Experts Q&A

National Center on Response to Intervention

Learn from a variety of experts on Response to Intervention (RTI) about what RTI is, the relationship between RTI and special education, how to implement RTI effectively district-wide, the role of parents, and much more. Learn more at the National Center on Response to Intervention.

What is RTI and what are the essential components that must be present for it to be implemented with fidelity?

Response from Whitney Donaldson

What is RTI? RTI is a multi-level prevention system designed for improving outcomes for all students. RTI can be used for special education eligibility but it's not specific to special education. RTI actually allows for all students to receive the support they need so they can succeed in school. The National Center on Response to Intervention has defined RTI as a practice that integrates assessment and intervention within a school-wide, multi-level, prevention system to maximize student achievement and reduce behavior problems.

One of the key aspects of RTI is that it is multi-level and school-wide. You'll notice that we don't refer to tiers when we talk about RTI, we refer to levels of prevention. I'll talk more about this later. So if you look at the second part of the definition you'll notice that it starts with screening, or schools identifying students at-risk for poor learning outcomes. It then talks about monitoring student progress and providing interventions that are evidence-based, or in a sense, a multi-level prevention system. The definition goes on to say that the intensity and nature of interventions should be adjusted based on student responsiveness. This is data-based decision making, and it is the most important part of RTI.

Finally, the definition says that RTI may be used in the determination of specific learning disabilities or other disabilities, but note that is not the sole purpose of RTI. The National Center on RTI has created a graphic that represents what the RTI framework looks like. In the upper left corner you'll see the circle for screening.

Screening is one of the primary essential components of RTI. Using reliable assessments, in screening we identify students who are at-risk for poor learning outcomes. If you'll move to the right of the graphic you'll see progress monitoring. We use progress monitoring to monitor students progress in primary, secondary, and tertiary instruction.

At the bottom of the framework you'll see multi-level prevention system. The multi-level prevention system allows us to provide increasingly intense levels of instructional support. Many of you may associate the triangle graphic with RTI. The graphic of the triangle represents one component of RTI and that is the multi-level prevention system. The National Center on Response to Intervention describes three levels of prevention within an RTI framework.

The first level of prevention is primary. Within primary all students receive core instruction and core curriculum. All students are screened and some receive progress monitoring. In the secondary level of prevention, we provide more intensive supports for students who have been identified as at-risk for poor learning outcomes. These students may be progress monitored on a monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly basis. In our third level of prevention we provide students intense, targeted supports through what we refer to as tertiary prevention. Levels of prevention are different from tiers because you may have multiple tiers of support within each of the three levels of prevention. Looking again at the graphic, in the center you will notice the most important of the essential components, data-based decision making. Information from the other three components feeds into data-based decision making, and the decisions reached through data-based decision making impact the other three components.

Within data-based decision-making we make data analysis decisions at all levels, including the school, the class, and the grade and the student level. We establish routines and procedures so we can systematically make decisions about instruction, movement between tiers, and disability identification, in accordance with the state law. If you look on the outside of the graphic there are two circles. On the inner circle you see culturally responsive. That means the tools and practices used in the RTI framework are culturally responsive. You will also see evidence based. So within your RTI framework, the tools and procedures you use should be evidence based. With all of these components in place, you would expect to see what is in the outside circle, which is improved student outcomes.

If you want to learn more about RTI and the essential components, visit our website at Here you will find the document, The Essential Components of RTI: A Closer Look at Response to Intervention.

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What is the relationship between RTI and special education?

Response from Doug Fuchs

The relationship or what the relationship should be between RTI and special education is a very important issue. Some people believe that special education should have little role in RTI, others believe that special ed should have a predominate role in RTI. Some believe that special education's proper role or function should be sprinkled, if you will, across and among the RTI tiers so that special educators are working at tier 1, tier 2, tier 3 and so forth. Others believe that special educators should be only at the most intensive tier in an RTI system.

So, there's, I think, considerable confusion at the moment as to what special ed's proper role, function, set of responsibilities should be in an RTI system. What the professional role of the special educators should be in an RTI system. Importantly, a related concern or question is what constitutes most intensive instruction? States and districts and other stakeholders are relatively clear about what should go on at tier 1 and tier 2.

