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Field Trip: Why RTI?
Why do Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports matter? In this interview, we speak with Jim Wright, author of The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools, about his experience in RTI and how schools can impact students with academic and behavioral tiered intervention systems.
We ask Jim about:
- The relationship of school culture and climate to RTI and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS)
- The relationship between RTI and special education
- The impact RTI/MTSS has on student outcomes
- Current trends in RTI/MTSS
- The roadblocks schools face when starting an RTI model, and steps to take to ensure a successful launch
- Featured Content: eBook: “Performing an RTI/MTSS Academic Screening Process Check-Up,” by Jim Wright
- National Center on Intensive Intervention: Academic Progress-monitoring Tools Chart
Resources from the Florida Center for Reading Research, with a range of school-wide academic screeners suitable for use in RTI/MTSS.
- Grades K-1 Student Center Activities
- Grades 2-3 Student Center Activities
- Grades 4-5 Student Center Activities
Resources from the Evidence-Based Intervention Network — research-based ideas for reading, math and behavior interventions, co-sponsored by school psychology programs at East Carolina University and the University of Missouri.
All over the U.S., people are doing amazing things in the world of K-12 education.
JIM WRIGHT: The big difference between RTI and MTSS is that Response to Intervention is seen as an academic model. Multi-tiered systems of support that you mentioned is the same approach. It’s just that we’re now talking about trying to build three levels of support that sort of incrementally move up, but doing it for both academic and behavioral, social, emotional, and really making that a blended system.
They’re creatively solving problems, making strategic decisions, finding new ways to meet the needs of students and teachers alike. And we’re talking to them – experts in the field, thought leaders, superintendents, principals, special educators and more.
JIM WRIGHT: So the gains are actually, if you think about a forest fire, a small flame that you spot, you address it, put it out, that’s far better than saying, “Well, you know what, we’ll wait three weeks,” and down the line, we’ll try to take that fire on, it’s going to be far beyond our ability to manage. That proactive stance for RTI really is the greatest benefit.
Every other Friday, we share those conversations here. From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
Today, we’re talking about Response to Intervention, or RTI, and multi-tiered systems of support, or MTSS. This model of supporting students who are struggling academically or behaviorally is not new, but many school districts are considering how to implement such a model for the first time. Today my guest is Jim Wright, a highly acclaimed speaker, author and trainer who works with districts and their RTI/MTSS programs. He’s the author of The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools, and is the creator of the website InterventionCentral.org. He has also spent 17 years working in public education as a school psychologist and administrator, and as we’ll see, that work is highly relevant to the field of RTI. Jim, thanks for being here today.
JIM WRIGHT: Well, thank you. Nice to be here.
Let’s get some background first. While you now work as a trainer and consultant to schools. You still primarily think of yourself as a school psychologist. Tell us about your time in that role. Where did you work and how long did you do that job?
JIM WRIGHT: I worked in a small city in New York state called a Syracuse and about 21,000 students in that system and as a school psychologist I worked there for about 14 years. I found that a lot of teachers were coming up to me and not asking to have kids tested — they were actually asking for ideas to help these kids be more successful in the classroom. So that really got me hooked and trying to find intervention ideas and strategies to share with teachers, and I’ve been doing that ever since.
I asked Jim to tell me about his time as a school psychologist. What issues did he run into, and how did they relate to interventions?
JIM WRIGHT: You know, it was a mix as it would be for any psychologist, and to some degree I had some latitude to shape that role. I certainly had a lot of the more traditional kind of testing duties to decide whether a child might qualify for a learning disability or other special need. But I had the opportunity also to consult with teachers around behavioral issues that kids might be having. I had great opportunities at the school level to kind of work with them to decide how, school-wide, we’re going to do an even better job of providing support to teachers to help them work with students.
I certainly was trying to dig into the emerging research, into what turned out to be RTI, and share that with my school administrator and with teachers. Near the end of my position as a school psychologist in Syracuse, I was appointed the coordinating school psychologist, which means that I was sort of overseeing a staff of 25 plus psychologists. At that more indirect level, I was trying to have impact in all the schools to have them thinking with more of an intervention mindset.
Jim, what would you say was most rewarding for you in your role?
JIM WRIGHT: As a school psychologist? You know, for me it was when I was able to sit down with a teacher who says they have a child who is really struggling with reading in the classroom or is struggling with attention, and I’m able to offer some strategies that they were able to go back and use right away.
