In case you haven’t heard, John Hattie’s most recent update to his Visible Learning meta-analyses of 252 ‘influences’ on student learning shows that RTI is even more effective than his prior analyses indicated – the effect size has increased from 1.09 to 1.29. It is, and has been, one of the very most impactful levers that districts, schools, and educators can use to improve student learning.
So, why don’t districts, schools, and educators experience success with RTI as often as they’d like and as often as Hattie’s analyses would seem to suggest is possible? There are several reasons – and the lack of strong, highly-involved principal leadership is probably the number one reason – and we believe that these 9 misconceptions greatly contribute to the frustration and lack of success that too often occur. Clarity precedes competence.
Misconception #1: Tier 3 is simply more intensive and frequent Tier 2. In the Benjamin Bloom model of RTI, dating back to the 1960s, Tier 2 and Tier 3 serve entirely different purposes. Tier 2 supports prevent students from falling behind, with buffer time built into unit plans so that students receive more time and alternative supports to master the essentials of Tier 1. Tier 3 supports catch students up, providing intensive timely, and targeted interventions when significant needs exist in the areas of literacy numeracy, and behavior. Tier 2 and 3 are not the same. When a school’s Tier 2 is really just Tier 3-lite, a critical and powerful element of RTI is missing and students will suffer greatly.
Misconception #2: Tier 2 (buffer) supports are guided by, and provided by, staff separate from classroom teacher teams (such as specialists or interventionists). Teacher teams take the lead on Tiers 1 and 2. Schoolwide teams take the lead on Tier 3. When teacher teams outsource Tier 2 supports, fewer students learn the essentials of Tier 1; Tier 2 supports are less successful than they could be. Of course, this necessitates an understanding of RTI that is described in Misconception #1.
Misconception #3: We must wait 6 (or 12 weeks) before providing students Tier 3 supports or more intensive supports, even when we have screened to identify that a significant deficit in foundational skills exists. If a student has a significant need in a foundational skill area, they will need a suite of supports to catch up. We don’t (or shouldn’t) provide Tier 3 in place of Tier 1 (see below). Tier 1 supports will provide the scaffolds necessary for a student with significant needs to access the essentials of the grade level or course. Teachers and teacher teams shouldn’t also be expected to provide the intensive Tier 3 supports necessary to catch students up within their classrooms, within the typical Tier 1 instructional period. As soon as the significant need is identified (through screening or any other ways), Tier 3 supports should begin immediately. One more thing: Students should not proceed through the tiers, from Tier 1 to 2 and 3. That’s simply not consistent with the purposes of each tier; and it’s a great (and unfortunate) way to mis-represent RTI as a pathway to special education or to a referral for formal evaluation.
Misconception #4: Students cannot receive intervention until extensive documentation has been completed. We agree that we must be able to justify – to document – that we have done everything possible to serve students prior to requesting permission from parents to conduct a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education – to refer for testing. But that’s not what RTI is. Please do not delay providing supports to students in need Do not allow paperwork, or lack thereof, to be the gatekeeper to Tier 3 supports. The only documentation we should need to initiate Tier 3 interventions is universal screening data (of course, we will determine the reasons why the significant need exists so that we can provide the most targeted support).We will gather and record loads of documentation once pre-referral supports begin.
Misconception #5: Special education teachers cannot work with students who do not have IEPs. The reauthorization of IDEA, specifically EIS, or Early Intervening Services, encourages special education staff to serve students who do not yet have an IEP. And, these staff members have unique and important experiences and expertise in serving students at-risk. We are very, very sensitive to the demands upon the special education teachers’ time, to their high caseloads, and to their responsibilities for meeting the goals and objectives as outlined within IEPs. But to achieve the goal, the necessity, of all students learning at high levels, it’s all hands on deck. Just as students with special needs must be served within general education Tier 1 environments, students without IEPs, but with significant needs in foundational skills, must be able to be served by special education teachers. Perhaps it’s adding a few students without IEPs to a special education teacher-led group of students with IEPs when similar needs exist. We must eliminate the general education-special education divides. There’s no special ed or general ed – there’s just ed.
Misconception #6: Students with significant deficits in foundational skills cannot miss anything in order to receive intensive intervention support. If we are committed to serving student needs within the normal school day – and assuming we have not yet figured out how to break the space-time continuum – students will miss something to receive the life-saving, life-changing, intensive Tier 3 supports they need to be catch-up, to be successful. We have chosen not to pull students from core ELA and mathematics instruction, but everything else is fair game. Perhaps schedules can be shifted from month-to-month so that students don’t always miss the same content area, but for a student who is effectively illiterate or innumerate, the most critical and high-priority need is targeted Tier 3 supports. Electives, social studies, and science are critically important; they’re just not as critical as catching students up in literacy and numeracy.
Misconception #7: Tier 3 supports should take the place of Tier 1 if students are not ready for core instruction. As noted above, we do not pull students from core, Tier 1 ELA and mathematics instruction to provide Tier 3 supports in this area. Instead, we provide differentiated, Tier 1 supports and intensive and targeted Tier 3 supports. When we provide Tier 3 instead of Tier 1, students may catch up in their mastery of foundational skills, but they simultaneously fall behind in mastery grade level content. And when (if) they catch up, we have found that a transition from a small group Tier 3 environment into a heterogeneous, large-group Tier 1 environment is a challenging transition for a vulnerable student to make.
Misconception #8: Students with IEPs are not served within an RTI model. When asked what Tier special education is, the answer is easy; students with special needs are served in all tiers. Students with IEPs are students first, served in heterogeneous, differentiated Tier 1 classrooms, eligible for Tier 2 buffer supports (like all other students) when evidence reveals the need, and (likely) receiving intensive Tier 3 supports that target their special needs, needs that are probably articulated within the IEP. RTI does lead to special education – there is no “Tier 4.”
Misconception #9: Tier 3 supports should be guided by what students are having difficulty with in the core classroom. Please resist the temptation to review Tier 1 concepts with which highly vulnerable students are experiencing difficulty during Tier 3 intervention time. Tier 3 intervention times, typically 30 minutes of intensive and targeted supports, are guided by the skill areas within which needs exist (no matter the grade level of these skills and no matter whether the grade level of these skill needs is quite different than the grade level of the student…they probably are). The focus of Tier 3 supports must be preserved. Tiers 1 and 2 focus on the priorities of the core…of the grade level or course. Tier 3 focuses on meeting the students at a level that matches their foundational skill needs.