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Response to Intervention or RTI is one of the latest buzzwords of education. Taken literally it is a strange phrase that has a medical tone, as if it might be a description of how a patient is responding to his or her new medication (intervention). While we don't like medical analogies when it comes to dyslexia, this is an apt description.
RTI is indeed a method of diagnosis and treatment, but diagnosis of learning disabilities rather than medical conditions. Essentially it refers to the process whereby students are identified as learning disabled based on their response to instruction and support, provided at various levels of intensity. If students 'respond' to additional support and close the gap with their peers, then they return to regular instruction. Students who don't respond receive increasing levels of support. Those not responding to the highest levels of support may be identified as learning disabled.
Changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) legislation in 2004 advanced RTI as an alternative to previous approaches for identifying learning disabilities based on a discrepancy between intelligence and performance—an approach discredited by research findings that those with learning disabilities span the full range of intelligence.
This change to IDEA fueled the rise of Response to Intervention as an approach to learning disabilities in the period since. Below is the critical section of the revised IDEA legislation:
IDEA Section 614
"(A) In general.--Notwithstanding section 607(b), when determining whether a child has a specific learning disability as defined in section 602, a local educational agency shall not be required to take into consideration whether a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in oral expression, listening comprehension, written expression, basic reading skill, reading comprehension, mathematical calculation, or mathematical reasoning.
"(B) Additional authority.--In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local educational agency may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures described in paragraphs (2) and (3).
To no surprise, there are many interpretations of what a Response to Intervention model should include (Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2012). But the following features are common to most of them:
Tier 1: Universal classroom instruction with group interventions (80-90% of students)
Most descriptions of Tier 1 equate it with the mainstream classroom approach, encompassing 80-90% of students. When this is the case, the description of the tier usually reads along the lines of.... professional instruction.... evidence based curriculum... quality core instruction, and so forth. Beyond platitudes, Tier 1 sometimes includes capacity for 'differentiated instruction', allowing for some additional support at the individual level in the regular classroom. But essentially tier one is not a tier, it is just business as usual: undifferentiated, whole group instruction.
Tier 2: Small group support (10-15% of students)
Students who fail to make adequate progress in the mainstream classroom, or who have been identified as requiring extra support, are placed in Tier 2 and begin receiving increasingly intensive
instruction in their area(s) of weakness, sometimes from a support teacher working alongside the classroom teacher. At this level, interventions typically take place in small groups,
usually in the mainstream classroom, often at a separate work station. The extra support may only amount to 2-3 hours a week. The subject of the intervention is usually reading or math.
The objective of Tier 2 is to eliminate deficits and close the gap with students working at Tier 1. Students who show little progress at this level of intervention are considered for more intensive interventions in Tier three. Students who do well at this level are returned to Tier 1.
Some Response to Intervention models define a duration of time that students should remain in Tier 2 before being able to return to Tier 1. Implicit in any such model is that belief that student deficits are temporary and tractable, something most educators know is not usually the case.
Tier 3: Intensive individual support (5-10% of students)
At this level, students receive more individualized, intensive and explicit interventions targeting their areas of need. The support may be offered in the classroom, but now is more likely to take place elsewhere in the school to reduce distractions or to access additional teaching resources such as assistive technology. Even at this level students may receive only 2-4 hours of extra support per week.
What kinds of interventions are students receiving here? If done right instruction will be personalized, multisensory, structured, sequential, structured and cognitive. See our Programs that Work page for more details on intensive instruction.
The objective at this level, is reduce or eliminate deficits and return the student to Tier 2 support. Students who do not improve at Tier 3 are considered at risk for having learning disabilities and are usually given additional assessments to determine eligibility for support under the special education law such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Tier 3 is sometimes described as 'special education' but in most models it is one level below.
Does Response to Intervention make the 'Child-Find' provisions of the IDEA legislation irrelevant?
Recall that under IDEA, public school districts have an obligation to identify, locate, and evaluate students who they suspect to have a disability. The objective being to catch any disability early and determine eligibility for special education resources. But Response to Intervention is designed to find students with disabilities by monitoring their progress on a day to day basis and ramping up interventions as necessary. In theory RTI will eventually find every child with a learning disability in an district that adopts the approach.
This creates an obvious tension between RTI and Child Find, one that schools have to handle carefully. Parents are still free to request formal evaluations of their child if they suspect a problem and schools must respond with either an evaluation or an explanation as to why they are not assessing.
Future changes to the IDEA legislation may put this tension to rest, but for now the best advice for parents and schools is to maintain open communication about all aspects of a students program. Schools need to know that provision of assessments and accommodations under RTI do not fulfill Child Find obligations and parents need to know that securing an assessment for their child does not guarantee better remediation than might already exist under RTI.
As parents in Ontario Canada, we have nothing equivalent to Response to Intervention in our school system or even an older discrepancy model to turn to for identifying the needs of my stepson. Recent policy changes provide only the vaguest of direction to school boards regarding assessment and intervention.
The onus in most Canadian provinces remains largely on parents to advocate on behalf of their child to ensure they receive necessary assessment and interventions. While our school system is caring and competent, they have much to learn from U.S. innovation.
RTI, though a flawed solution to complex problems facing teachers, parents and school administrators, is still a workable model that can potentially help every student under it. We think it offers real value for parents and teachers.
In essence Response to Intervention is simply the process of providing students no extra help (Tier 1), a little bit of help (Tier 2) or a lot of help (Tier 3). There is nothing complicated about this and yet it is much better than the recent past when there was only Tier 1 for the vast majority of students in need. Under RTI many more students will get the extra help to build the skills and confidence that will carry them throughout their lives—a huge step in the right direction.
As a parent just be sure to inquire which interventions are being applied to your child under RTI. If your child is dyslexic, then the interventions should be ones known to work for dyslexics, otherwise the extra support wont help close any existing learning gaps.
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