RtI: You Know You're In Trouble When…

You know you’re in trouble when: RtI becomes a verb in your school. "When are we going to RtI this kid?" When this type of statement is heard, it usually means that RtI has become viewed as the new way of doing an old thing: Namely, identifying students for special education and moving educational problems from one setting to another. That RtI is identified in the Federal IDEA Regulations as part of the methods that might be used to identify students with Specific Learning Disabilities has caused some professionals to believe that RtI is primarily intended as a method for helping place students in special education. To be sure, the data collected as a part of RtI implementation can be used as part of the information for a full and individual evaluation under the IDEA. However, using RtI data to identify students with special education needs is a result, not a purpose.

The RtI framework has been developed over many years as a way to improve educational results for all students — including students with disabilities.  That is its purpose.  Perhaps the best way to think of RtI is as an efficient framework for matching student needs directly to the amount and type of instruction necessary for optimal student learning progress.  The framework is useful for matching large groups of students' needs with effective core curriculum and instruction practices.  The framework is useful for matching effective instruction to small groups of students who may need an "extra scoop" of something in order to grow optimally (Elliott, 2008, personal communication).  And the framework is useful for matching curriculum and instruction to students with intensive instructional learning needs.  When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was reauthorized in 2002 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Congress strenuously required that scientific, research-based practices be used to instruct students.  The false assumption built into NCLB was that many, if not most, schools had ready mechanisms in place to easily and efficiently adopt research-based practices.  Stated simply, RtI is that mechanism for matching resources to student needs and for efficiently bringing evidence-based practices into our schools.


So what’s wrong with thinking about RtI as the new way of identifying students with SLD?  Nothing is really wrong with it, but there are a few cautions.  First, if the purpose of "doing RtI" in a system is identifying students with SLD, then we’re really just replacing old tests for new, and RtI really hasn’t improved instruction for kids in any meaningful way.  So if the purpose is just replacing old practices with a new way of "getting kids in," then the benefits of adopting RtI will likely not be realized.  Another issue with "RtIing" kids, is that there’s the possibility that we're going to create new "categories" of kids to replace the labels of yesteryear.  If we start referring to children as "Tier 3 kids" etc., we're simply replacing old labels with new (e.g., we used to say things like "he's a Title 1 kid").  The problem with these old labels, and the new if we allow it to happen, is that these labels say too much and they say too little.  They say too much 'cause they cause us to think about kids typologically, in terms of things they have in common with other kids, as opposed to their unique needs.  They say too little 'cause knowing that a student needs an extra scoop tells you absolutely nothing about what kind of supplemental services she needs.  We have to remember that every student in our schools is made up of multiple tiers of needs and these needs are constantly changing.  So, for example, a student may have Tier 1 needs with regard to reading and math, Tier 2 needs with regard to attendance in class and Tier 3 needs when it comes to physical education.


In sum, when we're working in RtI systems, we have to keep the primary purpose and benefits of RtI front and center in our thoughts.   We have to focus on improving student results and resist the temptation to let RtI just become a replacement for past practices that did not always result in better outcomes.

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As an old Hawkeye I am always pleased to see innovative ideas coming out of Iowa, but I believe your comments concerning RTI are accurate and the result of its association with SLD. While I agree RTI is "good teaching" (i.e.prevention/early intervnention),the skill sets necessary to implement the process appropriately are neither clearly defined nor adequately funded. While I support your position on the proper role of RTI, given the final tier is always special education, it has become a special ed rather than regular education model. Too late to put the jeanie back in the bottle.