When the regulations for IDEA 2004 became official not long ago, a new model came to town for identifying students as having a specific learning disability. It's called response to intervention, and is abbreviated as RTI or RtI.
To understand RtI and its implications fully you need to understand the previous model for deciding whether or not a child had a learning disability. That model, called the discrepancy model, compares IQ (on something like the WISC-IV) and achievement (usually measured with something like the WIAT) and examines the difference. The idea until now has been that if a child has the intelligence to learn at a particular level but isn't, that discrepancy between intelligence and achievement is evidence of a disability.
The problem was that it takes time, years in fact, for a discrepancy to become significant enough to be considered as a disability. In first grade there's not much to measure. And in second grade there's still not usually a big enough difference between intelligence and achievement to make the discrepancy model work.
When a teacher first suspects that a child may have a learning disability in the first or second grade, everyone felt trapped under the old discrepancy model. The child may well have had a disability, but we needed evidence of the disability in order to place the child in special education. So instead of getting help then, the child got watched more closely. It was kind of like having a rule that you can't throw a life preserver to a kid in the pool until their head goes under the third time. This year the child is just behind, next year the child will have a disability...
In contrast to the old discrepancy model, the RtI model begins looking for curricular intervention designed to catch the kid up as soon as they begin having problems - back in first or second grade. RtI has the potential then to allow disabilities to be identified and defined based on the response a child has to the interventions that are tried. At the very least, RtI can replace the pre-referal process for special education. And in theory, children with real disabilities could be identified and placed years earlier and children without disabilities won't be allowed to fall further and further behind simply to see if they have a learning disability.
The Reading First people have fleshed out the concept of RtI so that most educators today think of a detailed set of specifications when someone mentions RtI. Dallas Reading First has a website that describes the process of intervention well:
- Students get taught good stuff in a setting known as Tier I. This is the primary (or "core") instructional setting for all students.
- Sometimes a particular student needs more. So instruction gets supplemented with an "intervention." This is called Tier II. Students come and go in Tier II instruction for short periods of time to address specific areas where the student is falling behind or failing to "get it." Tier II usually involves 30 minutes of extra instruction a day in the content area of intervention. Usually there are no more than four or five students in a Tier II intervention session.
- When a student doesn't seem to benefit from 30 extra minutes in Tier II they get moved on up the intervention chart and start getting an extra hour a day (usually) at Tier III. Tier III interventions tend to be more individualized and involve one-on-one time with a specialist.
The Dallas Reading First site describes an intervention plan specifically for reading. And RtI is almost always thought of as a response to reading problems at the moment; but there is no reason the model couldn't be adapted to math or other content areas.
The Dallas Reading First website illustrates almost exactly what former International Reading Association President Richard L. Allington complained about in his article Research and the Three Tier Model in April of 2006. Students in Tier II in Dallas don't get help with what they did during Tier I instruction; instead they get more and different material on reading: they didn't understand McGraw-Hill so they get time in Voyager. But as Allington points out, that's not really a problem with the three tier model itself as much as with the manner in which the model is used.
Will RtI work? I suppose the more salient question becomes who will the RtI model work for? Will it work for the people who think it takes too long under the discrepancy model to identify a child who has a learning disability? Will it work for county administrators and other groups who sometimes feel that too many children are identified as having learning disabilities? And will it work for kids who don't really have a disability but do need help?
I'll take a look at some of the pros and cons of the RtI model in the near future...