Panel #1: “Realizing the Potential of RTI-How Comprehensive is Implementation?”

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Realizing the Potential: How Comprehensively Are Schools Implementing RTI?

By David H. Allsopp, Ph.D., University of South Florida

RTI Leadership Forum
Washington, DC
December 8, 2010

Generally speaking, some very good things are happening with respect to the implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI) on a national scale. Conversations are occurring about our collective responsibilities for educating all students across what have traditionally been separate educational “camps.” A long overdue national discussion surrounding high-quality instruction is emerging, including how to define it and how to implement it for all students. And, it appears that early data show some students are benefiting from RTI. Examples of schools making excellent progress toward comprehensively implementing RTI can be found in a variety of places around the nation (for nationwide implementation data, see Hoover, Baca, Wexler-Love, & Saenz, 2008, and Spectrum K12 School Solutions, 2009). Although there is promise, we have a long way to go toward realizing the potential of RTI. Although there are schools and even some school districts that are on the right path, this is not the norm. The comprehensive implementation of RTI nationwide requires systems change, and as we all know, such change is difficult, messy, and requires time-intensive work.

Not to diminish the progress that has been made overall, there are areas where we are falling short. I address three particular areas in this paper: a) the extent to which the intent of RTI is evident in responses of schools/districts, b) the extent to which high quality tiered instruction is occurring, and c) the extent to which the needs of students who are exceptional learners (i.e., with disabilities, gifted/talented, English language learners [ELLs]/culturally diverse) are being addressed.

Lately, my inspiration for building sustainable, low-error RTI implementation has come from dartboards and prostate cancer. Let me explain. When deciding whether to conduct an assessment, users should consider the accuracy of the assessment in the context in which it will be used, the costs or side effects of the assessment, and whether it will lead to some change in instruction that will meaningfully advance learning as a result of conducting the assessment. When deciding whether to implement a treatment, decision makers must evaluate the probability of positive and negative outcomes resulting from use of the treatment versus the probability of outcomes resulting from not using the treatment.

The same value can be obtained for a decision maker choosing to implement a treatment. In the example below, knowing that a disease has 40% mortality that can be cut in half with treatment—a treatment that carries with it minor side effects in 10% of patients—decision makers can readily see that treatment ought to be the favored option based on probability.



What is the intent of RTI? I believe at the heart of it all, RTI is about getting the best instruction to all students early to bring about the best educational outcomes possible for each individual. Why is intent important? Most schools/districts are not yet at a comprehensive stage of implementation. Nonetheless, if the intent of RTI is not evident in the practices currently being implemented, whether yet fully realized or not, it is unlikely that RTI will ever reach its potential. I will use four common types of responses to the implementation of RTI—based on personal observations—for the purpose of engaging us all in reflection about the intent of what we are currently doing and not doing. They include same game/new name, add on–take away, replacement, and moving ahead. These response types are not meant to be absolutes but instead are meant to illustrate some common responses I have observed and what they might tell us about whether the intent of RTI is at the forefront.

The same game/new name response assigns RTI-sounding terms to already existing procedures/processes that do not reflect the intent of RTI. School X determines that the existing mathematics curriculum is “evidence based” enough and by virtue of this it is agreed that high quality Tier 1 mathematics instruction is being implemented and no change in math instructional practice is necessary. School Y requires a 90-minute reading block for all students. With reading RTI in place, “tiered reading instruction” occurs during the same 90-minute reading block. Students receiving Tier 2 or Tier 3 instruction receive instruction for the same amount of time, oftentimes in the same classroom and oftentimes with the same teacher. School Z previously used its state assessment as a means to determine student assignments for the following year. With RTI, the same process is used but it is now called “universal screening.” In the same game/new name response, terminology has changed but little else has. The true intent of RTI is not apparent in this type of response.

The add on–take away response occurs when RTI is simply added to whatever is currently in place in a particular RTI-related area (e.g., reading) and something that is “non–RTI related” (e.g., art, music, electives) is removed or de-emphasized. Change in instructional practice within RTI-related areas is minimal or nonexistent. Prior to RTI, School A implemented a 90-minute reading block for all students. With reading RTI in place, it is decided that 30 additional minutes will be added to the reading block to provide “Tier 2 reading instruction” to students who need it. During the extra 30-minute period, the teacher moves around the room working with groups of students using the same core curriculum. She spends more time helping “Tier 2” students than students not identified as “Tier 2.” Qualitatively, instruction is no different for students except that they receive it for an extra 30 minutes. The extra 30 minutes applied to the reading block are taken away from something else (e.g., by removing music or art or by reducing the amount of time devoted to other academic areas). Although there appears to be an attempt to change in this response type, change is minimal and it is questionable in terms of effect on student success. In some ways it is contradictory to the true intent of RTI.

