School culture matters. Regulations, whether related to RTI or another initiative, rarely mention the importance of culture. However, we are certain that, six months into any new effort, the difficulties that schools face will relate to the culture of the school, not the structures that have been established. RTI is organized passion.
We can, we must, organize this passion by attending to tasks such as those within the bullets below:
• Staff must receive initial and ongoing supports on RTI-based endeavors. We have observed many willing staffs that struggle with tasks such as organizing their collaborative problem-solving, diagnosing student needs, or monitoring progress, because they did not receive an appropriate quality and/or quantity of professional development. Human, fiscal, and temporal resources must be budgeted to support staffs in initiating and sustain RTI.
• Death-by-initiative is a condition plaguing many school systems and organizations. A new idea or program every year, or four new initiatives within a single year, is bound to leave staff feeling overwhelmed, and certain to guarantee that no idea is optimally employed on behalf of students. We understand the dilemma – there are many areas to which our attention needs to be given, and there are many ideas and practices that would potentially benefit staff and students. We must, however, resist the temptation to introduce too much at one time. We must accept the likelihood that a single, wisely-chosen initiative in one area of schooling can actually impact many of the areas in which we support students.
• Perhaps the greatest impediment to all students learning at the depth and complexity required to graduate ready for college or a skilled career is that we continue to attempt to cover an unrealistic number of standards instead of ensuring that students master those standards that we have identified as the highest priority. We fear that a significant number of students have been diagnosed with a learning disability simply because we have too quickly attempted to cover an unreasonable number of standards. The culture of coverage – as opposed to a culture of depth and mastery – plagues schools. Making matters worse is that not all standards are created equally – they are simply not all equally important. While standards are important for defining the content that we will ensure students learn, we are in fact not teaching students standards – we are teaching them to problem solve and think critically. Separate standards within and between content areas have much more in common than has been represented in our instruction, and we must increasingly recognize and act upon this reality. We must ensure that we do not “map” curriculum that we cannot viably guarantee that all students will master. Some students may require more prerequisite supports to be provided; some students may require more time to master the most highly prioritized standards; all students will benefit from more opportunities to learn the most highly prioritized standards to greater levels of depth and complexity. Thus far we have only referred to academic skills. We are increasingly (thankfully) accepting responsibility for explicitly addressing students’ behaviors, including social behaviors such as cooperation, respect, and responsibility, as well as academic behaviors such as time management, organization, and motivation. Surely if we must provide students with explicit instruction in behaviors (and we must), then we must plan for greater focus to the academic content that will ensure that all students will master.
• The basic principles of RTI have occurred in isolated classrooms for as long as classrooms have existed. By our definition, however, interventions that are not provided systemically will not fully realize the potential of Response to Intervention. RTI must be built upon and powered by collaborative teams, and collaborative teams will most powerfully meet student needs by implementing the practices of RTI. Collaborative cultures – between teams of teachers, teachers and administrators, clinicians and teachers, general and special education, grade levels, and content areas are a prerequisite for successfully implementing RTI.
• Systematic efforts on behalf of students – and to be clear, our efforts must be systematic – will require greater levels of communication than are currently the norm. When multiple stakeholders are involved in supporting a student, the need to communicate will be increased. Have a plan for how important information will be shared. Establish expectations and norms. Keep it simple but remember to communicate. Sharing information and ideas can ensure the success of a student and the success of a system of supports.
• There is no response to intervention without monitoring. We must determine the extent to which students are responding. Insufficient monitoring will compromise the success of RTI, both for an individual student and for a school. Schools must identify who will take the lead on monitoring, how frequently monitoring will occur, what tools will be used, and how results will be used. Results can motivate students and staffs; they can inform adjustment of supports needed to make an individual student successful; and they can validate the success of interventions or suggest that interventions are not resulting in success for too many students. Data and information are the engine that drives RTI.
RTI is organized passion – the passionate actions that embody the collective belief that all students will learn at high levels.