The other day I read an article in Education Week about RTI falling short of expectations.I wasn’t at all surprised to read this. However, I was scared. Scared that my colleagues and schools around our country were about to throw intervention out with the bathwater. Scared that kids were still falling through the cracks, and scared what politicians and bureaucrats…and even parents…were going to do with this information. You see, I believe in RTI. I have seen it do amazing things for struggling learners. I know it works. I also know that most schools are doing it wrong.
Even the best tool or structure, when not used correctly isn’t going to work as expected. At the same time, I don’t think anyone is doing it wrong on purpose. Nearly every teacher I know wants to help kids. They want to see those struggling learners succeed…so why is it going so poorly? In my opinion, there are several reasons.
We lack Tier 1 Training. I am not sure about you, but I have never received a training through the school district on Tier 1 intervention. I am lucky enough to have a degree in school psychology from a school that pushed for school psychologists to have a role in intervention planning and implementation. However, had I not had this experience, I would have been up a creek without a paddle. Without an understanding of what to do, we are all just left to figure it out for ourselves, and there are tons of teachers doing an amazing job at just that. However, it can be hard to fit it all in within the context of the school day.
Intervention specialists are pushed beyond their expertise. Many interventionists leave the classroom because they are tired and overwhelmed. They are good teachers and are ready for a break. Then they are given intervention groups in areas that are so far out of their expertise. For example, a fifth grade teacher turned interventionist given a group of beginning readers. Well, unless they have experience with phonics, phonemic awareness, and the foundations of reading, it just can’t go well.
The data is a struggle.
For me this is a two-fold issue. First, we don’t have the right data. Secondly, we don’t know how to use it for RTI purposes.
We don’t have right data. For years there has been a plethora of reading tools. However, math tools are slim pickings. By now most campuses universally screen, but after the screener should come some diagnostic testing for those kids who fall in the danger zone. The goal of this is to discover WHERE the student is struggling so we can start effectively intervening. Without the diagnostic tool, it becomes a shot in the dark for most teachers.
When we rely on unit tests or other materials like these, we fail to really get to the root of the issue. How many kids do you know that fail every single unit test? It is hard to look at where the gap is based on discreet skills that are never examined together. A diagnostic tool would give us insight into where the initial break down occurs so we could begin from the beginning.
We don’t know how to use the data we have for RTI purposes. Remember those diagnostic assessments I mentioned before? Things like the BAS or DRA? Lots of campuses are giving them to every single student and using them to put kids into reading groups rather than as a way to target support. I was guilty of this practice for years. These tools aren’t actually meant just for putting kids into reading groups. They give you data on accuracy, fluency, and comprehension for a reason. I always relied on other tools to help me find where the gap is in my student’s abilities instead of taking the diagnostic and using that information to help me. I look back and think about all my wasted time!
We are still figuring out this intervention thing.
We aren’t focusing our intervention efforts. This one is the biggest issue. A student should never be in reading intervention. That isn’t good enough…and it wastes time with kids who do not have time to waste. If we were better at targeting the specific gap, the student could get support on the skill that is holding back their success. I’m not a proponent of programs like Read 180 and LLI for this reason. They are comprehensive reading programs. By the time a student needs Tier 2 they don’t need more comprehensive reading. They need an intervention laser-targeted toward the skill gap keeping them from progressing.
Many kids are struggling with reading, for example. Break it down, you’ll discover they are spending so much effort decoding that it is no wonder they aren’t understanding. Now dig deeper. Why are they reading slowly? Are they accurate? If not, then your best bet is to intervene to build accuracy. Once they’re accurate, you can work to build fluency…and then comprehension.
In math this gets harder, but the idea remains. If a student can’t add, they won’t be able to solve addition word problems. We try to maximize intervention time by covering everything, but if we focused on filling the basic skill gap it would become like a rock rolling down a hill. Yes, a student might have many gaps. Yes, they might need several rounds of intervention supports. However, if we don’t fill the foundation we are building a bridge over the Grand Canyon and hoping it doesn’t collapse.
It’s also a people & resources issue.
It’s still the road to getting the kid off our plate…whether to intervention or special education. By the time kids are referred for Tier 2 support, most teachers have cleared their toolbox. They don’t know what else to do. The idea of washing our hands of a kid isn’t because we don’t want them to succeed…its the opposite really. We just don’t know what else to do so we pass them off to someone else who we trust does.
This isn’t working. Instead, we need to sit down together during those Student Support Team (SST) meetings and get to the core of the issue. We need to set goals and decide who is going to monitor them and with what tool. We need to build our capacity to work with the student at Tier 1 and then add more focused work at Tier 2, when intervention specialists are available to help. By building classroom teachers’ toolboxes through SST meetings, we will start to see the number of kids referred for support decrease.
Educational Assistants are providing intervention to our most struggling students. Okay, I admit there are a number of amazing EAs (paras for those of you who prefer that terminology).I’ve worked with several that are MORE qualified to intervene for some skills than the interventionist or classroom teacher. However, I’ve also seen a lot that were thrown into the mix, assigned intervention groups, told to progress monitor…and never talked to again.
Shouldn’t our struggling learners be working with our strongest, most skilled teachers? If I am struggling to breathe, I don’t go to the CNA living down the street from me. I go to the ER or a see specialist. The students don’t know who is most qualified. They just know they need extra help. It is up to us to make sure we are giving them the best matched support available. This might mean that an EA covers a classroom or duty while a rock star reading teacher provides intervention. It might mean the librarian pitches in because she has a certificate in math intervention. Whatever it takes, we have to make it work.
Can it be fixed?
I think so…but it is going to hurt a bit at first. If we want intervention to work, we need to get better at doing it. We have to stop talking about how to change the students and start talking about how we change the environment. We are missing the point if it comes down to just the student. The solution is in the bigger picture. I love this quote I saw on Edutopia the other day, and I think it fits perfectly here.
Of course, we also need to stop having standards that are an inch deep and mile wide and to start letting teachers teach, but that’s a story for a different day.