A Parent Leader's Perspective on Response to Intervention

In 2005, I attended a meeting where this "new" process known as Response to Intervention (RTI) was the subject of a 2-day long discussion. This was a national level meeting of principals, teachers, superintendents, special education directors, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, other education professionals, and two parents—myself and another parent leader whose name escapes me at the moment. Frankly, I had not done a lot of preparation before the meeting. Being a quick study, I can usually grasp a concept quickly and analyze some of its potential impacts on students with and without disabilities, and their families. So, I really had no idea of what this exciting new thing was really about.


Hearing from the Experts


Well, then the experts began to explain this RTI process. First, it was explained that RTI is built on the foundation of selecting a program that has been proven to work for students (scientific, research-based instruction). I was thinking, "Okay, that's a good idea." The experts went on to say that RTI requires the use of tools (assessments) for measuring how well students are doing and gauging their progress in the basic skill areas of reading, spelling, mathematics, and/or written language (curriculum-based measurement). "Okay," I reasoned, "that makes a lot of sense." The experts also said that at the beginning of the year, someone at the school (principal, teacher, data maven) takes a look at the records of students' past performance on state or other tests or gives all students a test with one of the tools and then picks out the students who they should keep an eye on because they are at risk for not doing well (universal screening). These tools or tests are used on a regular basis not only to check on students' academic performance, but also to find out if the way that the student is being taught is really helping (progress monitoring). That got me thinking, "I'm not sure that that is happening in my children's classes, but I bet my mom did it when she taught 3rd grade in the '60s and '70s." The experts added that, finally, if a student is not doing so well, based on this tool, he or she receives extra help that is scientifically proven to be effective, and if the student still does not do well, even more help is provided (tiered interventions). And, for a very small number of students who are still not responding, they may need extra help that is not usually available through general education (referral and evaluation for special education services).


At that point, my head was aching. "What could I have missed? I've had three cups of coffee so I can be really attentive, and I still can't figure out what the ‘new' thing is!" I read over my copy of the PowerPoint slides. I tried to decipher my handwriting and figure out my notes. I thought I might have written it down without recognizing its "new"ness. But I still could not figure out what this innovative, out-of-the-box paradigm shift (all of this jargon just means "new thing") could be. I wondered, "Aren't these the things that schools are supposed to be doing already to help children learn? Did it take an act of Congress (IDEA 2004) for schools to be into schooling?"


So, by then I was actually a little perturbed, especially because someone had just asked me, at the last minute, to sit on a panel and respond to the day's presentations with the "parent perspective." Now, all of the professionals have been working on this topic for days, months, years, or lifetimes, and here I am, "the parent," and I only get a 2-minute warning (or maybe it was 2 days). Clearly, they were looking for an emotional reaction, not a cogent, evidence-based, research-grounded response to RTI. So, I jotted down a few notes, which of course I would not be able to decipher when the time came to make my "presentation."


A Parent's Perspective


And I began, "This methodology, a process that is attentive to the individual learning of students, monitoring their progress or lack of progress at regular intervals, is important in identifying struggling learners early. Taking this information and using evidence-based practices for targeted interventions is so important. I am particularly impressed with the tracking of student progress using curriculum-based measurements that track student progress for teachers, administrators, and parents—I am assuming that parents receive this information through written reports and conferences with teachers."


I was really feeling confident in my "presentation." I added a personal story from the parent perspective by sharing my daughter's 3rd grade experience. She was placed in a class called "Reading Theater" for 50 minutes per day. After some investigating, I found that this was a Title I Basic Skills (under an earlier version of No Child Left Behind) class—not necessarily a bad thing, I thought, until I went for a conference with the teacher. She was so excited that my daughter was doing so well, scoring 100% on all of her worksheets. That sounded great, until I found out she had spent 2 months on initial consonant sounds. I was furious, not at the teacher but at the "system" that identified my daughter as needing extra help yet could produce no evidence as to why she was identified, what her needs were, or how a reader who was on grade level would benefit from 50 minutes of worksheets each day.


Then came the question that I knew had to be coming. "How would you suggest that we get information out to families about RTI?" I was thinking, "How am I going to break it to these professionals and research experts promoting their "new" thing, with those ever so clever and self-congratulatory faces?" Pause. Breathe.


"This is an excellent question. As I understand RTI, its focus is on teaching students, checking to see how they are doing, and providing them with extra help where needed. And, if that help is not enough, referring the student for evaluation for special education services. Well, the reality is that most parents will be shocked that this is not what is already going on in their child's class and school. Unless there is something that I am missing, as a parent, it was my expectation that teachers are already trained to be attentive to student needs and to respond to them. So, when you are getting information out to families, be aware that the first feedback may be a blank stare accompanied by the question "And…?"


Parents as Partners in Implementing Response to Intervention in Schools


As educators are getting over our looks of puzzlement, we can begin to assure them that we believe that RTI can be a good thing for students, when appropriately implemented and when parents are included as partners from the outset. Like RTI, the importance of parents partnering with their child's teacher is a well-documented research-based strategy. There is significant evidence on the impact of parent involvement on student grades and test scores, attendance, behavior and social skills, graduation, and pursuit of postsecondary education. For parents who are looking for more information on RTI and their child's education, there are now available several excellent guides that can assist parents in understanding RTI. The guides from the National Center on Learning Disabilities and from the Parent Information Center in New Hampshire do an exceptional job of outlining the key aspects to look for in RTI systems, the questions parents should ask about implementation in their child's school, our rights under IDEA to request an evaluation for special education services at any point, and also ways that parents can help their children at home.


Questions Parents Should Ask Before Response to Intervention Approaches Are Implemented in Their School or District


In addition to understanding RTI, when this process is being used to educate your child it is also important for parents to be included as partners with schools in the adoption and implementation of RTI programs. How do you do that? Here are some questions that we can ask as our school and/or district is adopting an RTI process.


  1. In considering whether and how to implement RTI, what is the school and/or district strategy for reviewing curriculum options? How will parents be included in this process?
  2. Does this process ensure that the curriculum adopted will address the needs of the student population?
  3. Does the curriculum include materials that parents can use at home?
  4. Are there sufficient resources (time, materials, and staff) to be able to offer the variety of proven instructional strategies needed to address diverse student needs?
  5. How will our teachers be trained in using tools and methods for measuring student performance that recognize small increments of growth?
  6. What interventions will be used? Are these scientifically based as supported by research? Will they address the cultural and language needs of our students?
  7. Does the district have clear, objective guidelines for determining an "adequate" response to an intervention—how much progress over what period of time will determine if an intervention is successful? How will school personnel check to be sure that the interventions were carried out as planned?
  8. At what point in the RTI process are parents informed of their due process rights under IDEA 2004, including the right to request an evaluation for special education eligibility?
  9. Does the school and district have a plan for keeping parents informed as the new procedures are put into place? Are there written materials for parents that explain the RTI process?
  10. Does our school and district have specific ways to include parents as partners in the process, including regular school-wide or districtwide meetings to let parents know what is working and what additional efforts or resources may be needed?


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