What general education can do to contribute to a well-functioning, high-performing RTI system. There's relative confusion, uncertainty as to what the nature of instruction should be for the children who are chronically unresponsive to tiers 1 and 2. What do we do for the kids, with the kids who are not responding to quote unquote best evidence practices and secondly who should deliver that most instructionally intensive treatments or interventions. So, I wish I could give you a clear, persuasive, consensual sense or opinion as to what special education's role should be but there really isn't a consensus at this point.

What would I personally like to see? I would personally like to see special educators providing most intensive instruction. Special educators don't exclusively need to be those providing that most intensive instruction, but I think that's in principle, that's what special educators role should be primarily. They should be working with kids who are the most instructionally needy children in a given school.

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Why is RTI an important strategy for addressing disproportionality of racial and language minorities in special education?

Response from Darren Woodruff

Disproportionality or the over and under representation of racial and language minorities in special education is an extension of the achievement gap in that we typically see high numbers of students of color, low-income students and English language learners in certain disability categories and we also see low numbers of these same groups when we look at indicators that are linked to academic success including gifted and talented programs, high school graduation, college enrollment and rates of proficiency on state achievement tests. So, similar to RTI, or Response to Intervention, it's important to view disproportionality in the context of what supports are available in general education and not just looking at it as a problem specific to special education.

RTI becomes very important for educators to use as a tool for addressing disproportionality because of its focus on data-based decision making. Starting with a district by district, school by school review of data on special education referrals and identification we can drill down and identify specific groups of students that are at the highest risk levels for being identified as having a disability. The goal then becomes to make sure that these students have access to coordinated early intervening supports that can prevent the escalation of learning or behavioral challenges.

Now the use of early intervening supports for high-risk students extends to other components of RTI that we consider to be essential. Screening and Progress Monitoring allow teachers to identify any learning or behavioral challenges while students are still in the regular classroom setting and they also allow them to modify or differentiate their core curriculum to focus on the identified areas for improvement. The use of tiered interventions is part of a multi-level prevention system, which is also an essential component, provides teachers with the instructional resources to respond to student learning or behavioral challenges in a regular ed setting. This system of support then becomes an alternative to a quick or unnecessary referral for special education evaluation.

Finally the use of tiered instructional interventions that are evidence-based and culturally responsive ensures that the RTI framework provides students with supports that are appropriate for their learning or behavioral needs. All of the resulting data on students response to instruction or to intervention then becomes useful data that can help identify those students who need additional support from special education. In this way we reduce the number of students that are inappropriately identified for special education and reserve that level of support for those students that need it most.

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What role can a school psychologist have within an RTI framework?

Response from Michelle Hosp

I think that school psychologists are in a unique position and a really important position to help implement RTI at multiple levels. So, I think one level, because of their training, they tend to have a little bit more expertise in assessment and interventions, and how to look at data as far as reliability and validity when we're looking at collecting data with assessments as well as implementing interventions, it needs to be done with fidelity.

We also need to be picking appropriate assessments so all of that information is very important to look at and I think a school psychologist could contribute greatly to RTI efforts and being that person to examine that evidence and information. Then I also think that they also have some great training to help teachers and educators look at the data, so once they've identified specific assessments to use, sometimes you get bogged down in the numbers and information and school psychologists have that training to sift through that and look at the evidence and how students — individual students and groups of students — are responding to the instruction based on the data that's being collected.

So, I really think that they can be an additional set of eyes and ears and really help at those critical moments. Lots of times when schools and teachers get stuck at a point of "What do I do next?", "What assessment should I be looking at giving?", "What intervention might be appropriate for this student or group of students?" I think a school psychologist could really step in and help them look through that information, get through the research to find those evidence-based practices that are going to be potentially most beneficial to a larger group of students or a particular set of students, and really help them streamline and get through some of those difficult questions and points in the RTI process that I think are difficult and people get overwhelmed with. So, I really do think that school psychologists can really contribute greatly to the whole process from the beginning to the end.

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How can I get teachers and staff to buy in to the RTI process?

