Leadership Leadership Leadership



A number of years ago during the very early years of Response to Intervention (indeed before that phrase was coined), I was in a principal’s office meeting with him and discussing the steps important to moving ahead with implementation. He sat on the other side of the desk from me, looked directly at me and said, “I am not going to do this. I am going to wait you out. This is just one more initiative that in a few years will be gone.” While I understand the historical-based reasons for the response (education is strewn with one “let’s try this approach” after another) and the cynicism implied in the statement, it also represents one of the biggest challenges systemic school reform faces. Change necessary to ensure better outcomes for all students in our nation’s schools requires dynamic leadership at building and district levels. Without the right building-level leadership, RTI will not realize the potential it has in fundamentally altering for the better both the delivery system and educational practice in our schools.


In the past 10 years (since IDEA 97 created the foundations for changing not only how we thought about special education services, but general education as well), I have both listened to and observed the frustrations of building-level professional educators around a lack of understanding and demonstrable leadership for RTI from their principal. To be sure, I have also witnessed superb building-level leadership from principals. It remains a fact however, that comprehensive reform initiatives resulting in better academic outcomes will not happen without the right building-level leadership. Successful implementation of RTI is a function of strong leadership, dependent on the building principal knowing what RTI is, why it is important to educational reform, and then leading that reform in the building. It is often the last component, leading, that is left wanting.

The important role a school leader plays in effecting positive outcomes for students has moved center stage nationally in the past 10 years, triggered in part by greater accountability expectations. National reports backed by foundation funding have looked closely at how universities prepare school leaders (Educating School Leaders, Levine, 2005) to what matters from the building-level perspective (A Mission of the Heart: What Does It Take To Transform A School, Wallace Foundation, 2007). Consistent themes emerge and are best summed up by Holt and Moorman (2003) in Preparing School Principals: A National Perspective on Policy and Program Innovations: “While the jobs of school leaders — superintendents, principals, teacher leaders and school board members — have change dramatically, it appears that neither organized professional development programs nor formal preparation programs based in higher education institutions have adequately prepared those holding these jobs to meet the priority demands of the 21st century, namely, improved student achievement.”

So what does it mean to lead, and what should professional educators committed to the RTI reform initiative expect of their school leader. I have been known to portray this issue broadly by saying, “Don’t tell me you love me, show me you love me.” So, it isn’t enough to say “I am on board” as a school leader. What are the behaviors that demonstrate being on board. Building principal, think carefully about these questions:  Have you taken the time to learn about RTI, what it is, why it emerged, what does it look it? In other words, have you accomplished the knowing part? If yes, then what behaviors do you need to demonstrate to lead the initiative in your school?  Have you set up a building team? Do you attend the meetings? (If not, you are not leading). Have you provided for professional RTI development for those in your building? (Not the one shot in-service, but ongoing professional development). Have you hired a knowledgeable consultant who will assist you and your building in implementation? Have you networked your building with regional and state-wide RTI initiatives? Have you begun to put in place the necessary technology-based data collection systems that allow for on-going student performance data-based decision making? Have you made this a priority for your school? Making something a priority means just that — committing the resources of your school (personnel, financial, policy, etc.) to the RTI effort. It means you have made the leadership decision to move your school forward.  That is what RTI needs and that is what our students deserve.

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Read what others had to say...

RtI Learning Specialist
My school is in the first year of implementation of RtI. As the coordinator (at my school) for this initiative, I applaud your article about the importance of strong administrative support. We have been very fortunate to have two fabulous administrators who are committed to providing the most effective instruction for our students. I wish that all principals would read your article!


Professor and Dean
Nina, I am glad you found the questions helpful. Thanks for taking the leadership role, not only in your school, but also in assisting other school leaders. Progress is happening thanks to those of you in our K-12 settings who are taking that lead.


Professor and Dean
Nina, I am glad you found the questions helpful. Thanks for taking the leadership role, not only in your school, but also in assisting other school leaders. Progress is happening thanks to those of you in our K-12 settings who are taking that lead.


elementary principal
I am preparing to do a regional workshop on Leadership for RTI. I am in my first year of implementation and appreciate the questions that you suggest we ask of ourselves as leaders as we move forward to RTI.