I remember there was one particular teacher, Wendy, a third grade teacher at that school who had a student who was really struggling with behavior and my sitting with her and really being able to map out some great ways to approach the student, to reinforce the student for appropriate behavior, to minimize attention when the student was showing less desirable behaviors. And she really saw that student turn around based on that quick conversation.
So again, as I mentioned before, that’s really how I got hooked on this notion of intervention, that good strategies, well-shared and well implemented, really can I can make a huge difference for kids who are struggling in classrooms.
There’s a lot of talk today about things like school culture and school climate. How does the work that you’re doing now and the work that you did as a school psychologist impact culture, climate and environment?
JIM WRIGHT: I think the way I would get an answer to that question is, there’s a sort of an emerging movement. It’s been around for a while, but people have heard about it, PBIS — positive behavioral interventions and supports. And that’s a whole sort of a mindset that says, quite appropriately, “If we really want students, children, to be able to show appropriate behaviors, and if we really want to have a nurturing and supportive school climate, we should actually define our behavioral expectations up front, those positive behaviors we want to see in classrooms. And then we should treat behavior as part of our school curriculum — really an extension of that.”
So if I want my students to be treating each other civilly, respectfully, I need to teach what those behavioral expectations are. I need to encourage students, I need to reinforce them when they show those behaviors.
The work that I’ve been doing as a school psychologist that really has pushed into this whole issue of school culture, I think, is really just helping schools to realize that behaviors aren’t something that are full-fledged and kids bring into our classrooms. Behaviors, those expectations, are something that we will craft together, teacher and students, in that environment, and we really need to teach those expected behaviors.
Is that concept something that is relatively well known and well understood across the k 12 landscape? Or is that still something that is sort of newer thinking?
JIM WRIGHT: That’s a great question. I certainly know that this whole push for that positive behavioral focus has been out there nationally, in the research journals and grants and state ed initiatives for something close to two decades now. But I’ve also worked in a number of schools where they still have kind of an earlier mindset, they would say, “Well, if you want to teach kids behavioral expectations, you need to have clear negative consequences to kind of teach them.”
There’s more of a reactive, almost a punitive, approach, which was traditional in schools. I think we’re seeing, Ryan, that there’s a paradigm shift going on here. I think we’ve made some great headway, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in schools across the nation, at least in my experience.
As we’re talking about interventions and RTI, also known as multi-tiered systems of support. These, of course, are known by different names in different states, and because they’re not always required by the government, programs like this aren’t universal. Let’s take a step back and just ask, when we talk about RTI and MTSS, what is that all about? What’s the elevator pitch there?
JIM WRIGHT: The elevator pitch is this: we have limited resources in schools. We want to make sure that we identify those children who really need extra support and we provide that support, but we do it in a way that’s economical, that’s feasible and that is really going to help those students.
So this whole RTI response to intervention approach says, “Maybe we can take our school-wide resources and organize them according to levels of intensity.” We actually used the term “tiers.” And the most common model says that you’re going to have three levels of support. Tier 1 would be that classroom teacher, the support that she’s able, he’s able to provide in that classroom for behavioral or academic success.
Moving beyond that, you get more into Tier 2, that child who is delayed academically or behaviorally, require kind of supplemental support to fill in some of those gaps. And then often they’re fine and they’re able to go back to that classroom and be successful.
And then Tier 3, at the top of our levels of what we call our pyramid of interventions, we’d be talking about the most intensive needs students. Maybe one to five percent of the school population, who really need more intensive problem solving and customized intervention plans to meet their unique needs.
The big difference between RTI and MTSS is that Response to Intervention is seen as an academic model. Multi-tiered Systems of Support that you mentioned is the same approach. It’s just that we’re now talking about trying to build three levels of support that sort of incrementally move up, but doing it for both academic and behavioral, social, emotional, and really making that a blended system.
I know that when we’re talking about interventions like this, it is not the same thing as special education, but it does sound like there are some parallels or some tie there. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the two?
JIM WRIGHT: Sure. First of all, I’m really glad that you mentioned that RTI/MTSS is not special ed — for the most part it’s general ed, and that’s the whole point.
