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.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.