The replacement response is typified when a specific aspect of RTI is emphasized to replace another pre-existing process for the purpose of achieving a narrowly defined goal, while other core RTI components are minimally emphasized or not emphasized at all. For example, District M is invested in reducing the number of students found newly eligible for special education services. The data-collection and monitoring process that replaced the prior teacher-assistance-team process is made so cumbersome that teachers do not recommend the need for students for more intensive intervention due to the amount of documentation required. Moreover, Response to Intervention is interpreted by District M to mean any positive response made by a student regardless of his or her actual amount of progress. Implementation of RTI in District M results in a 90% reduction of new referrals from one year to the next. In District P, students who might have been previously referred for special education services move through Tier 1 and Tier 2 as nonresponders. At Tier 3 there is no real differentiation between what students who are identified with disabilities receive compared to those who are not. So, instead of being evaluated for possible eligibility for special education services, these students become “Tier 3 students” since they would receive the same instruction whether identified or not. In this instance, Tier 3 becomes a replacement for special education. It is difficult to see how the true intent of RTI is part of this response type.

The moving ahead response is qualitatively different from the first three. It occurs when a leader provides a vision, makes it okay for teachers to innovate in order to implement RTI based on the individual needs of students, and makes staff/assignment decisions to match expertise with RTI need. School C’s principal chooses to tackle math RTI head on with his faculty and staff by developing small learning communities among all of his teachers. Together they do research on effective math instruction practices, determine which practices are most likely to address their students’ needs, plan how foundational math concepts can be emphasized in other subject area classes, and develop progress-monitoring protocols that will allow them to truly monitor progress on mathematical thinking areas they believe to be most essential to developing their students’ overall mathematical competencies. Together, they re-envision their daily schedules so that all students receive tiered instruction learning opportunities (i.e., extension, at benchmark, below benchmark) in mathematics. This response type demonstrates collective buy-in to the RTI process and a bit of innovation to make it work, based on this school’s individual context and values about teaching and learning.

As I have said, it is not my purpose to say that schools/districts fit discretely into any single response type. Each response is meant to represent varying degrees to which the spirit of RTI is apparent in the actions taken, at whatever stage of implementation a particular school/district finds itself. As we move forward, our mutual goal should be to ensure that the intent of RTI, rather than other forces, drives implementation and practice. While the comprehensive implementation of RTI is complex and at times uncertain, we cannot afford to get lost in the details. A good measure of self-reflection and self-monitoring on all of our parts would serve us well.


The use of high-quality instruction across tiers is paramount to the success of RTI. Unfortunately, we have a very long way to go on this point. Certainly, many factors contribute to this lack of progress, several of which we have control over. The limited research base on effective, content-specific instruction (e.g., mathematics and the sciences) is one factor. General educators, content specialists, specialists in ELL and gifted/talented education, early childhood specialists, and special educators have to work together at both the research and practice levels to develop more effective ways of helping all students learn and achieve school success. And, this work must be done within the context of differentiated tiered instruction, not outside of it. Such work is vital, particularly at the Tier 1 level, where, in my opinion, little progress has been made with respect to determining what is and what is not high-quality instruction for all students. Most likely, the way schools are structured will need to change (e.g., traditional one teacher with one classroom framework; discrete instructional periods where all students move in unison). Such change will be difficult. The good news is that we do have a solid foundation of knowledge about effective teaching and learning practices generally, and we have some important understandings with regard to specific content areas (albeit reading/literacy to a greater degree than others). This is a foundation upon which we need to continue to build and from which we need to begin to innovate -- together!

Another factor is that we have done a poor job as a field translating into practice what we believe works. With respect to RTI, there is even confusion among leaders as to what constitutes best practices (e.g., Christ, Burns, & Ysseldyke, 2005; Fuchs, Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003). Oftentimes the “translation” that is provided by researchers or that is received by implementers becomes blurred for any number of reasons (e.g., philosophical, “turf driven,” political, funding, commercial interests, lack of contextual fit, etc.). From a research perspective, we too often spend our time fighting with one another over value-laden perspectives about what is right and what is wrong, in contrast to truly working toward finding what works best for individual students given their varying learning needs and educational and life contexts. Moreover, the social validity of practices (i.e., can the practice actually be used by teachers and does it result in truly meaningful gains beyond statistical significance?) is an important but mostly forgotten consideration. Although the research is clear on what makes the translation of research to practice more likely to occur than not (Carnine, 1997; Greenwood & Abbott, 2001), we continually fail to make it happen. Realistically, as education researchers, teacher educators, school leaders, and practitioners alike, we do not work in a truly interdisciplinary way when it comes to this important need. For example, in mathematics, researchers in mathematics education, special education, education of ELLs, and gifted/talented students too often operate in silos. In most cases, we do not communicate what we learn to each other and do not integrate one with the other. At the Tier 1 level, the result is a shotgun approach to teaching and learning mathematics. Because of this, we address the needs of some (i.e., instruction that addresses the needs of a particular set of students who have a particular set of demographic characteristics) but miss on the needs of others because we do not consider how to integrate practices in ways that can be used flexibly and that have a greater potential for addressing the needs of all students regardless of their demographic characteristics. The result is curricula and teaching practices that are often fragmented in nature and not conducive to a continuum of teaching and learning practice respective of tiered instruction that is truly differentiated in nature. Moreover, what actually differentiates one tier from the next, from an instructional practice standpoint, is often difficult to determine (other than perhaps teacher–student ratio). There is a need to make use of content-specific understandings of learning and how this works similarly and differently for diverse students. And, we need to more effectively use formal and informal individualized diagnostic assessments to help inform tiered instruction decisions, especially for struggling learners.

