Category Archives: Response to Intervention (RTI)

Response to Intervention Falls Short

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Last year we wrote about how RTI (Response to Intervention) was being used by some schools to delay, or even prevent, students from being evaluated for special education services (Gatekeeping 101: Response to Intervention). Now it appears that even when used as intended, RTI isn’t achieving the goals that educators promised.

In this followup article, we highlight a recent study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education that details how students receiving RTI instruction are actually falling further behind grade level rather than catching up. We also have some suggestions about how to proceed if your child is offered RTI instead of special education services.

The Background

RTI was written into the reauthorization of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 2004 as part of an attempt to make the goals of IDEA, which address the unique needs of individual students, more closely conform to the No Child Left Behind Act, which attempts to raise standards for all students uniformly.

Our earlier article explains how the intent of RTI was to screen every student at the elementary school level (ideally in kindergarten or first grade) to identify those who were struggling and, through a standardized series of increasingly more supportive services called “tiers,” bring them up to grade level in basic skills like reading and math. Rather than use the program as it was intended, however, we documented how some schools were using RTI to divert students away from becoming eligible for individualized (and more expensive) special education services.

“Practice Falls Short of Promise”

Adding to our concern about the misuse of RTI as a substitute for special education has come even more discouraging news from a 2015 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated RTI practices as they are applied to elementary school reading instruction. As described in an article in Education Week magazine, this study examined over 20,000 students in 13 states and found that first grade students who received RTI actually performed worse than a similar peer group that did not. Instead of catching up to grade level, the students receiving RTI lost the equivalent of one-tenth of a school year. To quote one of the study’s authors: “[T]his turns out to be what RTI looks like when it plays out in daily life.”

Why is it Failing?

The Education Week article offers a few insights into what is going wrong:

  • Schools are using RTI “as a kind of general education substitution for special education.” This was the concern we highlighted in our earlier article on special education gatekeeping.
  • Schools are not adequately evaluating students for learning disabilities before initiating an RTI program. Many schools don’t perform any evaluations prior to RTI and therefore don’t know if the interventions they are using are even suitable for the students they are attempting to help.
  • Schools implementing RTI are not clearly separating the broader goals of general education instruction and the more narrowly focused goals of RTI instruction, implying a confusion as to what the program is actually trying to achieve.
  • The RTI instruction in the study was found to be rigid and standardized for all students. In looking at RTI for reading, for example, the study found that the instruction focused on phonics and not reading comprehension, regardless of the individual student’s needs.

In short, RTI, for all its good intentions, is a only a theory without empirical validation. It remains to be seen if this is because the program is inappropriately designed, or if schools are unable or unwilling to implement it appropriately.

What Can You Do?

Like the school we wrote about in our previous article on RTI and gatekeeping, if you are told that your child must first try RTI before the school will consider an evaluation for learning disabilities and special education, consider the following:

  • Very few states have defined any criteria for moving from RTI into special education. If you want to try RTI first, get a written statement from your school describing the criteria for transitioning from RTI to special education. This should include a timeline of how long RTI will be attempted, a definition of the progress expected, and what objective and measurable standards will be used to measure that progress.
  • If you do not feel that RTI is appropriate for your child, it is your right to request an evaluation for eligibility for special education in all areas in which you suspect a disability. The regulation is 34 CFR § 300.309(c), the authorizing statute is 20 USC § 1412(a)(3). The only requirement is that your request must be in writing. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has warned schools that they must not use RTI to delay or deny “a full and individual evaluation” for special education eligibility.
  • RTI is not a way to diagnose a specific learning disability. You may learn important information about your child through the RTI process, but only an appropriate evaluation performed by a qualified professional can determine the presence of a qualifying disability.
  • RTI and special education are not mutually exclusive. The school can evaluate your child for a learning disability at the same time that your child is receiving RTI instruction. There is an excellent guide for parents on the Wrightslaw website that explains the RTI process in more detail.

As with every other aspect of special education, you need accurate and objective information about your child’s strengths and weaknesses provided by an evaluation. Even though RTI instruction may be high quality and research-based, can it meet your child’s unique needs? Meeting these needs through an individualized education program is your child’s right under IDEA.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Gatekeeping 101: Response To Intervention

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An article in a Massachusetts newspaper in the winter of 2013, titled: “[Superintendent] Looking to Curb Sped Referrals,”1 highlights a growing trend of school districts actively discouraging the referral of students for special education evaluations. The article quotes a local school district superintendent as calling special education referrals “a resource zapper,” and requesting that instead, parents ask their child’s classroom teacher to decide if any concerns they might have about possible disabilities are valid. If the teacher agrees with the parents, then the teacher can refer the parent’s concern to a panel of “teachers and special education staffers.” This panel then has the option to refer the child to a program commonly known as “Response to Intervention” or RTI. According to the superintendent, “[a]ll I’m asking is for parents to work closer with the classroom teacher and keep a dialogue open and wait for the teacher to go through the RTI process.”

To many parents, this may sound perfectly reasonable. Special education services cost money, so why shouldn’t the school district be able to decide what conditions to place on admission to it? The answer lies in the purpose for which RTI is being used and how it is implemented.

What is RTI?

RTI is loosely defined in the regulations that accompany the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA2 with the goal of screening all students early in their school career to identify any who are struggling and, through increasing levels of intervention, prevent the need for more costly special education services later. By applying the screening process universally, it represents an effort to make IDEA, which addresses the unique needs of individual students, more closely conform with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which attempts to raise standards for all students uniformly. IDEA-04 “permits” (not “requires”) schools to employ “scientific, research-based” techniques to help struggling students discovered in the screening process.

These techniques are applied in increasing levels of support, known as “tiers.” The progress of each student is monitored; if the initial tier of intervention isn’t working, the student is then referred to the next, more intense, tier. IDEA doesn’t specify how many tiers a school must use (three tiers seem to be the most common), the criteria for deciding whether a tier is working or not, nor how long a student must stay in one tier before moving to another. All of these details are left to the individual states and school districts.

In other words, RTI is not the same as, nor a substitute for, special education. RTI does not provide for evaluations by qualified professionals to identify specific learning disabilities, and a student in RTI does not have an IEP to specify learning goals or the accommodations and modifications needed to achieve those goals. Although some schools may employ these techniques, there is no requirement to do so. Most important, there is no legal mandate for a school to provide agreed upon services, accommodations, or program modifications, as there is when a student is on an IEP. In fact, the US Department of Education makes it clear that a student in special education is also eligible to receive RTI services along with special education services.3 Schools, however, appear to regard RTI as a substitute for special education that is less involved, and of course, less expensive.

So, What’s the Problem?

Early screening of and intervention for all “at-risk” students regardless of the presence of a documented learning disability is a laudable and potentially cost effective way to improve public education. The problem arises when the reality doesn’t match the intention.

In the article mentioned above, the first thing to note is that the school isn’t screening all students as the RTI model is designed to do. The only students who are considered for the RTI program are those who are able to pass through at least three gates. First, the parents must express concerns about their child to the school. Next, the classroom teacher, who may not have any training in special education, must agree that the parent’s concerns are valid. Only then does a child reach gate number three, the panel of “teachers and special education staffers” who are the ones to decide if there is any need for services, all without any formal evaluation of the student for learning disabilities.

By contrast, IDEA has very specific criteria for determining eligibility for special education and who is qualified to make the determination.4 Once parents request an initial eligibility evaluation and give their written consent for the necessary testing, the school has 60 calendar days (by federal law, state laws may vary) to perform evaluations in all areas of suspected disabilities. These evaluations must be performed by qualified and knowledgeable professionals. There is no provision in IDEA for multiple layers of screening by people who may not have the training or qualifications to recognize or evaluate learning disabilities.

RTI as Gatekeeping

The inescapable conclusion is that the superintendent quoted in the article is attempting to use RTI in a manner for which it was not intended. Instead of an early screening tool for all students to identify the at-risk ones before they fall too far behind, he wants to use it as an alternative to performing special education evaluations only for those students whose parents have raised concerns and then are able to pass through two levels of “gatekeeping.” This circumvents IDEA’s mandate that schools perform evaluations in all areas of suspected disability by qualified and knowledgeable professionals.

What is surprising is how clearly the superintendent admits this. When he calls the law’s evaluation requirements “a resource zapper,” he really means that his problem is the budget, as these resources cost money. Rather than provide services according to need as the law requires, he is telling the community for which he serves as the head of public education that his goal is to protect the budget by not even attempting to identify the need, and therefore denying students in his care the public education that it is his job to provide.

The worst part of this admission, however, is the knowledge that the superintendent is not simply doing this out of ignorance of the law. For years, the Department of Education has warned schools not to use RTI to deny or even delay special education evaluations. In a memo sent to all state special education directors in 2011, the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) wrote that “[t]he use of RTI strategies cannot be used to delay or deny the provision of a full and individual evaluation… to a child suspected of having a disability…”5 This memo followed a 2006 memo that stated quite clearly: “An RTI process does not replace the need for a comprehensive evaluation.”6 How can it be possible that the superintendent is not aware of this widely publicized policy at the same time he is promoting RTI as an alternative to special education evaluations?

Unfortunately, this school superintendent is far from alone. Other school districts are adopting this policy and many are announcing it publicly. A more recent article from another town’s newspaper begins with a headline that announces that the district’s special education program is to be “culled” of excess students, as if the students were a herd of over-reproducing deer. The article contains extensive quotes from both the district’s director of special education and a school committee member, explaining that students “must” be referred to a screening program that includes RTI before they can be referred to special education, a clear violation of the law.7 It is not clear from the article how the school administration was planning to remove students already in special education. That is a process that can only be done through extensive evaluations with objective data to prove that a previously identified learning disability no longer exists.

It is possible to have sympathy for those administrators and public officials who might have good intentions but who are caught in the dilemma of trying to balance available resources and the needs of students. But, the gatekeepers who choose to keep their jobs and future pensions by protecting the school budget are not the ones who lose. It is the children with disabilities and the families who are struggling with these disabilities who get lost in the bureaucratic spin cycle.

This is why the state and federal special education laws were written, to give the most vulnerable and least powerful the right to a public education appropriate to their abilities. Parents need to understand these rights and not let those with agendas other than providing an appropriate education take these rights away.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Notes:
1. “Kerble looking to curb SPED referrals” by Lynne Hendricks, Newburyport Daily News, January 14, 2013.
2. 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.307, 300.309, and 300.311. The only appearance of the words “response to intervention” occurs in 300.311 (a)(7).
3. “Questions and Answers On Response to Intervention (RTI) and Early Intervening Services (EIS)”
4. 20 U.S.C. § 1414 (a – b)
5. Memorandum dated January 21, 2011 from Melody Musgrove, Ed.D., Director, Office of Special Education Programs to State Directors of Special Education
6. “An RTI process does not replace the need for a comprehensive evaluation” From Zirkel letter
7. “Dedham Public Schools Special Education Program to be Culled” by Sara Feijo, Dedham Transcript, August 29, 2013.