Response from Evelyn Johnson

So Larry Summer's is quoted as saying "in the history of man nobody has ever washed a rental car," and the point of that quote is that without ownership school staff probably isn't going to buy in, 100%, to the RTI process and without that ownership of the process they are much less likely to implement it well, and its much less likely therefore to be successful. And one way that we found to get teacher buy-in is to really ensure that all staff have an opportunity to voice their concerns about the process, to express their concerns about the changes in their roles that they make counter as a result of implementing the RTI process, and also to ensure that as schools shift from using data to make decisions about students, that the one component that is not lost is also getting the teacher's experience and knowledge base in their personal relationship with their students; not taking that part out of the equation.

In other words, we want to respect what teachers bring to this process, and if we don't do that then you are not likely to get the level of buy-in and ownership of RTI that you probably need in order for it to work well.

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If I were a leader in a district and we decided we wanted to implement RTI district-wide, what would be the top three things you would encourage me to figure out first?

Response from Daryl Mellard

Think of it like planning your summer vacation because you could probably just get in the car and drive and get some place or maybe you could talk to folks around the table like, "Gee kids, what do you want to do on your summer vacation," "what would make a great summer vacation?" "Gee I wonder where we might go to have those kinds of fun events." Would it be shopping, would it be snorkeling, would it be hiking, would it be fishing? Alright so the connection then with the school district would be kind of the same way. I need to get people around the table who might help me understand why we want to go pursue these set of activities around Response to Intervention. So that would include my classroom teachers, my building administrators, probably some parents, school board members, folks that can help me identify what it is we want to accomplish and how would we know if we were successful. Those would be important considerations.

The other piece would be recognizing how Response to Intervention might help me with meeting requirements of other initiatives such as, No Child Left Behind, or what I might be considering in improving my services for students in special education or other students who are just at risk. So those are to get started anyway I want to have the right people at the table and help me figure out how we would know if we were being successful.

Then, I probably want to have some sense of short-term outcomes and maybe also some long-term outcomes because like planning the vacation there's those things that we would want to get started early on and then once we're on the trip we get a better sense of how things are working. So on the short-term, it might be: what would be those markers that we're on the right track? That the work we are doing around Response to Intervention and those components are making a difference for our students, and for our staff, and for the quality of services. Then in the long-term we might be able to look further at the performance of those students on other measures; their retention rate in school, their grades, their performance on state assessments. We might get a better sense about their participation in the variety of academic activities as well as their performance on academic and behavioral screening. The big question might be, well where should I start with these multiple components that are part of RTI, is it better to start with screening, or progress monitoring or organizing our tiers? But the simplest way to maybe get started would be those that would give us kind of an immediate impact.

Something that would really let us get started and get some momentum going so we can demonstrate our success because it's going to take some effort. We want to implement pieces that will demonstrate to those who haven't quite bought into the idea of RTI that it's worth our time, and worth our effort. Probably, I'd want to consider what are those events, what are those pieces about RTI, on which I can get broad agreement, on which I can get folks engaged, one thing is to get them to agree, yeah that's a good idea, the next thing is to get them engaged, because now we are talking about their behavior changes and then also the observable changes that we might see with participants as well, as we put all of that together.

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We hear a lot about fidelity of implementation when talking about RTI. What does this really mean?

Response from Doug Fuchs

Fidelity of implementation, I think can best be explained this way. RTI, the people who first promoted RTI, were very much interested — and I think rightly interested — in promoting best evidence practices in schools. Promoting the idea that teachers and ancillary personnel should be using research backed or research validated instruction. When I say research backed instruction I mean instruction that was developed through a process, usually directed by researchers, a very carefully conceptualized and operationalized process of instruction to determine its effects on student performance.

As someone who has developed instructional programs I know that this process is often iterative, it's sometimes trial and error, you work very hard, you try to develop programs, and you find out that they don't work, you go back to the drawing board, you try again, and over time you develop a program, an explicit, carefully delineated program that through research you can say that if this program is implemented as the researcher implemented it you can expect X, Y, or Z student outcomes. The researchers then share these instructional programs with practitioners and they should be saying to practitioners, "Look, this is how we developed the program, this is the program. If you deliver the program the way we have detailed it, it's a good bet that you will get results as we did." So what we're really saying is, we're encouraging fidelity of treatment implementation, meaning we're encouraging you to implement our program the way we implemented it when we validated it. Importantly, this doesn't mean that practitioners can't take a validated instructional program, customize it to their own students and circumstances and do better and have their children do even better than the children who participated in our research. But it's also possible that if they customize it, change it in some fashion, their students could also do worse.

