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.

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.