Three Tiers of Intervention

Central Iowa schools adopt a hands-on process for matching student instruction to needs by W. David Tilly, Shannon Harken, Wendy Robinson and Sharon Kurns

A s education leaders, we all have similar aspirations: We want our teachers to be effective; we want our students to excel; and we want our schools to be known for high levels of student achievement. Achieving these goals requires high-quality instruction, assessments to determine whether instruction is working and effective interventions for students who need something more.

Many instructional practices, assessments and interventions are known to be effective. How does a school select those that are the best match for the students and their unique needs? How does a school use its resources to provide additional instruction for students who are not successful in typical instruction? How does a school make decisions about the changing needs of students?

Response to intervention helps principals and teachers answer these questions by providing a framework for organizing instruction in schools using research-validated procedures and decision-making structures. The framework includes periodic assessments to determine which students need help and whether what is being done for them is effective, differentiated instruction and ongoing data-based decision making.

RTI doesn’t tell you what to think. It tells you what to think about.

At Heartland Area Education Agency 11, an intermediate education agency in central Iowa, we have been implementing RTI concepts agencywide for 18 years. Heartland schools are in various stages of implementation, many following the three-phased process of building consensus, building the infrastructure and then fully implementing RTI. Each phase has essential components and predictable challenges.

Building Consensus
Let’s face it: Educators are hands-on people — they want to know how to implement effective instructional strategies to improve student achievement and often are less interested in the theory underlying the practice. Unfortunately, new school initiatives sometimes falter because school leaders do not invest sufficient time and energy early in the process to ensure faculty and staff understand the changes being proposed and why those changes are a good thing. As a result, several years after the initiative is launched, there is little to no evidence of our efforts.

When developing the RTI framework, we spend time providing information, rationale and the opportunity for educators to question, challenge and discuss RTI before it is launched. Through these interactions, educators build consensus, which leads to buy-in.

Some of the activities Heartland schools use to build consensus around response to intervention are:

Revisit what we consider the essential outcomes in our system. Review data about the degree to which these outcomes are being accomplished.

Examine staff members’ belief systems about what children can learn and the strategies that will best teach them.

Examine the historical assumptions underlying our assessment and instruction system and the degree to which these are supported by research. Also, examine what research says are the most effective practices that yield maximum student achievement.

Study the underlying core principles and practices associated with RTI implementation.

Examine a three-tiered model of how RTI is structured in school buildings and what it takes to support implementation.

Gauge staff members’ commitment to make these changes.

Perhaps the most important component of consensus building is involving staff in ongoing conversations about the principles of teaching and learning. Jan Haugen, principal of Pleasantville Elementary School, describes his building’s most effective consensus-building tool for implementing RTI (which in Iowa is called instructional decision making, or IDM): “To build consensus in our building, we posted, in the lounge for everyone to see, a list of our IDM accomplishments and challenges for implementing a program like IDM in our building. It stimulated a lot of interest from the very beginning as our team studied it.”

The school’s accomplishments included general and special education resources working together to provide a variety of instructional supports; involving students in flexible instructional groups that change as student needs change; and more frequently reviewing student performance data to assist in decision making.

False Notions
The challenges associated with consensus building are predictable. One challenge stems from the fact some teachers and administrators make assumptions about teaching and learning based on inaccurate prior knowledge. Committing to RTI is committing to use research-based instruction and assessment.

Questions to Guide RTI’s Use

Our approach for developing a response to intervention framework at the Heartland Area Education Agency in Iowa is based on 10 related questions.

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Many of the things we accepted as truths in our preservice programs turned out to be false, such as:

The need to know students’ IQs to know how to teach them;

Special education placement will predictably accelerate a student’s learning; and

A student’s label or disability type tells us what instruction to provide.

A second challenge to consensus building is that teachers often are not up to date about what works best for students who are struggling to learn. We all have our bag of tricks. We all know some things, but none of us knows everything. Teachers not only need to become aware of new technique, but they must master them. For example, they need to know and be able to teach the stages of word learning and how to coach decoding strategies in connected text.

To build consensus, teachers must not only be knowledgeable about current practices, they must be willing to share their knowledge with each other.

A final challenge associated with consensus building is understanding that RTI is not an “add-on” to the system. RTI is a fundamental restructuring of resources and services within a school to better meet the needs of all students. It is a systems-change initiative that takes several years to implement fully.

A school must devote a significant amount of professional development time to RTI during the first two or three years. Then, when RTI becomes a way of life, schools’ subsequent professional development offerings are based on student achievement data and are integrated into the RTI initiative.

Building Infrastructure
One of the most important things we realized when we began working to implement RTI in Heartland was that our approach to school improvement needed to evolve. Historically, when major initiatives from the federal government or the state rolled out, specific practices or strategies were brought to teachers. In essence, we brought answers.

When this happened, getting practices implemented was challenging because teachers did not have input into the change, so they did not always own the change. These changes rarely are deep or lasting.

The approach with RTI is different. In our revised approach, we don’t try to provide all the answers, though we try to ensure the right questions are being asked. We are confident in the RTI framework and the research-based practices it contains. We are confident in the expertise and decision-making ability of the teachers and administrators in our schools. As such, we now implement a new approach to bringing RTI into our schools. This approach is based on questions, rather than answers. (See related story, below.)

We use current practices in the school as building blocks for the RTI infrastructure. All schools have some of the required components in place, so the challenge is to identify those that are in place, build those that are not and make them work together in a seamless way.

