Your State's Guide to RTI Just Doesn't Make Sense

What your Department of Education isn't Sharing about its Multi-tiered/Response-to-Intervention Procedures

Dear Colleagues,

When you work as a national consultant, it is expected that your districts or schools are going to give you the toughest problems to solve. . . . the most academically or behaviorally challenging students, the most resistant teachers, the schools that have been failing the longest and the hardest. And that's why I love doing what I do.

However, the toughest school or district problems are sometimes compounded by (federal or local) Department of Education policies or procedures that are not supported by sound research, effective practice, or even common sense.

Recently, my work in one state required me to review the state's new policy and procedures manual on "Response to Instruction and Intervention" (RTI2). While this state's RTI approach was similar to other states in many ways (and that is not necessarily a good thing), it is crucial to recognize that statutory popularity does not represent field-based validity.

In fact, when departments of education pass and police bad RTI policy and practice, at least two dilemmas result. The dilemma of:

  • How, within the bounds of ethical and effective practice, a consultant does not point out how the state's statutes are likely, for example, to harm students by delaying or denying them timely and appropriate services.
  • How, a consultant can ask a district to ignore or not comply with its state statutes ... when s/he knows that accountability to these same statutes is required.

While the simple resolution would be to make sure that all state statutes reflect sound research, effective practice, and common sense- - that is more idealistic than realistic in our hyper-politicized world (really!) of education. Remember, I have worked in a state department of education for over 12 years.

And so, the only answer is that there are times when courageous acts of "educational common sense" are needed, on behalf of our students, as these acts reflect the right thing to do.

Remember Peter Drucker's quote:

"Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things.

Leadership Responses to Flawed RTI Statutes

In reviewing the RTI2 Guidebook of the state where I was consulting, the following management flaws (see Drucker's quote) stuck out as needing common sense leadership.

Flaw #1. Missing the Interdependency between Academics and Behavior.

I often ask teachers with struggling students two critical questions:

  • Do you have students who are behaviorally acting out because of academic frustration?
  • Do you have students who are academically not learning (or not learning quickly enough) because they do not have certain behavioral skills (sitting in their seat, paying attention, working in interpersonally effective ways with others)?

When they answer "Yes" to both questions they are demonstrating that academic instruction, learning, and mastery is interdependent with classroom discipline, behavior management, and student self-management.

Thus, it does not make sense for a state's RTI process to focus only on academic skills. . . to the exclusion of students' social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

Indeed, if a student does not (a) have the social skills to get along with others (e.g., in a cooperative learning group); (b) feel emotionally secure in class (e.g., due to teasing or school safety issues); or (c) have the behavioral skills to organize themselves (e.g., to work independently), then the even best teachers, curricula, technology, and instruction will not result in the desired academic outcomes.

Flaw #2. Missing the Continuum of Instruction.

Many state RTI2 guidebooks and systems do not provide a research-based continuum of services and supports that helps to organize and differentiate the difference between "instruction" and "intervention." These guidebooks talk about the need for intervention, but rarely provide any specificity.

Over the past decade (or more), we have presented this continuum to states, districts, and schools across the country---presenting it as the PASS (Positive Academic Supports and Services) model.

As is evident in the slide below, RTI starts with an effective teacher providing sound, differentiated instruction, supported by good classroom management, and the data-based monitoring of students' academic and behavioral learning and mastery.

When students are not learning (or learning quickly enough), an assessment process must be conducted to determine why the progress is missing (see Flaw #3 below). This assessment could be done (a) by the teacher, (b) with the support of grade-level colleagues as part of a Grade-level RTI Team, or (c) with the support of the multidisciplinary Building-level RTI Team. How the teacher assesses the problem is determined largely by his/her skills, and the duration or intensity of the problem (see Flaw #7 below).