Maybe I can talk about the relationship between RTI and special ed by talking about how RTI got started. There was a real concern out there before RTI that we were giving kids intensive help when they struggled, but first of all we’d have to wait until they fail, and they’d fail for several years and then they might get an IEP, they would get special ed support. The problem with that, of course, is that it was very wasteful, and as kids struggled for several years and then got an IEP, that gap in math skills or reading skills was so large, it was very difficult to close that gap. So that pre-RTI approach was derisively called the “wait to fail” model.
So then the RTI movement got started because people were saying, “Wait a minute, why do we have to wait three or four years for a student to qualify with a learning disability, when in fact it might just be an instructional mismatch — when on day one, once we identify a small gap in general ed, maybe we can give that student an intervention plan to provide targeted academic supports, catch them up and then we never have to worry about an IEP?” So the RTI movement actually got it’s start based on some dissatisfaction with the previous special ed model.
But the RTI model itself, the MTSS model, use the term you choose, does have a lot of elements that really came out of special ed research. For example, in RTI, when we have a student who’s struggling, we really want to define that student’s presenting concerns as clearly and specifically as we can.
That really comes from special ed that says, “If you can’t name it, you certainly can’t fix the problem.” And then RTI also pushes this notion, which I strongly support, that if we’re going to be using strategies or programs to help a student to reach success in a classroom, those strategies or programs really do need to have research to support them. And again, that comes out of Special Ed. We want to use good, well-researched strategies and programs to help kids be successful.
And then there’s a final element of RTI that also got its impetus from special ed. And that is the notion that if a student is getting something that we’re calling an intervention, let’s say across several weeks, targeted for just that student’s needs, we’ve set clear goals for improvement and we’re collecting some kind of data that’s going to tell us clearly whether that student has benefited from that intervention. So it’s really data-based. That whole collection — clearly define the problem, match that student to research-based interventions, set a very clear outcome goal so you’ll be able to define if you’re successful at the end, and then collect data formatively to judge whether you’re making the progress you’d expect — all of those elements really stemmed from seminal special ed research, and then really pushed into the RTI general ed model.
When you see school systems successfully implement models like this, does it typically result in anything like financial savings as they’re able to address student behaviors prior to a special needs diagnosis coming into play and needing to refer them to special education?
JIM WRIGHT: Let me think that one through. What I would say in response to that is, in my experience at least, is that we don’t necessarily see a large cost savings. What we do see, however, is that we realign how we’re spending our money and we get better outcomes. So in the pre-RTI special ed paradigm, we certainly had a number of special education staff, highly skilled, working with a fairly large number of special needs students — many of those students getting into the special ed system because they failed in general ed and we hadn’t addressed those concerns.
With RTI though, the goal, and often the actual outcome, is that we see a reduction in number of students referred to special education. But of course up front, before that special education referral, we’re now investing more heavily in general education. We’re actually giving these students targeted RTI support, so we may be shifting the investment from supporting special educators to supporting proactive RTI interventionists.
However, the encouraging piece, even if this were a zero sum game in terms of investment, is that we are seeing better outcomes. Obviously the student who’s successful in general ed never needs an IEP. The gains there, even if they’re not financial, are profound, because now we have a successful student who goes on, is confident, they have the skillset that they need to be full-fledged working adults and they graduate successfully as well. So not necessarily seeing that there is a cost savings, but we are seeing that there are other, maybe less tangible but profound, benefits.
I was going to ask, “What are the most common kinds of things you see? Things you see in school systems that an RTI or MTSS behavioral model can help?” but I want to expand on your previous answer and just ask, “What are the most common benefits that are seen when this kind of model is implemented? What sorts of results do you wind up seeing?”
JIM WRIGHT: Actually, what we end up seeing is exactly what to expect. Let’s just take the academic side of MTSS, multi-tiered systems of support. A student who has an emerging reading issue, maybe she’s just not a fluent reader. And so in the model I mentioned, that student may struggle with inadequate support in building that fluency, until at some point her fluency gap is so large that it becomes a functional disability and she’s given an IEP.
So from the RTI model, school-wide we might screen students three times a year using some kind of a measure that’s sensitive to picking up on reading fluency. We’d identify, “This child is having an emerging reading issue in fluency,” and she would go right into a targeted group to work on fluency. So the student who might’ve had a cascading fluency issue that eventually several years from now becomes disabling, we would actually pick that student up with an emergent concern, address the concern, close the gap and have her back in the classroom and be successful.
