Understanding RTI


Response to Intervention (RTI) is a multi-tiered method used by schools to determine whether a struggling student has language-learning disabilities or simply requires appropriate instruction to read at grade level

Prior to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, school districts used a “discrepancy model” to identify students with learning disabilities. If the gap—or discrepancy—between a student’s ability (as measured by IQ scores) and achievement exceeded a certain level, the child was classified as learning disabled.

School districts are no longer required to use IQ testing as a basis for classification. Instead, they are encouraged to implement a Response to Intervention (RTI) model.

“When the acronym RTI is used, what we’re really talking about is response to instruction.” Jack Fletcher, PhD

With RTI, students whose disabilities are attributable to instructional factors are given appropriate instruction in the regular classroom. Students whose learning difficulties persist despite appropriate instruction are referred to Special Education for more individualized, intensive interventions.

Studies have shown that 70 to 90 percent of students at-risk for reading difficulties in kindergarten through second grade learn to read in the average range within a year with appropriate instruction. With early intervention, the proportion of at-risk students drops from approximately 20 percent to 2 to 6 percent.

With RTI instead of saying, “if there’s a disorder, let’s determine the educational need” it posits “there’s a problem here; let’s figure out why.” Instead of simply establishing educational need, specific barriers to learning are identified. Comprehensive evaluations are still required, but it’s typically a different kind of evaluation because considerable data has been collected.

RTI is a multi-year, multi-stage process—not a “wait to fail” system based on performance at a single point in time. General and special education interventions are closely aligned into a single, tightly integrated system, as all students are general education students first. Students receive increasingly intensive and differentiated interventions, with the response to each intervention recorded.

A student with learning disabilities is one who does not respond adequately to quality instruction; he is hard to teach, but not unable to learn.

RTI: A Multi-Tiered Approach
In a three-tier model the process unfolds according to the student’s response:
  • Tier I provides enhanced general education classroom instruction for all students—not just those at risk.
  • Tier II offers more intensive, typically small-group intervention for those who have not responded adequately to Tier I efforts.
  • Tier III refers those students who do not make adequate progress despite appropriate instruction to Special Ed for a more intensive, science-based reading intervention in a small group or one-on-one.

This article is based on a presentation delivered by child neuropsychologist Jack M. Fletcher, PhD, at the “Response to Instruction” Summer Institute. Dr. Fletcher is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston and works on issues related to learning and attention problems. 

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