Once the underlying reasons for the problem have been validated, the teacher (once again- - by him/herself, supported by grade-level colleagues, and/or with members of the Building-level RTI team) strategically decides how to solve the problem (see Flaw #4). As in the slide above, the problem may be solved through strategically selected:

  • Assistive support technologies
  • Remedial approaches
  • Accommodation approaches
  • Curricular modification approaches
  • Laser-targeted Interventions
  • Compensatory strategies

When students are demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral problems, a comparable continuum is used (after completing the needed functional assessments) that consists of strategically selected:

  • Skill Instruction strategies
  • Speed of Learning and Mastery Acquisition strategies
  • Transfer of Training strategies
  • Emotional Coping and Control strategies
  • Motivational strategies
  • History of Inconsistency strategies
  • Special Situation strategies

Flaw #3. Avoiding Diagnostic or Functional Assessment until it is Too Late.

Many state RTI2 guidebooks, adopting the flawed approaches of the U.S. Department of Education's RTI technical assistance centers, advocate for a "wait to fail, then assess" strategy. That is, when students are not succeeding academically (for example) at Tier 1, they recommend 30 minutes of largely unspecified group interventions at Tier 2. Then, if the students are still having problems, they recommend a diagnostic (or, for behavior, functional) assessment as the entry point to Tier 3.

And yet, critically, I don't know many doctors, electricians, car mechanics, or other professionals who would not do a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the problem solving process. . . to ensure that their first recommendations are their last recommendations (because the problem is solved).

And so. . . Why would we, in good conscience, "allow" a student to struggle for six to ten or more weeks in the classroom, and in a Tier 2 intervention, so that we can get to the point where we finally do a diagnostic assessment to figure out what really is wrong?

And why would we do this knowing that, after these multiple and prolonged periods of failure, the problem may be worse (or compounded), the student might be more confused or frustrated, and we might need even more intensive interventions because we did not identify and analyze the problem right from the beginning?

Flaw #4. Not Linking Assessment to Intervention.

Many state RTI2 guidebooks and systems do not delineate the different types of assessment (e.g., screening versus progress monitoring versus diagnostic versus implementation integrity versus high stakes/proficiency versus program evaluation assessments). This often occurs because state departments of education write their guidebooks to meet a statutory requirement . . . rather than to educate their practitioners.

Relative to RTI processes that will effectively help students with academic or behavioral difficulties, state guidebooks and systems typically do not emphasize the importance of linking diagnostic assessment results with the instructional or interventions approaches that have the highest probability of success.

Critically, when school practitioners do not strategically choose their student-focused instructional or intervention approaches based on reliable and valid diagnostic assessment results, they are playing a game of "intervention roulette."

And, as in Vegas, the "house" usually wins. But, in the classroom, the loss here is the student's loss.

Every time we do an intervention that does not work, we potentially make the problem worse, and the student more resistant to the next intervention.

Said a different way: Intervention is not a benign act. . . it is a strategic act. We should not be satisfied, professionally, because we are implementing interventions. We should be satisfied when we are implementing the right interventions that have the highest probability of success for an accurately identified and analyzed problem.

Flaw #5. Focusing on Progress Monitoring rather than on Strategic Instruction or Intervention Approaches

Many state RTI2 guidebooks and systems overemphasize progress monitoring. . . and then, they compound the problem by overemphasizing curriculum-based measurement (CBM) to the exclusion of other curriculum-based assessment (CBA) approaches.

In addition, most of the progress monitoring examples-- in the state guidebooks that I have reviewed-- are in the area of reading decoding and fluency (where the progress monitoring research and writing has been most prevalent).

Rarely do you see state guidebooks discuss progress monitoring for vocabulary and comprehension. . . not to mention the lack of progress monitoring examples in the different areas of math, written expression, spelling, and oral expression. This is because progress monitoring for these outcomes does not work well with CBM.

Finally, most state guidebooks do not explain how to effectively create (or evaluate the acceptability of) a progress monitoring probe. That is, they do not emphasize that progress monitoring approaches must be connected to the instructional or intervention goals, outcomes, and implementation strategies.

Said a different way:

  • If the instructional or intervention target for a student is increasing his/her understanding and receptive/expressive use of a specific list of grade-level vocabulary words, then the assessment protocol must be designed to sensitively measure these explicit outcomes.
  • If the instructional outcome is a certain format of expressive writing, then reliable and valid scoring rubrics need to be created to guide not just progress monitoring, but instruction and student self-evaluation.