So the gains are actually, if you think about a forest fire, a small flame that you spot, you address it, put it out — that’s far better than saying, “Well, you know what, we’ll wait three weeks, and down the line, we’ll try to take that fire on.” It’s going to be far beyond our ability to manage. That proactive stance for RTI really is the greatest benefit. When smaller problems begin to emerge — and they’re still manageable — we immediately target that support to those students based on some kind of referral data, and we solve that issue, they’re back in the classroom, and we don’t even have to think about that possible trip to Special Ed.
What is the relationship between school psychology and multi-tiered systems of support? Is MTSS basically a school psychology program on a broader scale?
JIM WRIGHT: I would not say that. There are a lot of really skilled and highly qualified people and school psychologists who both created this MTSS model and had been really pushing it out there. But I will say that school psychology as a discipline has taken a strong lead role, and really both defining, researching and promoting MTSS in schools across the nation.
In fact, many school psychology programs have become very progressive in emphasizing intensively this role of the psychologist in their training programs, the role of the psychologist in really promoting MTSS — everything from the psychologist being able to identify for the school strong programs and practices that would work under MTSS, training the psychologist to be really sensitive in her skills or his skills, being able to work with teachers to help change their practice for the better, using MTSS methods. How that psychologist is getting training in their school psych programs, often in how to work at the administrative level to start changing school leaders’ minds and shifting people more toward an MTSS model.
But speech pathology, special education, counseling — there have been a lot of other disciplines that have also had a hand in pushing MTSS forward in schools.
You’ve likened this work to juggling. Do you juggle?
JIM WRIGHT: I juggle. I juggle badly and I’m proud of it. Thanks for asking.
Can you talk about the connection there, the parallel between juggling and all these things as a school psychologist and the efforts there in an MTSS program?
JIM WRIGHT: I’ll open this up to any educator who gets involved with RTI, because when you think about response to intervention, when you think about multi-tiered systems of support, if someone feels pretty well-versed in that as an approach, it’s everything I already mentioned: can you define the problem clearly? Can you identify where there are research based practices that are going to help with that? Can you find data sources? They’re going to tell you if the intervention is working. Can you convince your fellow educator or teacher to be on board and implement some of these intervention strategies?
And so we’re literally juggling any educator who is supporting RTI. We’re juggling new skills and expectations that many of us traditionally weren’t trained in and where RTI really works in schools and works well, is where it doesn’t depend on… I mean, I love school psychologists and school psychology, but schools that are successful with RTI are schools that have managed to get beyond that, and have really trained and empowered a range of educators.
It could be the speech pathologist, it could be a special ed teacher, it could be a really interested general ed teacher. And with this cadre of people from different disciplines but trained in the same skill set and mindset to support RTI, that’s how we make that work. So we’re essentially creating, if you will, a school-wide collection of jugglers, and increasingly people are getting comfortable with that.
Obviously, such programs are designed to help students. You’ve spoken about that already. What does an ideal system in a district look like? Or maybe a better way to ask it is, what are the ideal student outcomes that we would hope to see?
JIM WRIGHT: In a nutshell, the good thing about RTI/MTSS is that while there are some general non-negotiables, “If you want to make this model work, here’s what you need,” there is also a lot of latitude for schools to make it their own.
A great example of that: I mentioned before, there are three levels of support, tiers 1, 2, 3. On the academic side, an important tier is tier two. Because if I have a student whose academic needs are beyond the ability of that classroom teacher alone to catch the student up, because there are gaps, we have a supplemental provider who may typically pull that student into a small remedial group, target the missing skills that they need to work on and help them to catch up. But the way that we actually enter kids into and exit them from those tier two services is typically by using this researched school-wide screener, which is a fast way to get a sense of students’ academic abilities, because that allows us to compare that student in percentile rankings to other kids across the nation and get a sense of the risk.
The student who performs fourth grade in reading fluency at 50th percentile is going to be fine in a classroom. No support needed. Another student who scored at the fifth percentile, guess what? That’s high risk. We probably should get them right into intervention.
So, when I think about what makes RTI work in schools, it’s really about making sure that they’ve got those essential non negotiables, that they’ve thought about this continuum of supports from tier one, two, tier three, they define them. They feel those are solid research based approaches, that they address all the needs in the school. And one way that a school judges whether it’s got a good model put in place is exactly what you mentioned: the outcomes.