The point is, we don't know. When practitioners take validated programs and customize them, change them, we simply don't know what the effects of those changes will be on students. So, I suppose you could say a prudent course of action would be to take a researcher's validated program of instruction, use it as closely as possible to or as in similar a fashion as possible to the way the researcher did and then over time customize it, change it. See if you can tweak it in ways that make sense to the practitioner given considerations of students — types of students — that are involved and school systems and policies and so forth. As long as you continue to take data on children, you can determine whether the tweaking, the customizing, enhances or diminishes the effectiveness of the validated program.

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What role do parents play in the RTI process, including when do they become involved, are they on the decision making team, and where can they learn more about RTI?

Response from Daryl Mellard

Just first an observation, we conducted a national study involving some 60 elementary schools and their implementation of RTI. Those parents were uniformly complementary about the improvement in their children's education as part of RTI. They gave examples such as, well, they felt like they were more aware of what was happening in the schools, they felt like there was better communication among the school's staff and with them about the activities involving their youngster — their youngster's progress, and they felt like they were more connected to that academic program with more engagement. Which in turn, was translated into the students feeling like they were more engaged in school as well. Parent involvement in planning of RTI, that seemed to be another part of your question, that is, how do we involve.

My hunch is I'd want to involve parents very early as my district and as my school are moving to implementation, because I want to hear the parental concerns. What are those concerns about our current delivery of education that parents would like to see improved? Parents can be involved in helping us develop the language around response to intervention because heaven knows screening and progress monitoring and tiered levels of services may not be too familiar with most parents. Parents also are important for building the support for the change, the system enhancement that's going to be part of RTI. I can think of four studies that linked parent involvement to the school's effectiveness in implementing a reform and I can think of one study that linked the lack of parental support and that reform effort's failure to get implemented or to be sustained in the schools. If you stop and ask yourself, "How many bond issues do we get passed without parental support?" you think, "I don't know of any where that played out," so parents do have an important role in that development of that RTI model. When it comes to that planning and working for implementation, when would I involve the parents? More formally, after we've got the RTI model implemented, well, parents are going to choose to be involved in varying levels, but as a school person I'd encourage parents to be involved as we look at the results of our screening whether we're screening annually, or maybe even three times a year, when we're looking at those academic benchmarks that would indicate how well a youngster is performing in class and then when we're conducting the progress monitoring so that students who are part of more intensive interventions will have their progress monitored, or will conduct those formative assessments to inform us how well that intervention is working. And I'd certainly want to involve them as well when we consider next steps. That is, what do we think of as being an appropriate placement for a youngster? Whether that's maintaining the current placement or current level of performance in a tier or changing that.

One of the resources that parents might find helpful is a booklet we prepared a couple years back called "The ABCs of RTI for Parents." This short booklet is available free, it gives parents a description of RTI and includes the description of those components of RTI such as screening and progress monitoring but also includes questions that parents might bring to a school staff when you're reviewing the results of screening or progress monitoring or a student's participation in different tiers or levels of services so that they get a better sense of dialog about their child's participation within the school. Another advantage of the booklet is that it helps educators understand what the expectations are from a parent's perspective, this helps you explain roles and responsibilities of what those expectations might be as well as an opportunity for the school staff to describe the procedures, that is, share with them about the workings — the steps — of RTI within the school. A different document that's available from the National Center on Learning Disabilities is called "A Parent's Guide to RTI," this booklet is also available free of charge, it can be downloaded from the internet, and provides another view — a little different framework — about implementation of RTI and how a parent might be involved in that implementation as well. The booklet is a good resource for parents as they consider the schools implementation of RTI framework.

Experts from the National Center on Response to Intervention

Tessie Rose Bailey, Senior Research Analyst, serves on the National Center on Response to Intervention as the Coordinator of Technical Assistance and Technical Assistance Provider for the Southeast and Western Regions. Prior to joining AIR, Dr. Rose served as a special education teacher in one of Utah's first RTI schools, an educational consultant for several large school districts, and a project coordinator for several grant and contract projects, including model demonstration sites in progress monitoring and response to intervention in elementary and middle schools. She is a former assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has conducted introductory to advanced trainings in RTI related topics for teachers, school administrators, and state officials in nearly 35 states.

