Response to Intervention (RTI) is one of those great policy ideas caring policymakers always come up with that is carefully crafted and enthusiastically announced, then inconsistently implemented, evaluated at great cost, and found to have minimal impacts, if any. In the case of RTI, the policy is genuinely sensible, but the 2015 MDRC evaluation (Balu et al., 2015) found that the implementation was poor and outcomes were nil, at least as measured in a much-criticized regression discontinuity design (see Fuchs & Fuchs, 2017). An improvement on RTI, multi-tier systems of support (MTSS), adds in some good ideas, but I don’t think it will be enough.
The problem, I think, relates to something I wrote about at the time the MDRC study appeared. In fact, I gave the phenomenon a name: Bob’s Law, which states that any policy or intervention that is not well defined will not be well implemented and therefore will not work, no matter how sensible it may be. In the case of RTI/MTSS, everyone has a pretty good idea what “tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3” are in concept, but no one knows what they are actually composed of. So each district and school and teacher makes up their own strategies to do general teaching followed by remediation if needed, followed by intensive services if necessary. The problem is that since the actual programs provided in each tier are not specified, everyone will do pretty much what they would have done if RTI had not existed. And guess what? If both RTI and non-RTI teachers are drawing from the same universally accepted basket of teaching methods, there is no reason to believe that outcomes will be better than ordinary practice if the RTI group is doing more or less the same thing as the non-RTI group. This is not to say that standard methods are deficient, but why would we expect outcomes to differ if practices don’t?
Response to Proven Instruction (RTPI).
I recently wrote an article proposing a new approach to RTI/MTSS (Slavin, Inns, Pellegrini, & Lake, 2018). The idea is simple. Why not insist that struggling learners receive tier 1, tier 2, and (if necessary) tier 3 services, each of which is proven to work in rigorous research? In the article I listed numerous tier 2 and tier 3 services for reading and math that have all been successfully evaluated, with significant outcomes and effect sizes in excess of +0.20. Every one of these programs involved tutoring, one to one or one to small group, by teachers or paraprofessionals. I also listed tier 1 services found to be very effective for struggling learners. All of these programs are described at www.evidenceforessa.org.
If there are so many effective approaches for struggling learners, these should form the core of RTI/MTSS services. I would argue that tier 1 should be composed of proven whole class or whole school programs; tier 2, one-to-small group tutoring by well-qualified paraprofessionals using proven approaches; and tier 3, one-to-one tutoring by paraprofessionals or teachers using proven approaches (see Figure 1).
The result would have to be substantial improvements in the achievement of struggling learners, and reductions in special education and retentions. These outcomes are assured, as long as implementation is strong, because the programs themselves are proven to work. Over time, better and more cost-effective programs would be sure to appear, but we could surely do a lot better today with the programs we have now.
Millions of children live in the cruel borderlands between low reading groups and special education. These students are perfectly normal, except from 9:00 to 3:00 on school days. They start school with enthusiasm, but then slide over the years into failure, despair, and then dropout or delinquency. If we have proven approaches and can use them in a coherent system to ensure success for all of these children, why would we not use them?
Children have a right to have every chance to succeed. We have a moral imperative to see that they receive what they need, whatever it takes.
Balu, R., Zhu, P., Doolittle, F., Schiller, E., Jenkins, J., & Gersten, R. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, NCEE 2016-4000.
Fuchs, D., & Fuchs, L.S. (2017). Critique of the National Evaluation of Response to Intervention: A case for simpler frameworks. Exceptional Children, 83 (3), 1-14.
Slavin, R.E., Inns, A., Pellegrini, M., & Lake, C. (2018). Response to proven instruction (RTPI): Enabling struggling learners. Manuscript submitted for publication.
This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.