Beyond the Spaghetti Bridge: Why Response to Intervention is Not Enough

I know an engineer at Johns Hopkins University who invented the Spaghetti Bridge Challenge. Teams of students are given dry, uncooked spaghetti and glue, and are challenged to build a bridge over a 500-millimeter gap. The bridge that can support the most weight wins.

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Spaghetti Bridge tournaments are now held all over the world, and they are wonderful for building interest in engineering. But I don’t think any engineer would actually build a real bridge based on a winning spaghetti bridge prototype. Much as spaghetti bridges do resemble the designs of real bridges, there are many more factors a real engineer has to take into account: Weight of materials, tensile strength, flexibility (in case of high winds or earthquakes), durability, and so on.

In educational innovation and reform, we have lots of great ideas that resemble spaghetti bridges. That’s because they would probably work great if only their components were ideal. An example like this is Response to Intervention (RTI), or its latest version, Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS). Both RTI and MTSS start with a terrific idea: Instead of just testing struggling students to decide whether or not to assign them to special education, provide them with high-quality instruction (Tier 1), supplemented by modest assistance if that is not sufficient (Tier 2), supplemented by intensive instruction if Tier 2 is not sufficient (Tier 3). In law, or at least in theory, struggling readers must have had a chance to succeed in high-quality Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 instruction before they can be assigned to special education.

The problem is that there is no way to ensure that struggling students truly received high-quality instruction at each tier level. Teachers do their best, but it is difficult to make up effective approaches from scratch. MTSS or RTI is a great idea, but their success depends on the effectiveness of whatever struggling students receive as Tier 1, 2, and 3 instruction.

This is where spaghetti bridges come in. Many bridge designs can work in theory (or in spaghetti), but whether or not a bridge really works in the real world depends on how it is made, and with what materials in light of the demands that will be placed on it.

The best way to ensure that all components of RTI or MTSS policy are likely to be effective is to select approaches for each tier that have themselves been proven to work. Fortunately, there is now a great deal of research establishing the effectiveness of programs, proven effective for struggling students that use whole-school or whole-class methods (Tier 1), one-to-small group tutoring (Tier 2), or one-to-one tutoring (Tier 3). Many of these tutoring models are particularly cost-effective because they successfully provide struggling readers with tutoring from well-qualified paraprofessionals, usually ones with bachelor’s degrees but not teaching certificates. Research on both reading and math tutoring has clearly established that such paraprofessional tutors, using structured models, have tutees who gain at least as much as do tutors who are certified teachers. This is important not only because paraprofessionals cost about half as much as teachers, but also because there are chronic teacher shortages in high-poverty areas, such as inner-city and rural locations, so certified teacher tutors may not be available at any cost.

If schools choose proven components for their MTSS/RTI models, and implement them with thought and care, they are sure to see enhanced outcomes for their struggling students. The concept of MTSS/RTI is sound, and the components are proven. How could the outcomes be less than stellar? And in addition to improved achievement for vulnerable learners, hiring many paraprofessionals to serve as tutors in disadvantaged schools could enable schools to attract and identify capable, caring young people with bachelor’s degrees to offer accelerated certification, enriching the local teaching force.

With a spaghetti bridge, a good design is necessary but not sufficient. The components of that design, its ingredients, and its implementation, determine whether the bridge stands or falls in practice. So it is with MTSS and RTI. An approach based on strong evidence of effectiveness is essential to enable these good designs achieve their goals.

Photo credit: CSUF Photos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via flickr

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.

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Response to Intervention and Bob’s Law

The problem in education reform isn’t a lack of good ideas. It’s a lack of good ideas implemented with enough clarity, consistency and integrity to actually make a difference in rigorous experiments (and therefore in large-scale application). A recent large-scale evaluation of Response to Intervention (RTI) illustrates this problem once again.

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a strategy for helping students who are struggling to keep up with ordinary classroom teaching. The idea is that following initial instruction (Tier 1), teachers provide mild assistance to students who are having difficulties (Tier 2), such as small-group remediation. Those who continue to struggle might receive more intensive assistance (Tier 3), such as one-to-one tutoring.

RTI has been common in U.S. classrooms for 20 years, and was virtually mandated as part of No Child Left Behind. So it is distressing that a recent study by MDRC, a respected independent research organization, found no positive effects of Tier 2 services in grades 1-3 reading. In fact, there were slight negative effects for first graders receiving Tier 2 services.

Philosophically, I am a supporter of RTI, but I’m even more of a supporter of rigorous evidence. Yet here’s a very large, well-done (though not randomized) study of RTI that finds no benefits.

I think the findings of the RTI evaluation speak to a broader problem of education policy. Often, national, state or local policies promote or require uses of broadly defined strategies. RTI is a perfect example. Everyone understands the general idea, but there are thousands of ways to implement RTI in practice.

Studies of broad teaching concepts almost always find that they make little if any difference. The reason is that general concepts are implemented differently from class to class and school to school, and end up on average looking a lot like what teachers were doing before, or are doing in schools that do not claim to be implementing the broad concept. That is, the “experimental” classes are not terribly different from the “control” classes.

As a good example of this problem, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Madeline Hunter was extremely popular, and she spoke everywhere suggesting effective classroom strategies. Yet several studies found that when teachers were given training and coaching in Madeline Hunter strategies, it made no difference in achievement. Why? The studies also found that control teachers were already using strategies much like those in the Hunter model. It may well be that Madeline Hunter’s theories were so popular precisely because they were appealing descriptions of what teachers already were doing. Everyone likes to hear that what they’ve always done turns out to be supported by research. So, exactly what made Hunter’s prescriptions popular also made them no more effective than ordinary teaching, because they were ordinary teaching.

In the case of RTI, the MDRC researchers documented some differences between schools using RTI and those that were not, but there was enormous overlap.

So here’s a proposal for what I’ll call Bob’s Law: General teaching strategies subject to substantially varying interpretations by individual teachers are likely to be transformed into practices much like ordinary teaching. For this reason, they are unlikely to produce better outcomes than the control group does.

This does not mean that ordinary teaching methods are bad, or that teaching methods informed by general concepts are bad, but what it does imply is that if you want to see marked improvements in student achievement across many teachers and schools, you have to have programs that are well-conceived, well-specified and well-supported by top-quality professional development and materials. Even then, not all programs work, but success is at least possible if programs bring about systematic and sensible change in teaching methods.

Back to RTI, I remain hopeful that RTI’s strategies can improve student outcomes. However, the approaches to this concept that are likely to work are ones that are specific about all key aspects of the design and help teachers implement approaches that are markedly better than whatever they were using before.