As noted earlier, progress monitoring is an evaluation approach. Thus, for students with academic or behavioral problems, it follows the (a) identification and (b) analysis of the problem, and the (c) intervention preparation and implementation stages. Unfortunately, some educators still believe that progress monitoring is the intervention. Or, they believe that the intervention must fit the progress monitoring tool adopted by the district- -rather than the tool being fit to the intervention outcomes desired.

Flaw #6. Establishing Rigid Rules on Student's Access to More Intensive Services

I have no problem with a state RTI2 guidebook providing a blueprint on the typical sequences and decision rules that a teacher needs to follow to "move" a student from Tier 1 to Tier 2 to Tier 3. However, I do have a problem when the sequence must be followed in a rigid, fixed way.

Simplistically, there are two types of students with academic or behavioral problems: students with progressive, longstanding, or chronic problems; and students with significant, severe, or acute problems.

For the latter students especially, they often need immediate and intensive (Tier 3, if you will) services, supports, strategies, and/or programs. They (and their teachers) should not have to go through a series of intervention layers so that they eventually "qualify" for the services that they need.

I "get" that many worry about an influx of inappropriate referrals to the Building-level RTI Team. But, if you break your leg, you need to go to the emergency room. If you try to fix it yourself, you may get an infection and lose the whole leg.

The "trick is in the training." In the schools where I work, we create a collaborative system where everyone in the school is trained on the data-based problem-solving process. We also create an early warning "problem solving, consultation, intervention" culture, along with a "check and balance" approach to minimize the number of capricious referrals to the Building-level team.

It works. But more important is the fact that more students are receiving earlier and more successful instructional and intervention approaches. And, the teachers are leading the entire process. . . with greater enthusiasm, involvement, self-direction, and success.

Isn't this the true goal of RTI?

Flaw #7. Setting a "Price" on Access to Multidisciplinary Consultation

To concretize the ultimate point in Flaw #6 above: If a student needs to be immediately considered by the Building-level RTI Team, then this should occur without the need for a certain number of interventions implemented for a certain number of weeks, under a certain level of conditions.

In other words, get on with it. . .

"Do not stop at Go, and do not collect your $200."

But I want to extend this point. If a teacher needs a consultation with a colleague in order to better understand and work with a student, there should not be restrictions on what colleagues are available.

To be explicit: Too often, I hear that general education teachers cannot consult with special education personnel (teachers, OTs, PTs, speech pathologists, etc.) until a student needs "Tier 3" attention. This makes no sense if the earlier consultation could have resulted in "Tier 1" success . . . thereby eliminating the need for more intensive Tier 3 attention.

Sometimes, the reason for restricting the consultation is that the "special education teacher is paid through federal special education funds that don't allow the consultation to occur earlier."

This is simply not true.

Even in the most extreme interpretation, the federal special education law (IDEA) encourages early intervening services, and it allows districts to use up to 15% of their special education funding for services and supports that are not directed to students with a disability.


As always, we need to use common sense and focus our decision making on student outcomes.

Our state RTI2 guidebooks need to provide blueprints and guidance that are supported by sound (not self-selected) research that are translated into effective (not limited trial) practices that result in demonstrable (not hypothetical) student outcomes. Rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches do not work. Schools need be given the flexibility, within the state blueprints provided, to implement the best problem solving, progress monitoring, and services and supports to academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students. And educational practitioners who are working directly with those students are in the best positions to do this.

Brandon Sanderson was right when he said:

"The mark of a great (educator) is one who knows when to set aside

the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones."

I hope that some of the ideas above are thought-provoking, and motivate you to look at how you are providing services and supports to all of your students. If these ideas validate what you are doing. . . excellent !!! If they uncover areas of improvement. . . I appreciate your willingness and dedication to the change and improvement process.

Written for districts and schools, the Guidebook gives you a common sense, user-friendly, step-by-step multi-tiered process (with forms) that can organize your entire RtI process.

To download the guide, look at the first entry on the following page of our website.

Meanwhile, thank you for everything that you do to support your students, staff, and schools. Let me know if I can be of help.