The Next Frontier: Rolling Out RTI Curriculum in Higher Education



During the past 5-10 years, many of us have worked in K-12 schools, districts, and State Departments of Education assisting in the development and implementation of educational delivery systems that support Response to Intervention (RTI) as the central approach for improving student outcomes. We have focused on foundational knowledge and skill acquisition. We worked on developing systems for buildings, districts, and states. National organizations [National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), National Education Associations (NEA)] have supported and advanced these activities. We have learned a lot through these efforts, even as we know we are still very much in the beginning phase of comprehensive successful implementation. One thing we have come to understand is that long-term, the systemic change embodied in RTI requires that all professional education programs integrate the knowledge and skill sets into the curriculum and clinical experiences.


A friend and professional colleague once stated that changing programs and practices in universities is tantamount to attempting suicide by standing in front of a glacier. (That would be when glaciers were still expanding of course.) Change in higher education does not come easily and often requires some external factors to prompt it. So our next collective challenge is to begin the hard work of prompting all professional education preparation programs to modify their curriculum and practice so that graduates leaving their program understand RTI and have acquired the necessary skill sets expected of best-practice professionals.


We know from our PK-12 experience that implementation of RTI systems in a school and district requires a knowledge base and commitment from more than one professional discipline. In other words, it isn't enough that a school psychologist or department chair is knowledgeable and willing to implement RTI. Comprehensive success requires all professionals in a school/district to understand RTI and have the skill sets necessary for implementation. To that end, professional preparation programs must begin to embed in the curriculum, the foundational knowledge and applied clinical experiences that will prepare all professionals working in schools to operate within an RTI framework. Minimally that includes all teacher preparation programs at the bachelors, masters and certification level, educational administration programs (both principal and superintendent), school psychology, school counseling, and school social work.


While an outline of curriculum coverage is precluded due to space limitations via this forum, there are a few general content areas that must be included in the higher education curriculum. Coverage must include understanding of why we must reform our education delivery system, what are the limitations of existing structures in general and special education, what changes are required to those structures (e.g. eliminating the wait-to-fail model and focusing on identifying effective interventions rather than identifying disabilities) and what are the essential components of an RTI framework. Each professional educator must have a knowledge base and skill sets in such areas as research-based interventions, student progress monitoring, using student outcome data to inform curriculum and intervention planning, and functioning within a three-tiered system.


I argue that all this should be accomplished in professional preparation programs, not by way of the "add on" model (i.e. creating one free-standing course on RTI), but rather by integrating the foundational knowledge and skills sets into the existing curriculum and programs. Teacher preparation programs are diverse in that many certifications, endorsements and levels all interact with the curriculum and clinical experiences. It simply is too resource intensive to create RTI courses for each specialty area of certification (special, bilingual, general, math, science, etc.) across levels (elementary, middle, and secondary) not to mention that is pedagogically unsound. In addition to integrating the content into the existing curriculum structures, programs need to develop clinical sites where RTI is being implemented. So student teaching, practicum, and internship need to take place in buildings and districts that are committed to and practicing the essential components of RTI.


Professional preparation programs might be guided by the following questions:


  • How does your program prepare pre-service students to participate in three tier problem solving models and Response to Intervention?
  • How does your program prepare pre-service students to participate in universal screening and problem identification?
  • How does your program prepare pre-service students to implement scientifically-based reading and math instruction and select research-based curriculum?
  • How does your program prepare pre-service students to implement scientifically-based progress monitoring?
  • How does your program prepare pre-service students to participate in data collection, interpretation, and use to inform instructional decisions?
  • How does your program prepare pre-service teachers students to participate in effective problem-solving teams?

System-level change in K-12 settings will occur as each new professional hired brings the knowledge and skills necessary to "do things differently." Our challenge is to begin the important work of revising curriculum in professional preparation programs and adopt program approval standards that require graduates to demonstrate the requisite knowledge base and accompanying clinical skills necessary for functioning in schools and districts that make response to intervention the framework for delivering the educational program. It is time for education deans, department chairs, state boards of education, and external accreditation bodies to lead this next phase of education reform.

For more information about teacher preparation and professional development, view the archived videos from "Creating Capacity: Preparing Educators for RTI," featuring Dr. Prasse and other nationally renowned RTI experts.
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Readers interested in learning more can visit the "Learn About RTI" section of this site to access information, including the article "Why Adopt an RTI Model?"


Given the extraordinary uncertainty and lack of trustworthy empiric data about the role of RTI in the identification and remediation of LDs, the field is left with the question: "Is RTI the answer to the search for the most effective strategy for the early identification and accurate diagnosis of a reading disability and for providing effective reading instruction and timely intervention services? Or is RTI more of a Trojan horse, outwardly appealing but filled with risky, unproven, and in the end, potentially harmful practices, or is it somewhere in between?" (Shaywitz, 2008, p. xiii). The current rush to RTI sans an evidence base may mean that a "wait to fail model" (the catchy characterization of the severe discrepancy model) is now being replaced by a "watch them fail" model known as RTI. We believe the best interests of potential LD students will be served when identification and intervention are guided by the evidence and not anecdote, and that all children, including bright students, receive equal opportunity for identification, remediation, and accommodation.


Such rhetoric reminds me of the days of early behaviorism when the purpose was to spread the "idea" and required everyone to be "on-board", no other idea was as valid, etc, etc. Similar trends were found in mastery assessments and other paradigms in education, which is traditionally vulnerable to fadisms. Hopefully, with enought experience and knowledge, the field and its practitioners will find a more balanced perspective.