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Implementing RTI in schools

4 min read


Response to intervention (RTI) is most often associated with structures in schools. However, we believe that structures, while perhaps complex and new, will not prove to be overwhelming in the end. Fundamentally, we view RTI as organized, systematic passion with the socially just goal of all students graduating prepared for college or a skilled career. It’s culture, nurturing and sustaining passion, that will challenge us in the critical work of RTI. What do we mean by culture?

A positive school culture is rich in trust and respect; there is recognition that collaborative processes are foundational. New initiatives are not repeatedly and haphazardly begun; depth is valued over breadth. All students are valued and expected to make significant gains in learning. Factors that may inhibit gains are viewed as temporary obstacles that will be overcome and challenges that will be met. All staff accept responsibility for all students — students in other classrooms, students in other grade levels, students with disabilities, students who speak another language at home. The status quo is never accepted — as expectations for students increase, schools accept continuous improvement as the habit of great organizations. When areas for improvement are identified, change is embraced and all variables are considered — we’ll do whatever it takes. Schools view adult behaviors as having the most effective and significant influence on student learning and behaviors.

There are practices that we can predict will not lead to positive cultures:

  • In our experiences, top-down decisions never result in sustained change. While we believe strongly in leadership and in leaders leading, we believe that a balance of centralized and de-centralized decision-making is the wisest, most respectful, and most productive way in which RTI should be initiated. A collaborative approach to designing and implementing a system of supports for all students will more likely result in enthusiastic implementation.
  • Staff must receive initial and ongoing supports on RTI-based endeavors. We have observed many willing staffs that struggle with tasks such as organizing their collaborative problem-solving, diagnosing student needs, or monitoring progress, because they did not receive an appropriate quality and/or quantity of professional development. Human, fiscal and temporal resources must be budgeted to support staffs in initiating and sustaining RTI.
  • Death-by-initiative is a condition plaguing many school systems and organizations. A new idea or program every year is bound to leave staff feeling overwhelmed and certain to guarantee that no idea is optimally employed on behalf of students. We understand the dilemma — there are many areas to which our attention needs to be given, and there are many ideas and practices that would potentially benefit staff and students. We must accept the likelihood, however, that a single, wisely-chosen initiative in one area of schooling can actually impact many of the areas in which we support students.
  • Perhaps the greatest impediment to all students learning at the depth and complexity required to graduate ready for college or a skilled career is that we continue to attempt to cover an unrealistic number of standards instead of ensuring that students master those standards that we have identified as the highest priority. We fear that a significant number of students have been diagnosed with a learning disability simply because we have too quickly attempted to cover an unreasonable number of standards. While standards are important for defining the content that we will ensure students learn, we are actually teaching students to problem solve and think critically.
  • The basic principles of RTI have occurred in isolated classrooms for as long as classrooms have existed. By our definition, however, interventions that are not provided systemically will not fully realize the potential of response to intervention. RTI must be built upon and be powered by collaborative teams, and collaborative teams will most powerfully meet student needs by implementing the practices of RTI.

RTI is organized passion — the passionate actions that embody the collective belief that all students will learn at high levels. Moreover, RTI represents the most comprehensive, research-based, and logical set of solutions that will ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college or a skilled career. There are not many educators with whom we interact who doubt the wisdom of RTI. While a few of these committed colleagues report that they still come across educators who are intimidated by the changes required by 21st century learning — an intimidation that can come across as reluctance to change — most of our colleagues simply want change to be skillfully led. Let’s commit to leadership — for our colleagues and our students.

Chris Weber (@Chi_educate) is an expert on behavior, mathematics and response to intervention strategies. He is an author and Solution Tree and Leadership and Learning Center associate. Weber is a former teacher and administrator in California and Chicago.