We’re also regularly looking at our student performance. So when we’re screening kids three times a year using some kind of school-wide screener to judge which kids might need tier two support, over time, as we strengthen our core instruction, we want to see the numbers of kids who need that supplemental support drop.
Initially a school might find 30 or 40 percent of students really need that supplemental support. Well, that’s too many. But as they work on trying to help teachers to strengthen core instruction, at the next school-wide screening, we really do want to see that number of kids who might need help beyond the classroom drop, because core instruction is now more effective.
So I guess what I’d say about RTI is, it’s about setting up the model. It’s about tinkering with the model. It’s about looking about looking at data that reflect on the effectiveness of the model and then being willing to make changes so that you’re going to keep moving in that direction that shows that more kids are successful.
Do such programs also benefit educators as well as students?
JIM WRIGHT: I’d say absolutely. Why are teachers in the business of teaching? They have a passion for teaching, they really want to help learners to be successful. And the whole notion and push of RTI is to do exactly that. Let’s identify those students who are beginning to have emerging issues and let’s give teachers and support staff a toolkit, so that the moment we see a student with some concerning delays, we’re able to match that student to intervention.
And so teachers have to get trained in this RTI framework that I’ve already mentioned. Instead of globally being concerned about a student, they’re able to target and clearly describe the area they need to work on — clear definition. Schools that are proactive put together for teachers a handy toolkit of intervention strategies that are commonly needed at that grade level, so teachers can easily find and implement intervention ideas.
Each teacher is not left on their own to find those strategies. Teachers begin to learn some classroom friendly ways to collect data. Everybody wants to know if their interventions strategies are working. Nobody wants to just wing it. And so as teachers start to absorb that framework to find the problem, let’s use researched-based ideas. Let’s take data, see if the invention’s working. When that becomes second nature, that educator definitely is stronger in her or his instructional skills. There’s no question.
In your travels, are you finding that districts are seeing results from using an RTI or MTSS method?
JIM WRIGHT: Yes, they are. I just want to jump in and say “Absolutely,” but I want to say this too: several things have to be in place. Because I work with a lot of school districts, and sometimes I parachute into a district, it’s my first visit. I’ve found some pretty fast ways to get a sense of whether, diagnostically, the school looks like it’s going to be successful with RTI.
The first kind of litmus test I have is, I get a sense from schools about whether they believe that RTI really is a general ed initiative and if they do, then that’s a good sign. But if schools are thinking, “Well, no, this is just another way to eventually get a kid into a special ed,” that’s a concern because they don’t see the full potential of RTI.
I also try to get a quick bead on whether school administrators, once they kind of understand that RTI model, and district administrators, do they really support it? I mean actively, in that real proactive way. If there’s administrative support and understanding, that’s huge. If that’s lacking, well that’s a real warning sign that RTI might not be successful in that district.
Lastly, as I’m canvassing districts to get a sense of their capacity and whether they’re ready for RTI, I try to get a sense of whether the school has defined some kind of a meaningful RTI role for every staff member, because we can all help out with RTI.
That classroom teacher with a student who has a minor but emerging behavioral or academic concern, if that teacher knows exactly what they can and should do to provide that spot-on support to help that student, that’s a good predictor that we’re actually going to have a successful system. But ultimately when you’ve got schools where six people in the school are trying to do all of RTI, and the rest of the staff really don’t have a defined role, that’s a school that’s not likely to be successful.
Schools that know that RTI is a general ed initiative, where the administrators are on board and every staff member has some defined role to support RTI, when I see those elements in place, I have a lot of confidence that they’re going to see success.
You mentioned already looking at data, what data are they looking at and how are district is collecting it?
JIM WRIGHT: Well, you know, data play different roles at different points. If it’s classroom teacher and she or he is just trying to get a sense of their classroom about who might be struggling with core instruction, they’re going to look at their instructional information — sometimes it’s quizzes, sometimes it’s homework, sometimes it’s in-class work samples — and they’ll respond accordingly.
When we want to get a sense, though, of who might need more intensive support beyond the classroom, which I’ve already defined with you as tiers two and three of RTI, that’s where we’re ideally using some school-wide screeners. School-wide screeners come in a variety of packages and styles, but there is a great webpage maintained by the National Center on Intensive Intervention. It’s an academic intervention tools chart that will lay out for your listeners a range of research based school-wide screeners for academics that schools can really check out, and actually some for behavior as well.
So there what we’re doing is, we’re screening our school population three times per year. We’re applying our benchmark norms to get a sense of which students are performing below a cut point or maybe 20th or 25th percentile on that school-wide screener to get a sense of who is at risk. Those students would be candidates to move into tier two and three levels of support. So that’s where we’re using data to enter and exit students for more intensive services.
And then our final use of data within those interventions at tiers two and three, those might often last six to eight weeks. Maybe it’s a reading group or a math skills group. Even in those supplemental kind of intervention groups, the expectation is that interventionist is taking some kind of data, ideally weekly, so that they can get a sense of which students are really benefiting from that group and maybe could be exited over time, and what students really need different or more intensive support. So we might even be taking data day to day or week to week in those tier two or three groups. So data plays a pervasive role, but it plays a somewhat different role depending on the intensity of the intervention and the purpose of the data collection.
Thinking of districts who might be thinking about starting a program like this, at this point in time, do you see many schools or many districts that are starting RTI and MTSS programs for the first time?
JIM WRIGHT: I do. Here’s the thing. We talked about RTI, and it sounds like it is its own thing — we’ve called it a program or a model. But what it really is, is a systematic attempt to help kids who are struggling. And virtually every school district and school I ever visited has real concerns about those students in their school, those subpopulations, the kids who are really, really struggling.
So when someone asks a question, “Gosh, should our schools start RTI?” I ask the question, “Do you have any kids who are struggling that you’re worried about?” The answer is “Yeah, we do. We have a lot of them.” I say, “Then you need RTI, because RTI is the approach that allows you to systematically identify which pockets of kids have needs, what those needs are, how you might use your school resources most economically and effectively to address those needs, and how you might be able to measure whether you’re effective.”
What I discovered as I’ve worked with schools that say they’re not doing RTI is that sometimes, in a stumbling fashion, they’re actually doing something that you could call RTI. Classroom teachers are trying, without much direction, to support kids in classrooms. There are often Title I teachers who are trying to work with small groups of kids for supplemental support, but there may not be a lot of coordination. There is often something floating around their school, a team that they call the instructional support team or a similar name, that meets about particular kids that nobody else knows what to do with.
As far as I’m concerned, I just named for you tiers one, two, and three, but they don’t call it that. For many schools, they have the wrong question in mind: “Should we take on this new initiative?” when in fact it should be reframed as, “Should we use the RTI model to reorganize our existing resources to do a better job?”
Anytime you set up a system like this, that’s a difficult thing to do. It’s much harder, it seems, then just making one-off efforts. Setting up a system district- or school-wide is challenging. What are the big roadblocks that are most commonly faced to getting something like this up and running?
JIM WRIGHT: That very much depends on the school. I will say probably the biggest roadblock might be what I’ve already alluded to: when this is rolled out, an initiative like RTI/MTSS, if it’s presented as, “Here’s something new we need to do,” everybody shuts down because everybody has too much on their plate already in schools.
If, instead, we’re saying, “Well, we want to take our best current practices to support kids, and we want to find a way to refine and improve that, and also, if possible, teacher, we’d like to make your life better and easier and have you feel more effective.” That’s a school that’s gone a long way toward getting people to buy into that system-wide change.
It’s got to be incremental. We don’t want to make the mistake in schools of trying to rush this, because schools can only move forward with RTI at a rate that is sustainable, given the resources. And schools can only move forward with RTI at a rate where staff is able to assimilate those changes in expectation.
But your question was a good one, because sometimes people start RTI and they think it’s this one thing, and that it’s pretty easy to do, and when you’re done, you’ll be done. And I think your question points out the fact that RTI really is a school- and district-wide comprehensive reform and change. So you really do need to plan it, you need to get all your stakeholders on board and you need to roll it out at a sustainable rate.
I think you started to answer my next question just now, and that is, making a big change like this can be like trying to turn around a 747. What steps can schools or districts take not just to get buy-in from staff, but in order to really ensure a successful launch?
JIM WRIGHT: You know, this is going to sound kind of mundane, but I think the first thing to do is to make sure that the key decision makers — and that’s not just administrators, that’s often highly influential support staff and teachers in schools and at the district level — need to come together as a task force or group, and they really need to fully understand what the model is asking.
And then they should also formulate a plan for how they might unfold and roll out RTI in their school. That plan should span at least three years, and I bring that up because there are some elements of RTI that the school might say, “You know what, we can get on that right away.” For example, building staff understanding and awareness of RTI is typically a year one task that schools take on.
We obviously want to educate our teachers and support staff about why we’re going to do RTI, but some elements of RTI — for example, tier two supports, supplemental, pulling kids out of classrooms, putting them in small intervention groups — in some schools, to revamp that system, they have to change schedules, they’ve got to change job descriptions. They’ve got to do all kinds of things that they can’t do right away.
Some of these changes in RTI, honestly, they’re not going to get to until year two or three. So when you’ve got a district or school that has this task force, this implementation group for RTI/MTSS, who first, really understand the model, and second, have begun to block out what they need to do in increments that span several years, that helps them because a) it tells them where they throw their energy and priorities now, and b) this is just as important, it really tells them what they can wait on, what they don’t need to do right away, so that people don’t feel overwhelmed, and so we don’t find ourselves flailing because we’re trying to do too much too quickly.
One final question here and that is, in your travels, as you have seen lots of districts who are doing this and you think about veteran RTI/MTSS districts, those who are already using this kind of model, if you have one piece of advice for people in those kinds of districts, what might you say?
JIM WRIGHT: I think what I would do there is just remind them that it’s helpful to periodically come back together. I call it recalibration, because we’ll set up a wonderful system that’s working pretty well. We’ll tweak it over time. It’s hard-earned, but it’s working. And there is the temptation to say, “All right, we’re done with that.” But we tend to drift away a little bit from these great procedures we’ve set up.
Schools, like every other organization, have turnover in staff, so you have this charismatic person who is running a lot of RTI in a school year. He retires or takes another position, and you can lose some of that impetus. So I think for schools that are really veteran RTI/MTSS schools, it really can be helpful, periodically, to pull together that group that I defined before as your task group, your implementation group for RTI, and just say, “Okay, let’s just review what our current system is. Let’s refresh our understanding of current best practices for RTI. Let’s look for any possible gaps, shortfalls, concerns, and then let’s try to recalibrate. Let’s try to get ourselves back into alignment.” It’s almost like you’re doing an update/shakeout cruise to make sure that our current practices aren’t drifting away from the best possible practices.
The real push — and RTI initially was for academics and that’s great, because that’s where we had the most pressing concern, at least as it was perceived. But that whole notion of MTSS, just the adoption of that term implies that we want to have that strong support for students on the behavioral, social, emotional side as well as academics.
So for schools that feel like they’re doing a pretty good job with academics for RTI, I would urge them to not let up yet. They need to think also about crafting a behavioral set of supports that mirror the academic supports. Tiers one, two, three, classroom teacher ideas to support struggling kids with behavioral issues. Tier two, what do we have to help students who begin to have needs, social, emotional, behavioral needs, that are beyond the classroom teacher’s ability alone to address, etc., and really just build that more integrated system.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is, I’d just remind schools to not overlook the behavioral and the social-emotional side, because so often that is a factor in why kids struggle. When we have some real resources there that the teachers feel good about, the whole school climate improves, so don’t forget the behavior.
Would you say that the academic side of things is more common to see?
JIM WRIGHT: It is, often because when you think about that, that was the first real push in RTI for schools across the nation, and so for many schools, that’s kind of the legacy model they have in place, that they know, that they’re familiar with, but they don’t always then think — which is true — that they could translate those benefits also into behavior, if they could design that behavioral continuum to match the academic continuum for RTI.
Thank you, Jim. And to all of our listeners right now, we’re offering a free eBook written by Jim Wright, called “Performing an RTI/MTSS Academic Screening Process Checkup: How to ensure your process lends power to your RTI/MTSS efforts and team.” It’s packed with great information about how to evaluate the quality of your screening data and cut-points, how to tighten up your school’s RTI/MTSS screening process and workflow, how to decide which type of screener is the best fit for your school, and strategies and pitfalls to keep in mind as you go through the process. If you’d like to download it from Frontline Education, we’ve posted the link here in the podcast show notes.
Jim Wright is the author of The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools, and the founder of the website InterventionCentral.org. Jim, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
JIM WRIGHT: It was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for inviting me.
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