Advocacy Opportunities in RtI

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    Over the years of being involved with change efforts around RtI, one of the interesting conversations has been talking about where students with IEP’s “fit” within the dialogue and decision making. Because RtI is a set of practices that shape curriculum, instruction, and assessment decisions within a school and district, teams at all levels should design the decision-making process to ensure it applies to each student served by that building or district. My experience has been that much of the initial energy around RtI focuses discussion and decision making as it applies to students who have not been identified as students with disabilities – resulting in an awkward pause when teams start talking about “what about students who have IEP’s?”

    Like many others in the country, we have promoted RtI practices within the larger context of school improvement. Our district protocol advocates that we think and act carefully about core instruction, differentiate within classroom instruction, use data to guide our discussions and decisions regarding core and supplemental support, and promotes the problem solving process at all levels. This said,  changing the overall educational practices has unveiled a number of historical practices and questions related to students with disabilities and the role of special education in the RtI structures.

    My district is very fortunate to have Pona Piekarski as one of our leaders. At our last district special education teacher meeting, Pona initiated what will be a series of discussions around advocacy. The questions stimulated such important issues that I wanted to share the questions and some thoughts as a blog. Pona used existing RtI structures as the context for the discussion around advocacy – encouraging each of us to reflect on our words and actions that could be considered healthy or unhealthy advocacy. By design, this stretched our conversation in an interesting direction. The discussion  wasn’t just about what we say and do, but rather whether our practices could be perceived as healthy advocacy for students.

    RtI Structures and Advocacy

    Pona selected 3 structures within RtI for teams to discuss advocacy: (a) forming intervention groups, (b) core reading instruction, and (c) individual student problem-solving meetings.

    Advocacy When Intervention Groups are Formed

    Guiding questions for this table topic included:
    • Is every student included in the intervention sort?
    • Do students with disabilities have access to intervention groups – not just the groups formed because they have IEP’s, but rather by skill needs?
    • How would you advocate for your students?

    One of the practices in RtI is to use data for decision making. One of those decisions is to determine who may need additional assistance and to appropriately match supplemental intervention with needs identified from the data. Advocacy for students with disabilities must ensure that their needs are understood individually– not as generalizations from a disability category or label. When students are not included in the process of understanding skill strengths and weaknesses, we run the risk of not meeting their needs in the least restrictive intervention and miss an opportunity to have the classroom teacher hear the child’s description of strengths and needs rather than making assumptions based on disability category.

    Advocacy Related to Core Reading Instruction

    Guiding questions for this table topic included:
    • Do students with disabilities have the board policy allocated time for core, workshop, and intervention? (per protocol)
    • How do we support teachers to differentiate so core time is meaningful?
    • What tools do you bring to the table to talk about the “must do’s” of core reading instruction?

    One of the practices that we have been able to revisit and reinforce through RtI implementation is that all students need to have access to high quality core instruction. The tiered intervention model, commonly referred to affectionately as “the triangle,” has provided a visual reminder that all students are to have access to the core, with additional support provided as necessary. When students with disabilities are not included in core instruction, they miss out on the higher level discussion of literary selections and opportunities for peer modeling and support. We need to carefully plan with general education teachers so that participation is meaningful and differentiation is based on the student’s strengths and needs.

    Advocacy Related to Individual Student Problem-Solving Meetings

    Guiding questions for this table topic included:
    • What role do you take at the meeting?
    • What is asked for at the meeting? (e.g., progress monitoring data?  Phase lines? Description of changes and differentiation in core?)
    • What diagnostic tools are you using to understand and plan interventions?
    • Does the team leave with a plan in mind that doesn’t narrowly specify an evaluation?

    A central tenet of RtI is the application of the problem-solving process at all levels. While several RtI practices involve the “creation of new habits” (e.g., grade-level data reviews, forming intervention groups), the individual student problem-solving process involves first and foremost the “breaking of old habits.” When one function of the team is to determine if the team should move forward with an initial evaluation for special education, it seems that this dominates as the focal point of the discussion. Advocacy related to individual student problem solving is very straight forward – focus on problem solving. Whether the student is a student with a disability or not, the central question is what does the education system need to do in order to meet this student’s needs? Special education is not a person or a place – it is specially designed instruction.

    While I have provided commentary to the organizing questions Pona used to lead the meeting, I think we will look back and say that this discussion was part of a turning point for our efforts with RtI practices related to special education. While many buildings or districts have rolled out RtI with a specific design to minimize special education’s involvement so it isn’t seen as a “special education initiative,” an unintended outcome is that special educators may not readily see that the practices apply to all students – including those with disabilities.
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