A third factor is a hyperfocus on what teachers use (i.e., curriculum materials) rather than on what teachers do (i.e., use of effective teaching and learning practices) as the determiner of what constitutes high-quality instruction within RTI. In particular, Tier 1 instruction is often conceptualized as adherence to a core curriculum that is evidence based. As logical as this might be, the result has been a proliferation of repackaged curricula that may or may not integrate effective instructional practices generally and/or for specific populations of students with unique learning needs. Few have anything close to what can be considered a strong evidence base. According to the What Works Clearinghouse (a national center for evaluating evidence-based practices), only two mathematics curricula have been determined to have even potential for producing positive effects at the elementary level. Yet, seemingly, many different so-called evidence-based mathematics curricula are being used within differentiated RTI tiered instruction across the nation. It is not difficult to conjecture that most students are not receiving evidence-based mathematics instruction nor instruction that incorporates the breadth of research-supported practices for students with and without disabilities. Like patients do when sick, schools/districts are compelled to “doctor shop” for the curriculum that will cure their students’ test scores. While it is true that progress—to some degree—has been made in delineating effective reading/literacy tiered instruction practices, there is still much we do not know. We must begin moving beyond a single area of content focus (i.e., beginning reading) in the discussion of high quality tiered instruction in RTI. It is possible that we will find that this looks and needs to be delivered differently for various content areas, grade ranges, and students. Given these factors, as well as others, we have a very long way to go before we are close to implementing truly differentiated high quality tiered instruction across multiple content areas and grade levels. If response to instruction such as this is the mantle upon which RTI rests, then we have to do better.


I am uncertain where students with disabilities and other exceptional learners (i.e., ELLs, gifted/talented, early childhood) currently fit within RTI. To me, the picture is quite muddled. As a special educator, I am very concerned about this issue, as I know are others, particularly parents. Whether it is service provision for those already identified, procedures for determining eligibility, or practices put in place to serve these students, states, school districts, and individual schools seem to be scattered with respect to this issue. The manner in which students who are culturally/linguistically diverse, gifted/talented, or pre-K are served within RTI is even murkier. I am concerned that in the zeal to make RTI happen we may not always be cognizant of what we don’t see. With respect to RTI and students who are culturally and linguistically diverse, Alfedo Artilles and Elizabeth Kozleski (2010) refer to these areas as “blind spots.”

Regarding RTI and students with disabilities and other exceptional learners, I have encountered a number of potential blind spots. One, for example, can occur when Tier 3 is considered to be special education. When this is the case, students who do not have disabilities but who struggle for other reasons (e.g., ELLs) do not have access to this additional level of scaffolded instruction—instruction that might make the difference for them. If these students do have access to Tier 3, then by proxy they become “special education”—in view, if not in name. I worry that once students with disabilities receive Tier 3 services they will become forgotten and will not be seen as “eligible” for Tier 1 and Tier 2. I hear the term “RTI kid” used a lot now, much like “special ed kid” has been used in the past. Have we created yet one more “tracking system” where students are, early on, set on a predetermined educational path? I wonder how tiered instruction provides benefit to students who are gifted/talented. Tiered instruction that is conceptualized to provide these students with more time and intensity to extend and deepen their understandings could, or should, be an option. Students who are twice-exceptional learners (i.e., gifted/talented and with learning disabilities) are also at risk when there are not provisions for tiered instruction to address both their gifts/talents and their disability-related needs simultaneously. It is not evident to me that these students are even part of the national RTI conversation. I also wonder about tiered instruction and young children. When a recent study of Tier 2 RTI practices showed differential results for younger students compared to older students (Bryant, Bryant, Gersten, Scammacca, & Chavez, 2008), it begged the question, does tiered instruction work in the same way for children at different developmental levels? Although suggested practices have been offered with respect to serving these populations and their unique needs within RTI (e.g., the National Center on Response to Intervention and the RTI Action Network), our knowledge base is fledgling and the implementation of these practices is quite varied.

