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Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

RtI: When Things Don't Work as You Expected

November 10, 2015

When I arose today I saw lots of tweets and Facebook posts about a new U.S. Department of Education study. Then I started getting emails from folks in the schools and in the state departments of education.

“What’s going on here?” was the common trope.
Basically, the study looked at RtI programs in Grades 1 through 3. The reports say that RtI interventions were lowering reading achievement in Grade 1 and while the RtI interventions weren’t hurting the older kids, they weren’t helping them to read better.
The idea of RtI is a good one, but the bureaucratization of it was predictable. You can go back and look at the Powerpoint on this topic that I posted years ago.
I’m not claiming that I predicted the failure of RtI programs. Nevertheless, we should be surprised that research-based interventions aimed at struggling readers, with lots of assessment monitoring harmed rather than helped kids. But I’m not.
In fairness, this kind of thing can go either way: on the one hand the idea of giving kids targeted instruction generally should improve achievement… and yet, on the other hand, this assumption is based on the idea that schools will accurately identify the kids and the reading problems, will provide additional instruction aimed at helping these kids to catch up, will offer quality teaching of the needed skills (meaning that usually such teaching will have positive learning outcomes), and that being identified to participate in such an effort won’t cause damage in and of itself (if kids feel marked as poor readers that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with 6-year-olds just trying to figure things out). 
When RtI was a hot topic I used to argue, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for a 9-tier model; the point was that a more flexible and powerful system was going to be needed to make a real learning difference. If the identification of student learning needs is sloppy, or the “Tier 2” reading instruction just replaces an equivalent amount of “Tier 1” teaching, or the quality and intensity of instruction are not there… why would anyone expect RtI to be any better than what it replaced?
Unfortunately, in a lot schools that I visit, RtI has just been a new bureaucratic system for getting kids into special education. Instead of giving kids a plethora of IQ and reading tests, seeking a discrepancy, now we find struggling readers, send them down the hall for part of their instructional day, and test the hell out of them with tests that can’t possibly identify whether growth/learning is taking place and moving them lockstep through “research-based” instructional programs.
In other words, the programs emphasize compliance rather than encouraging teachers to solve a problem.
First, there is too much testing in RtI programs. These tests are not fine-grained enough to allow growth to be measured effectively more than 2-4 times per year (in some places I’m seeing the tests administered weekly, biweekly, and monthly, a real time waster.
Second, the tests are often not administered according to the standardized instructions (telling kids to read as fast as possible on a fluency test is stupid).
Third, skills tests are very useful, but they can only reveal information about skills performance. Teaching only what can be tested easily is a foolish way to attack reading problems. Definitely use these tests to determine whether to offer extra teaching in phonological awareness, phonics, and oral reading fluency. But kids need work on reading comprehension and language as well, and those are not easily monitored. I would argue for a steady dose of teaching in the areas that we cannot test easily, and a variable amount of teaching of those skills that we can monitor.
Fourth, the Tier 2 instruction should increase the amount of teaching that kids get. If a youngster is low in fluency or decoding, he should get additional fluency or decoding instruction. That means students should get the entire allotment of Tier 1 reading instruction, and then should get an additional dose of teaching on top of that.
Fifth, it is a good idea to use programs that have worked elsewhere (“research based”). But that doesn’t mean the program will work for you. Teach that program like crazy with a lot of focus and intensity, just like in the schools/studies where it worked before — in fact, that’s likely why it worked elsewhere. Research-based doesn’t mean that it will work automatically; you have to make such programs work.
Sixth, don’t put kids in an intervention and assume the problem is solved. The teacher should also beef up Tier 1 teaching, should steal extra instructional moments for these students in class, and should involve parents in their programs as well. What I’m suggesting is a full-court press aimed at making these struggling students successful — rather than a discrete, self-contained, narrow effort to improve things; Tier 2 interventions can be effective, but by themselves they can be a pretty thin strand for struggling readers to hang onto.

I hope schools don’t drop RtI because of these research findings. But I also hope that they ramp up the quantity and quality of instruction to ensure that these efforts are successful.

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