To address the questions, the school must establish a leadership team made up of individuals with specific roles and skills. The team may include the building administrator, someone with curriculum and instruction expertise, someone with expertise in data analysis and someone who can facilitate meetings and professional development. Grade-level representation on the leadership team also is necessary.

The importance of leadership teams cannot be underestimated. Nancy Moorhead, principal at Jordan Creek Elementary School in West Des Moines, says, “Our leadership team is comprised of representatives at each grade level, special education, talented and gifted and specials teachers. Through this broad representation we were able to share our vision and implement strategies to use data and student work to make instructional decisions and to develop successful interventions.”

Once the leadership team is established, the next step is to identify practices that must be modified, adopted or created. That is done through a needs assessment or inventory of current practice. The needs assessment process is keyed to the structures that need to be in place in schools to support RTI and the skills and processes that must work together for it to be successful.

The team then begins the process of answering the 10 questions. As the leadership team tackles a question, members use research-validated tools and strategies to help answer the question, thus tailoring application of RTI to their school. By taking this approach, we ensure each school is staying true to the research-based principles that support RTI, and we are confident the implementation fits the needs and preferences of the students, teachers and leaders in that specific school.

Team Challenges
Several important issues arise as the school leadership team works through this process. These issues include determining the following:

Which specific assessments will be used for universal screening of all students, for diagnostic assessments for students who need it and for formative assessment (monitoring student learning over time)?

Specifically how to expand options for supplemental and intensive instruction within the building. (Supplemental instruction is provided in addition to typical or core instruction for students. Intensive instruction is also additional instruction, but for those students with the most significant needs.)

What new structures will need to be created to provide this additional instruction and how will it be provided?

How will professional development be provided to develop skills in data-based decision making, improve effective teaching strategies and better differentiate instruction for students?

Are changes warranted in the way that resources from special programs are delivered, such as special education and Title 1?

Schools encounter a range of challenges at this stage. Some challenges have to do with what Yale Professor of Psychology Seymour Sarason calls “existing regularities” — things that we do a particular way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Some challenges have to do with new skills that need to be learned and the lack of time and energy available to learn and implement them with fidelity. Some challenges are related to non-data-based philosophies and the challenge of those who are not willing to be persuaded by data.

School leaders face specific challenges, such as presenting a clear, well-communicated vision for garnering public support from the central office, school board and parents. Then there are operational challenges to be met, including revising the master schedule in the building to accommodate new and differentiated instructional options for students and setting out a multiyear implementation and professional development plan.

Mark Timmerman, principal at Earlham Elementary School, summarizes the power of his building’s plan by stating, “Our staff feels there is truly a strategic plan that will be supported with professional development. Our professional development has been ‘flavor of the month’ for too long, with little evidence to show that it has helped teachers and almost no evidence that student learning has improved.”

Since beginning implementation of instructional decision making, professional development planning at Earlham Elementary School has been far more focused on student performance data and subsequently on the skills that teachers need to meet the needs of the students.

Data Days
Full implementation involves institutionalizing and refining the changes identified in the first two phases. At Heartland, implementation includes establishing rules for moving students among instructional options, which helps teachers in the decision-making process. We frequently collect progress-monitoring data for all students with supplemental and intensive learning needs, and teachers use those data to help guide instruction.

We establish a schedule for reviewing all student data three times a year. We call these “Data Days.” All of these processes require support, encouragement and leadership from the building principal.

One challenge in the implementation phase of RTI is evaluating the effectiveness of the instructional options we provide our students. Are all children benefitting from their instruction? Are they all making adequate progress? If not, why not? What will we do about it?

Districts are using research-based benchmarks to determine whether students are meeting critical targets on time. If students are not progressing at desired rates, further changes in instruction should occur. Further diagnostic assessments will be needed to determine instructional needs so an instructional match can be made.

Other challenges include maintaining a focus on student learning over the long term and attending to logistical issues such as scheduling, ensuring instructional planning time for teachers and carving out time to implement everything that is necessary to keep all students on positive learning trajectories.

With the challenges, however, come benefits. Jolene Comer, elementary/middle school principal in the Lynnville-Sully Community School District in Sully, Iowa, summarizes the benefits of her schools’ use of instructional decision making as “increased student achievement! We’ve seen our students grow in reading fluency and comprehension during the past two years.”

Comer also has seen increased teacher collaboration and use of data. “Teachers don’t just look at data anymore,” she says. “They understand it, talk about it with their peers, and use it to better serve students. We work together to find answers to problems and to strengthen areas of success.”

Since implementing instructional decision making, Sully Elementary has seen the percentage of its 3rd graders considered fluent readers rise from 39 percent to 79 percent. Their 5th graders went from 56 percent to 80 percent fluent.

RTI does not give school leaders all the answers. It does, however, provide a validated framework to support school improvement and drive effective instruction that truly benefits all students in the school. It is a self-correcting system that is data-based and can become the foundation for ongoing instructional improvement.

Administrators who successfully lead implementation of an RTI model can wake up every morning knowing the odds will be in their favor that students will receive the instruction that is best matched to their needs. Isn’t that why most of us went into education in the first place?

David Tilly is the director of innovation and accountability at Heartland Area Education Agency 11 in Johnston, Iowa. E-mail: dtilly@aea11.k12.ia.us. Shannon Harken is a consultant for professional learning at the Heartland Area Education Agency, Sharon Kurns is the director of professional learning and leadership and Wendy Robinson is the assistant director for professional learning.