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.
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