RTI is For Tier 3, Too

Why is it that kids with intensive instructional needs seem to be left out of most of the RTI fervor that is sweeping the nation? Sure, research has shown that up to two thirds of kids who struggle in reading can benefit from standard treatment protocol interventions, perhaps preventing the need of expensive, time-intensive interventions. But what about the students who do not respond to these research-based interventions? The modal answer one gets from many RTI researchers and practitioners is "do a comprehensive evaluation on them — then maybe place them in special education." If I had a buzzer, I’d hit it and say "Thank you for playing anyway!" WRONG ANSWER! Especially given the old technologies that are most often used to conduct comprehensive assessments and the modal intervention strategies used in many special education programs.

The right answer is to continue problem solving at a more intense level. Let’s be honest, WISCing, WRATing and Bendering kids really never told us much about what and how to teach. Yes, they got kids in, and made them eligible. But eligible for what? Access to special education services means little if these services don’t make a difference. As the parent of a child with a reading disability, I say we must do better. And we can do better. There was nothing wrong with the strategies we used in the past to assess and instruct, they were the best we had given what we then knew. But they were insufficient. It would be wrong to keep using them in the face of current knowledge. Bluntly, we know a boatload more now than we did in 1975 about effective assessment and instruction. What is needed is a significant shift in the way that we identify mild disabilities in this country, along with more powerful instructional practices being made available to students with intensive learning needs. RTI is the vehicle to do that. But we must embrace RTI practices at tier 3, not just before it.

What might this look like?  For starters, students who do not respond to well-implemented standard-treatment protocols are already discrepant from their peers in both level of performance and trend of performance.  It is really not necessary conduct a bunch of expensive assessments to “redocument” these discrepancies.  The assessments that these students need are very focused and skill-based.  So, for example, if a student has a reading problem, we need to dig carefully and comprehensively into why they are having the reading problem.  And THIS why will look only at skill, curriculum and instructional issues.  We won’t look first at presumed internal deficits.  It has been my experience that many, many of the children with intensive learning needs are not kids that can’t learn to read.  Instead, they are students for whom we haven’t found the appropriate instructional match at the appropriate intensity.  Many of these kids need an intensity of instruction that has not historically been available in most of our schools (like 2 to 3 hours of instruction in reading per day).

So, we’ll do assessments looking at things like word reading, phonics, oral language vocabulary, monitoring meaning while reading, making inferences, literal understanding and the list goes on.  All of these things are teachable and learnable.  We’ll base our intensive instruction significantly on the skills the student needs to learn.  We’ll provide this instruction in a small group setting and teach the living daylights out of the student.  We’ll do this in addition to allowing the student to continue participating in core reading instruction to the extent appropriate for the student.  The student could also participate in supplemental reading instruction if appropriate as well.  And we will not accept failure.  We will be relentless in our pursuit for progress.  We will communicate the expectation that the student can do this (read) and that we’ll accept nothing less than the student’s personal best every single day.   While this instruction is going on, we’ll monitor the student’s oral reading fluency using Curriculum-Based Measures two times per week and make instructional changes based on the student’s rate of progress.  We will evaluate our instruction through the crucible of student response and be humble enough and expert enough to change our teaching when student performance warrants it.


The vision of the Education for the Handicapped Act (EHA) in 1975 was not that students would receive services.  The vision was that these services would be effective.  We can accept no less.  When assessments across the country become skill-focused, when we care as much or more about what and how to teach as we do about getting students in programs, and when we have the skills and wisdom to monitor student learning over time and adjust OUR behavior based on what we learn, then we’ll have made progress associated with our current knowledge base and RTI can begin to realize the incredible effectiveness potential that it possesses.

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Read what others had to say...

Dr. Tilly, You are exactly right. In Delaware, we are about to implement the three tier model, so special education students will receive intensive instruction in tier 3. Thank you for that telephone conference during the writing of my dissertation. I will remain a teacher to help with that intervention in tier 3. Dr. Abraham H. Jones Keene Elementary School

John - With regards to running records, out workgroup in our Ed District has taken a close look at their use and found that they have the most utility and validity for problem analysis rather than for progress monitoring purposes.

Hi Christine
I share you concern that students may be subjected to less than effective instruction. In some cases, it seems like the most in-need students are taught by our least experienced folks. I am also sensitive to the issue of budget cuts and priorities. One strategy I have found powerful is to continue monitoring students progress when policy-based instructional changes are made. We can treat these changes as different phases in a single-case research design. If we make changes that result in poorer student progress, we can use the data to argue for a return to more effective instruction.

Reading Recovery Specialist
The world of education is an ever changing world, as it should be. RR teachers have been the greatest resource for RTI. Teaching individual students and small groups has been the model we have implemented with first grade. No funds from general budget will be used to support grant programs next year. So RR teachers are cut. My fear is that title funds will be used for remediation and training instructional assistants. We will be putting the needs of these at-risk students into the hands of caring, but unqualified personnel and cutting the highly skilled and trained teachers. Make sense?

Hi John
I know what you mean about the General Education instruction thing. We know pretty clearly that students with significant learning challenges need MORE instruction, not less. However, given schedules and historical structures in schools, our most frequent response to reading problems has been to pull kids out of general education reading instruction to give them different reading instruction, often in different skills in different curricula. Most kids can benefit from some parts of the Core, and many of them should if we are to ever have a chance of catching them back up and reintegrating.

Running Records
Dave--do you see running records providing at least a part of the necessary data for instructional alignment at Tier III? You write, "we’ll do assessments looking at things like word reading, phonics, oral language vocabulary, monitoring meaning while reading, making inferences, literal understanding and the list goes on." What types of assessments do you use in this arena? Some psychs are getting beat up in the field on this issue, and their reading folks are very concenred that they won't have a role in an RtI system.

State Consultant
Dave: Thanks for an excellent article. Always interesting to listen/read your work. You raise an interesting issue, "...continue participating in core reading instruction to the extent appropriate..." This seems to be an issue that has become surrounded by some dogmatic thinking. Could you expound about how schools make the decision about what is appropriate in the general ed classroom? Thanks,