Embedded within the RTI context are federal statewide assessment/accountability processes such as adequate yearly progress. One would think that RTI’s emphasis on data-based decision making would be complementary in nature. However, in some cases the exact opposite happens. Schools are sometimes compelled to use existing state measures for RTI purposes when those measures are not sound for the purposes of screening or continuous progress monitoring within an RTI framework. State mandates regarding which courses a middle or high school student must take based on scores on high-stakes testing can force schools to develop tiered instruction systems based on specific state-mandated courses (not conceptualized within an RTI framework) rather than a systematic and coordinated tiered-instruction process (i.e., Tier 1 “above benchmark”—AP, Honors, IB courses; Tier 2 “at benchmark”—diploma courses; Tier 3 “below benchmark”—remedial courses; and Tier 4 “nondiploma” courses). A student with a learning disability in this context may, for example, make a high B in Algebra 1 in the 8th grade yet not pass the state assessment in math and be required to take a Tier 3 (below benchmark) remedial course in 9th grade. Students who are ELLs and students who are gifted/talented are also at risk with respect to these types of processes, given difficulties they can experience with high-stakes tests.

Finally, we anticipated that RTI could result in greater accuracy in identifying students with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities. Currently, I wonder if the intent of increased accuracy has taken a back seat to the intent of reduction in the number of students identified. States, schools, and school districts seem to be scattered with respect to RTI and the identification of learning disabilities. We need to ensure that as we wrestle with identification criteria within RTI, we do not fail to identify and provide services for students who actually have learning disabilities. When reduction in number of identifications is the focus, service provision for this population suffers and so does our sense of responsibility for addressing the unique academic, social, and behavioral needs of individual students with or without disabilities. In the short term, some students might lose the ability to receive potentially helpful and appropriate accommodations (in class but also with respect to standardized high-stakes testing). Moreover, long-term effects have to be considered, including access to postsecondary education. Nonidentified students with learning disabilities in K–12 who enter college will likely need and benefit from ADA/Section 504 related services. However, without identification they will not be able to access these services. Therefore, with respect to students with disabilities and other exceptional learners, and where they fit within RTI, there are more questions than there appear to be answers at this point. We must place greater emphasis on how these students fit within RTI in the future and how they can be best served.


With regard to the comprehensive implementation of RTI, there is much to do. But, with thoughtful, respectful, and hard work come possibilities. Is the RTI glass half empty or is it half full? As an advocate for students who do not experience life within the norm, I have to believe that the glass is half full—because of the possibilities RTI presents. However, I also have to acknowledge that the glass has cracks that must be shored up. We have a long road ahead of us. However, like any good road builder knows, it is not the ultimate distance you get to in a given amount of time that is important, it is the quality with which the road is made that stands the test of time. Currently, is RTI being comprehensively implemented nationwide? No, it is not. But many are working toward that end. We have serious issues that we must confront, some of which I have briefly presented in this paper. The way I look at it, this is our next best chance to make pre-K–12 education right for all students. Let’s hope that we have the fortitude to take advantage of this opportunity!


Bryant, D. P, Bryant, B. R., Gersten, R., Scammacca, N., & Chavez, M. (2008). Mathematics intervention for first and second grade students with mathematics difficulties: The effects of Tier 2 intervention delivered as booster lessons. Remedial and Special Education, 29(1), 20–32.

Carnine, D. (1997). Bridging the research-to-practice gap. Exceptional Children, 63, 513–521.

Christ, T. J., Burns, M. K., & Ysseldyke, J. E. (2005). Conceptual confusion within response-to-intervention vernacular: Clarifying meaningful differences. NASP Communiqué, 34(3), 1, 6-8.

Fuchs, D., Mock, D., Morgan, P. L., & Young, C. L. (2003). Responsiveness-to-intervention: Definitions, evidence, and implications for the learning disabilities construct. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 18, 157–171.

Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., & Witzel, B. (2009). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for elementary and middle schools (NCEE 2009-4060). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences.

Greenwood, C.R., & Abbott, M. (2001). The research to practice gap in special education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 24(4), 276–289.

Hoover, J. J., Baca, L., Wexler-Love, E., & Saenz, L. (2008). National implementation of response to intervention (RTI): Research summary. Boulder: University of Colorado, Special Education Leadership and Quality Teacher Initiative, BUENO Center-School of Education. Retrieved from

Spectrum K12 School Solutions. (2009). Response to Intervention (RTI) Adoption Survey 2009 (executive summary). Towson, MD: Author. Retrieved from

Copyright © 2010 National Center for Learning Disabilities, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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