The Pluses and Perils of RTI

by Perry A. Zirkel

Responsiveness to Intervention is the new hot-button item, not just for special education but more importantly for regular education leaders. The reason is this: Although RTI is a permissible and encouraged part of the new version of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it is a regular education activity and responsibility.

While potentially dovetailing nicely with the No Child Left Behind Act, the use of Responsiveness to Intervention means major changes in the districtwide configuration for instruction in reading, math and other basic skills of all students.

RTI, as authorized in the IDEA, is a multi-tiered process in regular education to identify students who warrant an evaluation to determine their eligibility for the special education classification of specific learning disability.

Service Tiers
The models of Responsiveness to Intervention vary, but they share these common elements: (1) scientific, research-based instruction for all students; (2) continuous progress monitoring for each individual child; and (3) based on the results of items 1 and 2, one or more additional tiers for more intensive or different interventions.

In a three-tier model, Tier I would provide research-based instruction. Tier II would provide an increased dose of such instruction, typically via smaller groups, for those who fail to make sufficient progress on state-established benchmarks after an appropriate period in Tier I. Tier III would provide additional or alternate scientific-based instruction in small groups or even one-on-one instruction for those who do not respond at Tier II. Referral to a special education evaluation would be the remaining step for students who continue to fall short of adequate yearly progress benchmarks.

Advocates for RTI maintain it is far better than the traditional approach of requiring a severe discrepancy between ability (usually an IQ score) and achievement for eligibility of a specific learning disability. When done well, the advocates say, RTI will reduce special education enrollments and be more effective than severe discrepancy in avoiding false positives and false negatives in terms of eligibility.

Severe Discrepancy
The 2004 amendments of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act expressly permit RTI and no longer require severe discrepancy to be used as part of the eligibility process for classifying students with specific learning disability. The new IDEA also allows districts to use up to 15 percent of their federal special education funds for "early intervening services" in regular education.

The subsequent regulations, issued in August 2006, encourage the use of RTI by requiring that whatever the approach is that the state provides and the district elects for eligibility of specific learning disability, the process must include these elements that are associated with RTI:

• reading fluency as an additional area for the "specific," in addition to the previous seven alternatives, which include reading comprehension, basic reading, written expression, math calculation and math problem solving;

• consideration of "data that demonstrate that prior to or as a part of the referral process, the child was provided appropriate instruction in regular education settings delivered by qualified personnel;" and

• consideration of "data-based documentation of repeated assessments of achievement at reasonable intervals, reflecting formal assessment of student progress during instruction, which was provided to the child's parents."

Under the regulations, the first required choice is at the state level, and most states are likely to adopt laws that pass the buck to the local districts. In such cases, the options for the district are (1) use RTI, (2) continue to use severe discrepancy, or (3) use another research-based alternative, which apparently includes a combination of models.

The Advantages
The potential benefits of choosing Responsiveness to Intervention in this context are considerable.

First and foremost, by providing systematic and successive problem-solving instructional tiers in regular education leading to an inclusive special education model, RTI may mean a coordinated continuum integrating regular and special education rather than the current separate silos.

Second, this is a way districts and schools may accomplish two pressing needs — achieving adequate yearly progress under NCLB and avoiding over-identification under IDEA — while using the funds from both sources hand in hand.

Third, RTI may serve as a lever for instructional reform in regular education that benefits all children.

Fourth, it may systematically spread beyond eligibility for specific learning disability to other significant outcomes in schools, such as improvement of student behavior.

Unanswered Questions
The potential costs are equally imposing. Moreover, using RTI properly requires careful systemwide planning, an effective change process, agile reorganization and a major investment in staff development and materials. The primary responsibility belongs in regular education, with special education functioning as an essential partner by way of consultation and coordination.

On the other hand, providing only a lip-service commitment to RTI has the potential of increasing (1) the number of children identified with a specific learning disability, which already accounts for half of all special education students nationwide; (2) friction between special and regular education; and (3) costly litigation concerning not only eligibility but also "free appropriate public education" under the IDEA.

Finally, the practical, implementation questions, are many. They serve as caution markers, not deal breakers. Some examples:

• Will parents prevail on "child-find" claims of belated identification during the multi-tiered pre-evaluation process?

• Will RTI work effectively in the non-reading areas of eligibility and at the high school level?

• What is the best way to deal with students previously identified under a discrepancy approach by the district or, upon transferring in, by private schools or other districts?

• Will students who respond to intervention at Tiers 2 and 3 successfully filter back into Tier 1?

• What will be the state and local definition of "sufficient progress to meet age or state-approved grade-level standards" and for the "appropriate period" for not making such progress?

• What will be the subsequent elements of the evaluation for eligibility of a specific learning disability?

Perry Zirkel is university professor of education and law at Lehigh University, Mountaintop Campus, 111 Research Drive, Bethlehem, PA 18015.