Don Deshler, Professor, is Director of the Center for Research on Learning (CRL) and is the Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Special Education in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. The work of the CRL focuses on the validation of academic strategies to enable adolescents to meet state assessment standards and successfully graduate from college prepared to compete in the global economy. Dr. Deshler and his colleagues have completed an excess of $178 million of contracted R & D work related to the Content Literacy Continuum, a tiered intervention framework for raising literacy achievement for all adolescents. Dr. Deshler also serves as an advisor on adolescent achievement to several organizations including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Governor's Association, the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Council on Families and Literacy, and the U. S. State Department. Through the Aspen Institute, Dr. Deshler has worked with members of Congress to shape policies addressing the challenges of high school reform.

Whitney Donaldson, Research Analyst, is a Service Area Coordinator for the Collaboration, Networking and Web-Based Dissemination of RTI Information for the National Center on Response to Intervention. In addition to the RTI Center, Whitney is Co-Director of the Illinois RTI Module Project and works on the National Center for Technology Innovation. Whitney earned her M.Ed. in Special Education from Texas A&M University–Commerce and holds teaching certifications in both Special Education and Psychology from the state of Texas.

Doug Fuchs, Professor, is a Nicholas Hobbs Professor of Special Education and Human Development and Co-Director of Vanderbilt University's Kennedy Center Reading Clinic. Dr. Fuchs has been the Principal Investigator of 45 federally-funded research grants, including Co-Principal Investigator of OSEP's Progress Monitoring Center and Co-Principal Investigator and Director of OSEP's National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD). He has researched effective and practical pre-referral interventions, peer-assisted learning strategies in reading and math, curriculum-based measurement procedures, and methods of re-integrating students with high-incidence disabilities into mainstream settings. Dr. Fuchs has authored or co-authored more than 250 articles in peer-reviewed journals, and has won "best paper" awards for several of these publications. In 2003, along with Lynn Fuchs, he was awarded the Council for Exceptional Children's Career Research Award. In 2005, Dr. Fuchs received Vanderbilt University's Earl Sutherland Award for Achievement in Research.

Lynn Fuchs, Professor, is a Nicholas Hobbs Professor of Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Fuchs is a nationally recognized expert on classroom-based assessment and instructional methods to enhance outcomes for students with disabilities. She has been Principal Investigator of 45 federally-funded research grants. In addition to serving as senior consultant to OSEP's Progress Monitoring Center and as principal investigator of the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD), Dr. Fuchs is the co-director of the Vanderbilt Reading Clinic. Her research has examined methods to track and account for student growth and procedures for enhancing the outcomes of students with disabilities in reading and math. Dr. Fuchs was the co-editor of The Journal of Special Education for 15 years and currently serves on the boards of 10 journals.

John Hosp, Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Iowa. His background is in school psychology and special education. His expertise includes linking assessment and intervention, particularly the use of Curriculum-Based Measurement and Curriculum-Based Evaluation for screening and instructional planning decisions, as well as the disproportionate representation of students of color.

Michelle Hosp, Research Associate in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. She has a background in school psychology and special education. Her research is in the areas of assessment and reading. She has published articles, a book, and conducted workshops both at the state and national level on implementing Progress Monitoring within a Problem Solving framework.

Evelyn Johnson, Associate Professor of Special Education at Boise State University in Idaho. Her primary areas of expertise include RTI at secondary levels and screening. In addition to presenting at national, state and local conferences on RTI related topics, she has published numerous articles and two texts on RTI.

Erica Lembke, Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Missouri. She has over 15 years of experience as a teacher and researcher in the field of special education. Her research interests are primarily in the areas of curriculum-based measurement and literacy interventions for students who are at-risk.

Daryl Mellard, Associate Research Professor, is Director of the Division of Adult Studies for the University of Kansas' Center for Research on Learning, is a national expert with over 25 years of experience in adolescent and adult education. He has successfully served as principal investigator and director of numerous centers and projects, including serving as Co-Principal Investigator of the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD), under the Office of Special Education Program (OSEP). He has demonstrated how to successfully reach out to and generate widespread support for using evidence-based practices among diverse audiences.

Reading intervention specialist working one-on-one with an elementary student struggling readers

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