Is it scalable, which means does it go beyond the context to which we’re applying the interventions.  I think those are pretty important things for us to be thinking about as we go forward.

So to finish up in my last two minutes, I’ve got the biggest big idea and that is you know I think this RTI thing is a pretty neat thing.  We’ve got these principles that are important for us in guiding what we do.  And those principles have been around a long time.  Now we’re organizing them into a framework for doing business.  However, I think if we’re going to do a good job guiding schools and districts, we should probably apply the RTI logic to our own activities.  What I mean by that and I’ll give you a quick example is my wife who I’m very proud of and I’m bragging, I think she’s an excellent principal, she chose to take on a principalship in a struggling school.  She went into the district saying I know, I think I know what we can do.  And her school’s actually making progress more than any other school in the district, pat her on the back, tell her I brag.  But, because the district is a district that’s in need of improvement, every single principal has been assigned an executive coach regardless of the need.  I’d argue my wife is probably coach cause she coaches me a lot, right, than probably needing coaching, but the decision to apply a coach and it consumes six to eight hours a week of her time to interact with a coach.  She’s also been required to do 16 mandates as a turnaround school.  The question becomes, one, has there been any assessment done to determine which of those 16 really need to be applied to her school or not?  The RTI logic for me is that her school, her district, is a school that requires Tier 3 interventions, but we’re not applying a Tier 3 logic to providing support to that turnaround.  I’d really argue that a school or district that’s in trouble probably needs to do less, but to do less better if we’re going to have the impact on improving that school because we’re not going to be able to do those 16 mandates.

So to finish off, she’s going to put the stop up there.  I actually caught her before she did it.  (laughter)  David ends his paper with this great kind of analogy about the quality of the road, and the speed bumps and the cracks in the road.  And I think that’s a great way to think about what we’re doing in this particular event.  One thing I would suggest that we do in addition to the quality of the road is to ask ourselves where’s that road going?  And also should we be building new roads to go to better places or not?  The quality of the road is great, but if we don’t know where we’re going with those particular interventions or strategies, we’re probably going to have some trouble with making those interventions have an effect.  So I’d argue that the road that David is reconstructing, rebuilding using his IRA money, or ERA money, is that we should probably be thinking about figuring out where those roads are going and if we really want to go down that road or not, and if we should be building new roads.  So with that please push 2 if this is an okay presentation (laughs), one if it’s not.

Dr. George Sugai is Carole J. Neag Endowed Professor in Special Education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut with expertise in behavior analysis, classroom and behavior management, school-wide discipline, function-based behavior support, positive behavior supports, and educating students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

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