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.