Keep It Simple and Think Systemically

It is widely acknowledged that RTI application at the middle and secondary levels is not as developed as it is at the elementary level. There are a number of reasons for that difference, including structural/organizational school-based differences between elementary settings and middle/high school settings. Structures that typify middle and high schools (departments) and content-based specialization for teacher credentialing, resulting in multiple teachers for each student, pose challenges in those settings that are not found in the elementary setting. National initiatives around literacy, early reading program emphasis (e.g., Reading First), and a general professional and political acknowledgment that achievement problems are best attacked earlier also contribute to a greater emphasis on elementary schools.

As in elementary schools, the challenges we find at middle and secondary levels are real. Often, the concerns expressed are a function of a long-standing organizational structure that has the appearance of making it seem impossible to implement RTI. “How do we find time to address student needs without taking time away from something else?” is often a question posed. Or, “When during the day could we possibly do this?” Or, “That’s fine, but he/she can’t miss biology or....” And yet there are approaches and places where RTI has moved forward in these settings, and protocols for doing so exist. Indeed, see Judy Elliott’s blog on this site.

Initiating RTI in a middle or high school setting can be accomplished by thinking both simply and systemically about common issues and challenges. One example I find helpful is from middle school. Over the years I have addressed many middle school faculty and administrators. When the implementation challenges come up, I usually ask them to identify a common problem, one that most, if not all, teachers in the school would experience on an ongoing basis. One problem that always makes it into the top three is problems with students not returning homework. Homework in middle school takes on greater import than in earlier grades, so homework return problems surface in major ways in middle school. I then ask if there has been a school-wide initiative to address the common problem. The answer is almost always no. So each teacher is left to address it on his or her own.

Time for RTI. Two rules apply in the beginning: Make it simple and think systemically, meaning school wide in this case. So let’s define the problem in measurable terms, develop a school-wide intervention, implement it with integrity, and progress monitor the intervention’s effectiveness. Here is what we have done. Determine the school-wide base rate for homework return. It is 74%. Set a measurable and reasonable goal. The school-wide homework return will reach 90% after 2 months of sustained intervention. This is a behavioral problem with a direct negative academic impact.

Consequently, the intervention will focus on the behavior and will reward the positive (homework return) behavior. Remember, positive behavior intervention supports (PBIS). The base homework return rate was calculated for each classroom over a 2-week period. A large chart with each day of the week was prepared for each classroom and the respective base rate was charted. Each teacher recorded the daily homework return rate (%). Classroom-based rewards were tangible and implicit and included changing incentives each week (tangible awards — including vouchers redeemable for things like pizza parties, candy and food coupons, and t-shirts —were granted on the basis of a 2% increase in the homework return rate per week. Intangibles included sitting wherever they wanted, free time on Monday, not having to write in their journals for a day, etc.). A classroom had to reach the 90% goal to redeem the coupons at the end of 2 months (length of intervention can vary). Students in each class were completely aware of the project and participated in charting each day’s rate. Each classroom reached the required return rate, with many exceeding it.

That is RTI applied to a whole-school problem. It is also a problem common to many middle schools, and it is an intervention that works. It rewards the desired behavior. So, what are you waiting for? Implement with integrity and it will work for your school too.

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Read what others had to say...

These articles always make things sound so easy. Implementing an intervention strategy at a school is accomplished by EVERYONE BEING CONSISTENT TOWARD A COMMON GOAL. This is the hardest thing to do. Too often people have their own agendas and feel that certain things are "not their job" or "not their responsibility" and it puts a damper on things that a school is trying to accomplish.

The article covers a couple of valid points. One is that collaboration of RTI implementation is crucial. There has to be "buy in" by everyone in the secondary level. The value of such a system must be emphasized to show the benefit of what's best for the student. Without the support from everyone it becomes less effective. The second point is the simplicity of the issue. Tackling something as straightforward as student’s turning in their homework makes it easier to record for empirical data.

After reading this article I felt like taking it to my school to show to admin. We are starting a schoolwide vocabulary initiative but the idea seems to be lacking. As teachers we know that not every student brings their materials to class everyday. Still, we are distributing folders for the students to carry to each class to receive a word a week. Although we have just started this and no one knows what to expect as far as the students bringing their folders everyday, perhaps we could have added a reward component to our initiative to positively influence the student compliance rate.

Great article! Working together to improve student achievement is the responsibility of everyone in the school. Great things can happen if schools unit as a team to identify the current level of student achievement, establish goals to improve the current level of achievement, work together to achieve those goals, and provide periodic evidence of progress.

Implementing this at a Middle School can be hard becaise the students don't all share the same teacher. I think it is a good idea to find common problem that all teahers share and work on strategies to solve these problems together. At the middle school I work at, 7th grade teachers are on one "team" and 8th grade teachers on another. Each team meets to go over general class problems and strategies that every teacher can live with and implement in their own classroom.

I think that by first correctly identifying a problem that actually affects all teachers is brilliant. This will ensure that the teachers will have a vested interest in seeing this RTI project through. The other part of this RTI project is in having tangible results. Both students and teachers now have a vested interested in attaining positive results. For the students, there is the food reward, and for the teachers, the homework will now be turned in. This is most likely the best way to obtain co-operation across the board in secondary schools.

I thought about the 3 C's along with the systemic approach--Consistently Collaborate and Care. It's so important to keep the students first in all that we do. At our school we are doing Silent Sustained Reading at all grade levels, and everyone will be reading the same book. In addition, all of the math teachers will be teaching a ninth grade math class, and will be sharing their lessons with each other to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Classroom rules will be consistent as well for all freshmen. Consistency provides reinforcement; reinforcement strengthens learning!

Sounds like a great school-wide intervention plan! Thanks for sharing it!

Vice Principal
Can you provide any additional resources on this? I'm doing some background research and would appreciate any further reading to help me along.