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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”