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What Is This Thing Called RTI?

By: American Federation of Teachers
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a complex subject and states and districts have a lot of discretion with the implementation of this three-step, research-based approach to intervention and placement. Learn about some of the common misconceptions of the RTI process and read about additional RTI web sources.

(RTI) is a three-step practice that is gaining currency in classrooms around the country. Teachers provide high-quality instruction and interventions matched to a student's need, then they gather and monitor data about how the student is progressing, and finally they apply that data to important decisions about what instructional changes are needed (or what new goals should be set) for the student.

RTI has grown in part because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 puts a big premium on curbing the "over-referral" of students into special education, and it does so by encouraging data-driven decisions on placements. IDEA doesn't prescribe RTI. But, when it comes to the placement of students in general or special education settings, the law does require states to "permit the use of a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention." Done correctly, RTI fits that bill. And it is often used in lieu of other placement models, since IDEA allows states to prohibit approaches such as the "discrepancy model" (special education placements that are made when it's determined that a student's intellectual ability is grossly at odds with achievement).

One thing is certain about RTI: The federal law offers scant details about how to implement the practice. That accounts for wide variations in how RTI has been rolled out in different districts and states. Local education agencies can-and do-use a lot of discretion when it comes to incorporating RTI. That means classroom teachers need to come to the discussion armed with the facts. Here are some common misconceptions, along with relevant citations in federal law and professional literature, to help you separate RTI fact from fiction.

Myth #1: RTI is only "prereferral"; special education staff will have to sort it out.

IDEA refers to the use of scientific, research-based strategies (see Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities), and there is no doubt that this effort will involve the entire school community. A successful RTI process should be a comprehensive service delivery system-one that requires significant changes in how a school provides services to all of its students. That means RTI will involve the entire school.

Myth #2: RTI delays special education referrals.

The goal of RTI is to broaden the range of academic and behavioral interventions in general education, not to prevent or deny students access to needed academic services and support. Interventions should be designed and implemented over a period of time, and relevant data from these interventions should be taken into consideration and should inform an instructional support team's decisions over time. But the fact remains: A successful RTI process will identify at-risk students as early as possible. (See the Progress Monitoring discussion from the National Center on Response to Intervention.)

Myth #3: You cannot refer a student for special education evaluation if your school or district has an RTI process.

A parent and/or educator may submit a request for an initial evaluation to determine if the student has a disability. RTI does not weaken that right. Beyond that, states and districts adopting RTI processes to assist in identifying students with learning disabilities must make sure that these are not "add on" features to the current system. RTI procedures must be core components of the full and individual (comprehensive) assessment. (see Identification of Specific Learning Disabilities)

Myth #4: "Tier 3" is another name for special education.

A "3-tier model," which refers to different levels of intervention in a general education classroom, is a concept advocated by many education organizations and researchers and is closely tied to RTI. The most intensive level of intervention provided to students in general education is often known as "Tier 3." Any student who does not respond to intensive interventions may indeed qualify for special education services-but only when it has been definitively established that the general education setting provides neither the intensity nor type of intervention necessary to improve student performance (The IDEA Partnership).

Myth #5: RTI interventions should be tried for no more than six to eight weeks.

Student performance data, not a specified period of time, should determine how long interventions are used (National Research Center on Learning Disabilities). Adequate time must be provided to determine if the intervention will work. And adequate time must be provided to allow successful approaches to narrow the gap between the level at which the student is performing and where he or she needs to be.

Myth #6: RTI reduces the need for special ed teachers.

Special education teachers are invaluable to an RTI process. They can work with students and monitor performance via curriculum-based measures and other means to assess whether students are meeting goals. Successful RTI programs promote more effective use of their skills and expertise. Special educators and general educators both will be required to collaborate more effectively to plan, implement and monitor students' responsiveness to interventions.

And general educators should always bear in mind that RTI, done correctly, will reinforce many good practices that teachers already are using.

American Teacher/AFT, Sept. 2008. Reprinted with permission.

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