Unfunded state RTI mandate might do more harm than good

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Fourth grade teachers at AZ Kelley Elementary in Antioch meet to discuss struggling students' "intervention" plans as part of Response to Instruction and Intervention. Having strong RTI teams is one of the state's recommendations for successful implementation of the model.

There’s a girl in a Nashville school who stutters and, because of a physical disability, can’t write unassisted. She’s bright, so schoolwork is not a problem when she’s provided proper supports.

But a new, mandatory, but unfunded initiative being rolled out across Tennessee this year requires students to take short tests throughout the year to assess speed in reading, computing math problems, and, most difficult for the girl, writing.

To write anything in so little time — sometimes three minutes —  is physically impossible for her, and her stutter makes dictating what she wants to write difficult. Because of her performance on the writing screening test, her school assigned her to the group of  lowest performing students.

The initiative in question, called Response to  Instruction and Intervention (RTI2), is meant to save struggling students from falling through the cracks of the education system. But no state money came with the mandate to implement the program. That, combined with the program’s speedy roll-out,  mean that in some Tennessee schools RTI is doing more harm than good, experts say. 
Districts have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on assessments, and don’t have the money to hire educators with the expertise required to work with the highest needs students. Some schools are using their general education teachers, already stretched thin, and others are using computer programs.

When the Nashville girl’s teacher told the principal that that the screening test was misleading, and the girl actually didn’t need special interventions, the principal said nothing could be done. Fortunately, the teacher had a detailed knowledge of the system, and was able to get his student reassigned to the group working on grade level. Other students without teachers who are experts in the system might not be so lucky.

RTI: Origins and intent

RTI is an education framework used across the country  to identify students’ academic needs earlier than ever before. Its starting point, according to the RTI Action Network, is supposed to be high-quality instruction and “universal screening” of all children in the general education classroom, through quick tests of specific skills, like counting out loud, or recognizing numbers.

Students who struggle to complete the tasks are supposed to be provided with interventions at increasing levels of intensity, depending on their needs, in addition to receiving grade level instruction. If a student doesn’t respond to the interventions, which should be based on at least one scientific study on learning, he or she is referred to special education.

The Tennessee State Board of Education adopted RTI in 2013, and mandated that districts implement it beginning in the summer of 2014. According to the RTI2 instruction manual provided by the state, RTI2 is the sole criteria by which a student may be identified as having a Specific Learning Disability in the state of Tennessee as of July 1, 2014.

But the mandate to implement the intricate program came with no funds to do so.

That means that not only might RTI end up failing — it might end up exacerbating the very problems it was meant to fix.

“The implications of doing it […] not completely well is that children with serious learning problems will not get the intensity of intervention that they need, and they will languish and they will fall further behind,” said Douglas Fuchs, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education who has spent much of the past decade studying RTI, and creating materials to help make it work.

RTI was introduced to the educational mainstream in 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — a law meant to protect students with disabilities — was reauthorized. For the first time, RTI could be used to identify learning disabilities. Before that, students were often identified as having a learning disability if there was a large discrepancy between a child’s academic performance and his or her’s IQ, or “potential.”

“This [old] method of identifying learning disabilities has always had many critics,” Fuchs said, “and one of the main concerns has always been that there’s been a presumption that the children […] were receiving good academic instruction, when in fact they were often […] doing poorly because of poor instruction,” Fuchs said.

RTI is supposed to address that concern, he said, by giving kids the instruction they need early, in small groups with experts teachers, ruling out the possibility that their poor performance is rooted in limited instruction, and not a learning disability.

In the year leading up to the roll out, districts were charged with purchasing a “universal screener” — a short assessment used in schools across the country —  that tests kids’ progress, training their teachers to use it and make sense of the data it provides, scheduling time so students can get an hour of intervention a day, and finding personnel to provide that intervention.

According to the state RTI2 policy, students should be divided into three groups: the majority, on grade level, are in Tier 1, students in the bottom 25th percentile of students across the country  are in Tier 2, and students in the bottom 10th percentile are in Tier 3.

All students, regardless of tier, get an hour of intervention time a day. For Tier 2 and Tier 3, intervention time is spent in small groups, ideally of fewer than five students, working on specific skills, while for kids in Tier 1 it might be enrichment activities.

