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.


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.


Retention Costs More, Accomplishes Less

Earlier this week, John Wilson put the spotlight on a national embarrassment in his Education Week blog post entitled Flunking 3rd Graders Is Not An Intervention. His central point is worth repeating here:

“Flunking 3rd graders is costly to the taxpayers and devastating to the students. Do the math. It costs $10,000 to educate a student every year or $20,000 annually for a special needs student. Is it better to fail a student and create an extra year of that cost or to create a “bridge” program for students who have not mastered reading by the end of the third grade? It is better to provide an intensive intervention in literacy while covering a fourth grade curriculum and eventually place the students in the fourth grade classroom when they will be successful there.”

Wilson’s assessment could not be more devastatingly true. Clearly, retention is a fiscally irresponsible option. Even worse, it sets children back an entire year in their education by repeating the course of action that set them behind in the first place. Yet schools continue to opt against adopting more effective proven interventions because they are deemed “too expensive,” and legislators in several states are considering mandatory retention for low-performing third graders.

The Doing What Works initiative at the Center for American Progress takes one step forward in addressing this issue by educating school leaders on cost-effective, proven options that are available. School leaders can also refer directly to the government-funded What Works Clearinghouse, the Top Tier Evidence Initiative at the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, and the Best Evidence Encyclopedia from Johns Hopkins School of Education to find out what works for struggling readers. All of these sites provide comprehensive information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of education programs.

Wilson ends his post with the question: “What are your best interventions to help children read?” With all the resources that exist, we cannot simply throw up our hands when faced with this question. If the well-meaning legislators talking about mandatory retentions were aware of the evidence, they would see that retention is far from being the only solution to the problem of school failure.

For the latest on evidence-based education, follow me on twitter: @RobertSlavin

Disclosure Note: Robert Slavin is the Director of the Best Evidence Encyclopedia project at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

Building a Better System of Special Education

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Sputnik 26 Trains 11_16_11.JPGOnce upon a time, there was a train company that was experiencing a lot of accidents. The company commissioned an investigation which revealed that when accidents happened, damage was usually sustained to the last car in the train. As a result, the company sent out a memo to all station masters: Before each train left the station, the last car was to be removed.

The point of this old story, of course, is that the problem was not the last cars, it was the whole train system that allowed the accidents. In education, children with serious difficulties are the “last car”; their problems indicate something wrong with the whole system.

Ever since the first iteration of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, the U.S. special education system has primarily been built to make certain that children with very serious and unusual problems receive high-quality educational services and are as integrated as possible in general education. Yet the great majority of the roughly 12 percent of U. S. children ages 3-21 who have IEPs have milder difficulties. These are children with specific learning disabilities (49 percent of all those with IEPs), speech or language impairments (19 percent), or emotional disturbance (8 percent).

The problems these “high incidence” children experience are quite different from those of “low incidence” children with more pervasive problems, such as children with serious mental retardation, visual and auditory impairments, and orthopedic disabilities. Children with high-incidence disabilities have problems that can be prevented or solved using well-established interventions. For example, most children with reading difficulties just need effective classroom teaching supplemented by proven small-group or one-to-one tutoring. Most children who have emotional difficulties just need effective classroom management and proven behavioral strategies.

Policies for high-incidence special education are heading in a better direction. Currently popular “response to intervention” (RTI) strategies emphasize prevention and intensive intervention before assigning struggling students to special education. Yet RTI remains more of a concept than an actuality, as there are few proven and cost-effective interventions in wide use.

There are many elements that could be used in RTI models, such as proven small-group, one-to-one, and computer-assisted tutoring in reading and math, and proven classroom management strategies. Yet we still need proven, replicable approaches to make initial teaching much more effective, integrated, and personalized to the needs of particular children. This requires a serious focus on research and development to solve a broad range of problems. Yet, the overwhelming focus in special education has been on laws, regulations, and policies, rather than the nitty gritty of how to help teachers ensure success in the first place. New technologies offer hope not in replacing teachers but in helping them diagnose, teach, and assess progress with all sorts of children.

A system of schooling capable of solving learning and behavior problems far more effectively for children at risk would be much better than a system focused on where children sit. We know a lot about how to create such a system, and are capable of learning a great deal more. Of course we can build much more effective strategies for the most at-risk children, and if we do, education will be better for all children. This is the meaning of the train parable. The only way to reduce damage to the last car in the train is to build a better train system, which ensures that all cars make it to their destination successfully.