Once it was clear that many students were not making academic growth, the Response to Intervention (RtI) initiative began. RtI was built on a foundation of data-based decision making, where teachers were responsive to data and provided intervention when evidence (often standardized tests), suggested that students were falling behind. The RtI is often depicted as a one-dimensional triangle with three layers, or tiers.
The primary tier, or Tier I, is focused on preventing underachievement by providing a high-quality education that meets the needs of all students. Ideally, Tier I instruction would be inclusive, with all students present, and universally designed so all students could be educated together with choices and options that allow them to personalize their journey. Throughout Tier I, assessments are given to students to assess their growth and their progress toward the standards.
When students are not making growth, school districts are called on to “respond,” to this data, by providing additional support and intervention to students who are not meeting grade-level expectations.
The RtI framework was designed so that all students receive instruction in the classroom in Tier I, small groups of students receive additional instruction in small groups in Tier II, and a few students who need additional intervention receive 1:1 support in Tier III. The idea is that tiers are flexible, movement is based on data from assessments, and that no tier would supplant, or replace, another.
When students only receive Tier II instruction, instead of Tier I support, they are often only given less-challenging curriculum which provides them with fewer opportunities to learn.[i] This curriculum gap denies students access to challenging material that will prepare them for success on standardized tests, which have become an important measure of student achievement. When students fail these achievement tests, the scores are used as further evidence that they are incapable of learning which often results in more time in Tier II or Tier III. Students who are consistently given remedial work are not likely to pass grade-level achievement tests and may begin to feel unsuccessful and inadequate[ii]. The limitations of standardized achievement tests aside, for students who are at risk of failing, a challenging curriculum is crucial for success on these tests so all students need access to Tier I instruction.
Here’s a classroom example that will help you to understand RtI in the classroom. All students in ninth grade class should be exposed to options with an appropriate rigor for a ninth grade student, aligned to ninth grade standards. After receiving that instruction, however, small groups of students may need more targeted intervention, or remediation, focused on filling in gaps of skills that are needed to access grade level material more effectively. Still others may need 1:1 time with a reading interventionist to help students learn specific strategies that will allow them to be successful in lower tiers, when they are with their peers. By receiving instruction in multiple tiers, the gaps begin to close, and there is social justice and equity, as all students are receiving the same Tier I instruction together.
So, a question begs to be asked. Why wasn’t this model implemented in every school across the country? The answer is simple. Oftentimes, schools did not have the structures in place, like schedules and staffing, to allow students to receive instruction in all three tiers. As a result, students were pulled out of Tier I to receive either Tier II or Tier III instruction. Because all students were not receiving grade level instruction, they were not exposed to the rigor expected of them on standardized tests. The gaps did not close.
It became clear that RtI was difficult to implement in isolation, so five years after RtI became popular, many districts began building the RtI model into a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), where the focus was on building an integrated system so schools could implement RtI effectively.
[i] Muller, C., & Schiller, K.S. (2000). Leveling the playing field? Students’ educational attainment and states’ performance testing. Sociology of Education, 73, 196-218.
[ii]Cooper, R. (2000) Urban school reform from a student-of-color perspective. Urban Education, 34, 597-622; Meier, D. (2002). In schools we trust. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.