About every five weeks, teachers and the educators working with Tier 2 and Tier 3 students during the designated “intervention time” reconvene and talk about the progress of the individual students: what are they responding to? What are they still struggling with? What else is there to do?

Compensating for lack of funding

Some schools in Nashville used their Title 1 funds — money from the federal government to supplement the instruction of economically disadvantaged kids — to pay for teachers who can work with the highest needs kids for an hour each day. But other schools either didn’t have Title I funds or chose to spend that money on other programs.

At schools without teachers whose sole job is to focus on RTI,  classroom teachers have to work to find an extra hour a day to give students interventions, or school librarians or other school have to step in. Some schools invested in computer programs, a cheaper alternative to another staff member, instead, said Dottie Critchlow, the the head of instructional support for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“We aren’t as well staffed as we would like,” Critchlow said. “I don’t think we’re harming children, but as adults, we’re frustrated.”

Metro Nashville Schools has a waiver that allowed them to roll out RTI2 fully only at elementary schools this year and, partially in middle schools (they have less “intervention” time, and learning disabilities are still identified through IQ tests).  They have an added two years to spread it through high school.

Schools in the district also are allowed to have a smaller pool for the groups of students with more extensive academic needs — the bottom 7 percent, instead of the bottom 10 percent of students in Tier 3, and the bottom 16 percent instead of the bottom 25 percent in Tier 2 — because officials knew that the narrower their focus was, the more likely they’d be able to succeed.

But experts say an hour of intervention a day is unlikely to show meaningful results unless the person administering RTI knows what he or she is doing.

“It’s not worth it for a kid to be pulled out when the classroom teacher would probably be more qualified,” said Beth Ferri, a researcher at Syracuse University.

But, said Barb Stengel, another Peabody researcher who is helping schools implement RTI, “the schools by and large don’t have the bodies to do RTI right.” 

When RTI works correctly, Stengel said, the assessments help teachers identify struggling students, but ultimately, the teachers’ judgement dictates what and how the student is instructed.

Tennessee’s manual for RTI2 recognizes the importance of flexibility and teacher voice. But the RTI assessments are overemphasized in some schools because of overworked staff, or staff that just haven’t learned yet how to properly read the data from the assessments. Only a couple of staff members at each school in Nashville were directly trained in AimsWeb, the computer program owned by Pearson that the district uses for RTI.

As soon as a student catches up to grade level, or the next ‘tier,’ he or she should be able to move up a tier. But, Stengel says, she sometimes see places where students are kept in Tier 3 or Tier 2, either because people don’t have time to reassess students, or because there are too many children in the group the student belongs in, and there just isn’t room for them.

And, although teachers in Tennessee have discretion about which “interventions” they can use to help kids in Tier 2 and Tier 3, the interventions are supposed to be “evidenced based,” meaning there’s evidence from scientific studies that it works for most learners. But the idea that one-size-fits-most is a slippery slope, Ferri said.

“Even if a learning intervention worked for a significant number of learners, that doesn’t mean it will work for everybody,” she said.

Pockets of success

At schools that do have the resources to do RTI right, educators say they’re seeing positive change.

On a Monday morning in November, teachers at A.Z. Kelley Elementary gathered to look at their students data, and brainstorm about how to help students unable to catch up to their peers. A.Z. Kelley has three paid part-time educators to work Tier 2 and Tier 3 students, although even that’s not always enough: a fourth grade teacher has also had to take on a group of students during intervention hour.

Data is king at A.Z. Kelley, as it is at most schools: a bulletin board in the meeting room reads “Begin with the ending in mind,” with the schools’ proficiency targets on the TCAP listed below .

But just as important, if not more, to teachers and administrators was details about their students’ home lives and personalities, that can’t be put into spreadsheets. Sometimes a teacher would interject that an intervention might not be working not because of a learning disability, or faulty instruction, but because of turmoil at home. Or, a student did poorly on a timed RTI assessment not because she didn’t know how to do math, but because she’s a perfectionist, and does everything slowly.

The meetings are a way to make sure everyone in the school got to know more about the students they teach, and it promotes teamwork, said literacy specialist Terah Pring.

“[RTI]’s a beast,” she said, but, “it’s forcing us — and I’m loving it — to share ideas, to share strategies.”

“If a child who needs something and you don’t have an answer, you have a lot more heads.”

But, she said, “I can’t imagine how we’d do it without the interventionists.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Douglas Fuchs as Donald Fuchs.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.