Keep It Simple and Think Systemically

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    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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