We have written that response to intervention, or RTI, is a verb (Hierck & Weber, 2015), as in, “To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention? To what extent are students RTI’ing?”

To extend the metaphor, RTI is not a noun. There are multiple methods and approaches to designing systems of supports for each and every student. Each school has local, contextual needs that require local, contextual responses.

RTI integrates the powerful features of PLCs, UDL, Special Education, Gifted Education, and Differentiation into a cohesive whole that is great than the sum of its parts, with efficiencies and without duplicated or uncoordinated efforts.

And while the many important elements within which schools must exercise their professional judgment when designing their “System,” there are also non-negotiables—the foundational principles below—that must guide our efforts of behalf of all students’ learning at high levels within RTI.

Foundational Principles

  1. RTI operationalizes our schools’ mission statements: “We believe that all students can learn and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.” Designing structures that ensure that all students receive the supports that they need is a moral imperative. And education is a civil right. It’s social justice. RTI is the concrete representation of the imperative.
  2. We can predict the types of supports that students will need: Some students will require differentiation and scaffolds to access learning opportunities, to optimally succeed and grow within core environments (what is commonly known as Tier 1); some students will need additional time and alternative supports at the completion of units of instruction, as revealed by evidence, to master core priorities and others will be ready for greater levels of complexity and will greatly benefit from opportunities to delve into priorities at greater levels of depth (what is commonly known as Tier 2); some students will be in desperate need of immediate, intensive, and targeted supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills and other students will benefit from opportunities to dive deep into a passion – highly specialized supports to meet students’ at, and nudge them from, their zones of proximal development (what is commonly known as Tier 3). If we can predict it, we can prepare for it. RTI represents our proactive preparation for predictable needs.
  3. We passionately subscribe to the practice of teach less, learn more. Students deserve more rigorous and relevant learning opportunities. The deserve opportunities to practice 21st century skills. They deserve differentiated, individualized, and personalized learning paths. To give students what they deserve—to meet the mission statement of so many schools (“We believe that all student can learn and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”), we must challenge the inch-deep, mile-wide mentality of our curricular programs. We must favor:
  • Depth over breath;
  • Verbs (skills) over nouns (content);
  • Integrated disciplinary tasks over tasks related to singular content areas;
  • Quality over quantity; and
  • Mastery over coverage.
  1. Don’t bother with RTI if you don’t believe high levels of learning for all students are inevitable. Don’t go through the motions so that you can compliantly satisfy a policy or mandate. There is compelling experiential and neurological evidence to confirm that all students can learn at high levels and it’s our professional obligation. There is no one else who can or should serve students’ academic, pro-social, and pro-functional skill needs. We must simply continue to adjust and revise—to identify the causes, antecedents, or explanations—we just need to find the right support. High levels of learning for all are inevitabilities. And all means all—if a student will be expected to live a happy and productive adult life without accommodations and modifications (which is the case for 99% of students, including the majority of students with IEPs), then they are in the ALL category.



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5. All students receive all levels of support:

Differentiated: Teaching and learning cycles for grade-level and course-specific behavioral and academic priorities for all students. Teachers respond to a student’s unique learning needs by making adjustments to process, content, product, and environments based on a student’s interests, learning profile, and readiness levels. These supports are often described as Tier 1.

  • Quality not quantity
  • Depth not breadth
  • Mastery not coverage
  • Scaffolded, differentiated, respectful
  • Skills/content…verbs/nouns
  • Pro-social and pro-functional skills
    • Self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional
  • 21st century skills
    • Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication

Individualized: Timely and targeted supports for greater levels of student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities, so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind) and so students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding. If differentiation is the how, then individualization is the when. Learning progresses at different speeds; some students may need to review previously covered material, while others may be ready to immerse themselves in a certain topic. These supports are often described as Tier 2.

  • Benjamin Bloom
  • Time + Support = Learning
  • Informed by short-cycle assessments
  • More time:
    • for alternative supports
    • to gain mastery of the priorities
  • Buffer time
  • Teacher-directed small groups
  • Intervention & enrichment
  • Intended to prevent students from falling behind…or falling farther behind

Personalized and Specialized: Intervention and enrichment to meet students’ at the forward edge of their zones of proximal development; intensive supports to meet significant deficits in foundational skills AND opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of passions into which they will dive deeply. Extending the metaphor, if differentiation is the how and individualization is the when, the personalization is the where—as in, where are students in their learning journey. Students who are not yet performing at expected levels, due to significant deficits in foundational skills, receive targeted and intensive supports at the leading edge of their zone of proximal development to close the gap. Students who are meeting and exceeding age and grade expectations dig deeper into areas of interest. All students’ experiences are tailored to preferences and interests; support is paced to students’ unique needs. Students are involved in the creation and monitoring of their learning path. These supports are often described as Tier 3. Tier 3 supports:

  • Are proactive and immediate
  • Are diagnostically driven and targeted
  • Are intensive
  • Are coordinated
  • Ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills
  • Include personalized learning plans

When all students receive the supports that we have predicted and proactively planned, high levels of learning for all and readiness for college and career will be a reality.

There are innumerable forms that successful RTI may take. The size of the school, the needs of staffs, students, and communities, and the realities of resources will all contribute to the logistical characteristics of core, more, and specialized supports, including but not limited to:

  • Which staff performs which roles, and when?
  • How and when are core, more, and highly specialized supports scheduled.
  • How and with what tools and processes are students screened to determine who is most vulnerable and immediately in need of supports?
  • Which resources will we need to meet student needs?
  • How will allocate human, fiscal, and material resources?
  • How and with what tools and processes will we monitor the progress of students and the efficacy of our efforts?

We must address these questions and others, and our answers will undoubtedly be distinct. However, the 16 foundational principles described above must be the same for all schools that commit to building a system of supports based on the principles and practices of RTI.

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