Guiding RTI System Implementation: The Oregon Experience

by David L. Putnam Jr.

Three years of running a response to intervention project in Oregon has taught us much about what factors affect successes and disappointments.

From our work with some two dozen school districts in the Oregon Response to Intervention Project, we can see that implementation at the school level depends on several system factors. Primarily, these include school-based factors such as the initial collective skill and knowledge in a district, the degree to which the foundations of a multi-tiered instructional model and data-based decision making are in place and the educational belief system of the stakeholders. In addition, context factors such as district size and setting make a difference.

The variable with the single greatest impact, however, and one that can override everything else is focused and sustained leadership from building- and district-level administrators.

Lending Credibility
Some leadership tasks cut across roles. Administrators at all levels must clearly articulate a vision of what the change process will involve. Because RTI implementation often requires significant changes for staff, administrators should clarify the expectations with well-defined non-negotiables as well as areas of flexibility.

For example, implementing a research-based core curriculum is a critical feature and administrators must hold fast to the expectation this will be carried out consistently by teachers and with fidelity. Administrators can be flexible about how this is accomplished and teachers can help determine the process.

Articulating a clear vision and plan for implementation is an important first step that must be followed by sustained focus on student outcomes and support for RTI. A school or district easily can become fragmented with multiple initiatives and teachers may feel the current initiative is just one more in a series of passing fads.

In our own district in a suburb of Portland, Ore., the superintendent’s involvement has had a significant impact. He communicates the importance of placing student achievement at the top of the district’s priorities when he meets with teachers, parents and leadership groups. He has taken the time to develop a deep understanding of response to intervention and can meaningfully describe what it takes to implement a multitiered system of instructional delivery. This lends credibility to his message and amplifies its impact.

The superintendent’s deep involvement is equally apparent when he speaks to school districts that we support as part of the statewide response to intervention project. Often educators are stunned to find a superintendent meeting with them to address the importance of RTI, and they are inspired by this involvement. The importance of a consistent message across levels of district leadership cannot be overstated.

Make or Break
Without question, the leadership provided — or not provided — by building administrators can make or break an RTI initiative. Principals are at the pivotal point of contact between a great idea and the functional changes in how business is done in a school. For RTI to be successful, principals must operate as real-time, contributing members of the RTI team. They need to be directly involved with orchestrating assessment efforts, supervising the fidelity of instructional practices and coordinating group and individual interventions. They must be integral members of the school RTI team, providing guidance and allocating resources as needed. The impact of principal involvement can be contrasted in two schools that we work with.

At the elementary school in one rural school district, the principal leads the developing RTI process. There is a strong commitment to the concept that academic failure is not an option. Professional development regarding the core reading curriculum has been strong and ongoing and there is a clear expectation that the curriculum will be implemented with fidelity. The principal monitors instruction. Community funds support a reading coach and other resources.

The effects on student achievement have been significant. The percentage of students meeting DIBELS benchmark scores has increased dramatically in the three years since implementation, especially in the primary grades.

The principal in a second district supports the RTI initiative at a broad level, but is not nearly as involved operationally. As one might expect, implementation is struggling to gain traction.

The difference in the two districts largely relates to the degree of oversight and instructional guidance provided to all staff, from general to special education. RTI is often mistakenly viewed as a special education initiative, when really it is an “every ed” effort with the core infrastructure components residing in general education. As such, principals must truly function as instructional leaders to coordinate all aspects of teaching and learning.

Size Impacts
District size is a dimension that can present challenges at either end of the continuum. At one extreme, tiny school districts often are limited in resources. Their small size results in failing to meet thresholds that would make them eligible for certain supports or resources, or give efficiencies of shared expertise or hard resources across the district. However, in the words of one successful school leader who serves as principal of three schools and director of curriculum, assessment and Title I in a 325-student district in the heart of the Willamette Valley: “It doesn’t take a lot of money or resources. You just have to take a step back and look at the way you do things and be willing to do things differently.”

This school leader has infused this attitude into her small staff, who are excited by their accomplishments. The district has implemented a new reading core curriculum, systematized universal screening and progress monitoring and organized reading intervention groups in the two short years it has participated in the statewide project. The district has established a well-organized RTI team that works collaboratively to review student performance data regularly and make instructional decisions. A clear sense of collective ownership of all students prevails.

At the other end of the continuum, large districts benefit from shared resources but face the challenge and complexity of coordinating procedures, training and programs across many schools. Here, too, we have been impressed with how far administrative will, collaboration and creative problem solving can go. We have witnessed significant and rapid system development in a large urban/suburban district that’s confronted with all the challenges that large districts typically face.

The key to the success in this case is a well-organized and highly skilled central-office leadership team that has worked closely with building principals to maintain a consistent and concerted focus. The district RTI leadership team meets regularly to review procedures and coordinate implementation. Professional development has been consistent and sustained. Principals serve as team leaders within most elementary schools, and teachers report feeling informed and supported.

In reflecting upon her district’s journey at a conference last year, the director of student services recalled a discussion she had with a parent regarding the newly minted RTI system and the emphasis on identifying struggling learners and providing interventions as early as possible.

“That sounds great,” the parent responded. “But what did you do before RTI? Don’t tell me you just waited until they failed before they got services.”

What could she say?

David Putnam is co-project manager of the Oregon Response to Intervention Project in the Tigard Tualatin School District in Tigard, Ore. E-mail: