First, Do No Harm
If we do RtI or MTSS incorrectly, we have the potential of negatively impacting two of the strongest influences on student success: collective teacher efficacy and student self-efficacy.
I’m not sure there is a single school in the US that doesn’t have some sort of RtI (Response to Intervention) or MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) model. There’s quite a lot of research that shows effective RtI systems make a big difference for kids. Hattie (2017) finds that effective RtI actually has the 5th biggest large impact on student outcomes. Over the last two decades, we’ve hired more interventionists. We have invested in more assessments to screen and progress monitor. We’ve re-arranged our schedules for intervention times and we’ve purchased thousands of dollars of intervention materials.
We’re doing it wrong...and it’s often hurting students.
Our Primary Focus
RtI and MTSS models are built on the foundation of effective Tier I instruction. Think about every pyramid visual that you have ever seen showing the tiers of support. The model is built on the idea that between 70-80% of your students should be successful through your core instruction. If that is not true, then it doesn’t matter how much time, energy, and money we spend on Tier II and Tier III. It will never fix the problem.
Imagine taking your car to a repair shop, because the check engine light is on. The mechanic can just reset the light and have it go away, but you’re going to be back in the shop when it comes back on. You can do that as many times as you want, but it won’t fix the cause of the light and will probably lead to much more significant problems later.
Instead, we should focus that time, energy, and money on making our Tier I instruction be much more effective for many more of our students. That might look like having more linguistically appropriate instruction for second language learners, more culturally relevant curriculum, or even better meeting students’ social-emotional needs. It is amazing how much more effective Tier II and Tier III interventions are once Tier I is effective.
Expected Growth and Screeners
If you’re like many schools, you administer some form of screener (DIBELS, MAP, etc.) and then you identify a certain group of students to receive Tier II or Tier III support. Maybe you even try to triangulate data to ensure a more accurate identification. Here’s the problem. Screeners are made to identify students who MIGHT need additional support. They tell you which students need additional diagnosis to determine needs and MONITORING to see progress, not which students need an intervention.
After screening, we need some time to monitor if the current intervention (Tier I) is being effective. This is literally the definition of “response to intervention.” We need to measure the current “intervention” to see its effectiveness. Effective Tier I instruction should meet the needs of the vast majority of our students. If that is the case, and we are seeing adequate growth, then why would we add something else? That’s like going to the doctor for a stomach ache, finding out that you're allergic to dairy, seeing a difference as you stop consuming dairy, but then still having intestinal surgery because it might speed things up. It may, but it also carries risk and may lead to a number of unintended consequences, which is why doctors try everything else first.
This doesn’t mean we should do nothing and hope for the best! We need to monitor progress and then intervene as appropriate. It does mean that we need to improve Tier I and then monitor the progress of students before adding additional interventions that might not actually help.
A quick note on expected growth--if our system is based on measuring students’ progress, then we need to be really clear about what that progress should be. If a student scores at the 5th percentile in math at the beginning of 1st grade, we should not expect them to score at the 50th percentile at the end of the year. We need to really consider what adequate progress or expected growth looks like. If that same student jumped from the 5th to the 35th percentile in a year from just core instruction, wouldn’t we consider that “adequate” and continue to provide the same quality intervention (Tier I) the next year?
The Negative Effect of Doing it Wrong
Although not actually a part of the Hippocratic Oath, the idea of “First, do no harm” is an important idea in the field of medicine. It’s the reason that doctors try the least invasive treatment first. There are higher and higher risks associated with more invasive treatments that can lead to worse outcomes than the original problem. This should be our mantra when considering interventions for students. Putting a student in the wrong intervention, or an intervention they don’t need, won't just not have a positive effect, it often has a negative effect.
Imagine you’re trying to lose weight and first your trainer tells you to exercise more. Then, you get told to change your diet. Then, you're told to try cutting out sugar. Then, you should focus on building muscle. If you don’t see progress, or not very much progress, what happens? Eventually we give up and might even start believing that it’s something wrong with us and no matter what we’re not capable of losing weight.
This can happen to students, and does all the time. When you examine the effect of repeated educational failure, you see huge impacts on students’ confidence and self-efficacy as a learner. Unfortunately, students’ beliefs in their own ability has an even larger effect than RtI. According to Hattie (2017), it’s actually the second highest of all the factors that have been identified. (While called “Self-Reported Grades” Hattie explains that this means what students believe they are capable of achieving in school.)
And, there’s an even worse negative effect if we do RtI wrong. Let’s imagine that 50% of a teacher’s class is identified as needing an intervention and we then pull a large proportion of them for interventions. What this implies to teachers is that they aren’t capable of meeting the needs of those students. Of course, in some cases that is absolutely true. There are a wide range of student needs and some will need additional support that the teacher can’t provide. The problem is when we over identify and don’t provide support for improving Tier I. When this happens year after year, teachers start to believe that they aren’t capable of meeting those students' needs. Otherwise, why would students keep getting pulled out? When we negatively impact that belief, we are impacting the largest contributor to student achievement--collective teacher efficacy.
When we lessen a teachers’ belief that they can make a difference with students, we are having a dramatic impact on their effectiveness and therefore on the achievement of students in their class.
What to do:
Focus on Tier I. This means evaluating the time, energy, and funding spent in terms of where it is allocated. While Tier II and Tier III funding might be a small percentage of classroom teacher salaries, they might have a disproportionately high level of time, energy, and focus.
Create a system that identifies “adequate” growth and measures the impact of Tier I as the first, and primary intervention of a school.
Make building teacher and student efficacy one of the main outcomes of your work.