“Response to Intervention”—An Excuse to Deny Services to Students with Learning Disabilities?

By Nancy E. Bailey.

Response to Intervention (RTI), the program to identify children with learning disabilities early, was recently described by the Chalkbeat in Tennessee as having problems with implementation. In many places, like Tennessee, RTI has replaced —a model which has been used for years to identify students with learning disabilities, the “discrepancy” model.

The discrepancy model compares a student’s IQ test score (e.g. the WISC-IV) with achievement scores (e.g.,Woodcock-Johnson Achievement Test). A learning disability is thought to exist if the student’s IQ scores are at least two standard deviations (30 points) higher than scores on the achievement test. This indicates a significant discrepancy between the two tests. Consideration of the student’s work in the classroom is also given. All of this usually comes about when the teacher, and/or parent, observes a student experiencing difficulty in school and requests school psychological testing.

RTI uses what’s called a multi-tiered approach to identify students. All students are screened in a serious effort to keep students from special education classes. School districts might use different kinds of formats with RTI, and parents are supposed to be able to request a formal evaluation at any point in the program. Students remain in each tier for a specified amount of time.

Tier 1: Involves regular classroom instruction, repeated screening, and group interventions. Students who do well here go back to doing all regular classwork.

Tier 2: Students, who do not do well in Tier 1, get interventions and repeated screening with small group instruction. This is mostly in reading and math for younger children. Students still get regular class work along with the interventions.

Tier 3: Students get this instruction if they don’t do well in Tier 2. It is more individualized and if they don’t do well at this level they are referred to special education using the information gathered in Tiers 1, 2, 3.

RTI raises many concerns. Some parents worry that RTI winds up denying children with learning disabilities services. One fear is that some parents don’t think they can request an evaluation, or they are led to believe it isn’t necessary.

Two quotes the Chalkbeat provides, by Douglas Fuchs, a respected researcher from Vanderbilt, sum up the controversy surrounding RTI, as I see it.

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 (sic) IQ, or “potential.”

First, was IDEA devised to protect students with disabilities? Or, were IDEA re-authorizations more about cutting costs to special education and creating one-size-fits-all schooling? Much of IDEA surrounds concerns that there is an “over-identification” of students for special education. Students in special education are said to cost twice as much as those not in special ed. By putting all students with special needs into the regular classroom (largely what IDEA is all about) special education services for children cost less.

Second, many would say the discrepancy model served students well. So, before foisting RTI on school districts, why weren’t these two methods compared more in serious randomized studies, with small groups in select schools? Such studies take time, but a review of the literature shows few studies before RTI was implemented. Like Common Core, it seems RTI was pushed into school districts before it was proven to be better than the discrepancy model.

Another quote the Chalkbeat uses, also by Fuchs, demonstrates quite clearly the effects of school reform on special education.

This [old] method [he is talking about the discrepancy model] of identifying learning disabilities has always had many critics, 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.

This is the message conveyed to all of us by school reformers who support the privatization of public schools. Children, they tell us, are doing poorly because of poor instruction. This unsubstantiated message, that teachers do badly teaching, has been used to justify Common Core, Teach for America, charter schools, VAM, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, stepping in to save teachers with their teacher effectiveness program. And now add RTI to that list!

These two quotes appear to indicate that the basis of RTI is to ensure that all students with disabilities will wind up in the regular classroom, even though they may need individualized assistance in school, and, that RTI originated, due in part, to what is perceived as bad teaching in the past.

Yet, there really is no basis for RTI except the reformers’ generalized assumptions. Completely ditching the discrepancy method that worked fairly well for years, with a totally different, rather obscure program, has caused a lot of problems, especially by leaving students who need special education services with no services.

Tennessee, which adopted RTI as the main way to identify children with learning disabilities, rejected the discrepancy model (except for use in some schools), and now they don’t have enough funding to administer RTI. This could mean they will not be able to identify students with learning disabilities and those students won’t get services! Of course, this is a serious matter.

Here are some questions and observations about RTI:

  1. RTI is confusing. It’s wordy and complicated. Spend time with the RTI Action Network to see what I mean. This confusion leads to states doing things inconsistently, and, as in Tennessee, students may not get identified and receive the help they need.
  2. RTI relies on regular education teachers to do the remediation of learning disabilities. Where does the special education teacher fit in the overall picture?
  3. How early can you identify real learning disabilities? HERE is one practical list for preschool and elementary school. Most of these are observable. You don’t need to put children through repeated testing. Instead of RTI, wouldn’t an early-childhood teacher’s observations of children playing at recess, and their class behavior, be better than an overemphasis on testing young children?
  4. RTI uses a lot of student time looking for problems in all students. By focusing on everyone, the child who has real disabilities might be overlooked. Students who don’t need interventions might be mis-placed.
  5. Wouldn’t well-qualified teachers and smaller class sizes, K-3rd grade especially, be better for spotting disabilities in children without putting all children through so much screening?
  6. Students with learning disabilities might not be identified as having learning disabilities if they have to wait to go through RTI. RTI should not keep children from getting evaluated for learning disabilities. This is noted in the program and should be made more clear to parents.
  7. RTI emphasizes data, and there is a lot of paperwork. But is it useful data?
  8. RTI is connected to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Reading First. Both are controversial with troubled pasts—especially Reading First.
  9. RTI materials are available from many companies PearsonCorwinand Scholastic to name a few. But funding isn’t always smooth. The Chalkbeat notes there was money to purchase the assessment but not for hiring qualified people to administer the tests. Often young children are administered the assessment by people other than their teachers, who they don’t know, and who might not have a background in reading.
  10. It is difficult to distinguish, with RTI, if a child has real learning disabilities, or if they just work slowly.
  11. Is waiting until a learning disability manifests itself really “wait to fail”? This is an argument used by RTI advocates against the discrepancy model. Maybe the young child will self-correct the problem on their own.
  12. It is worrisome that RTI seems to complement Arne Duncan’s push to get everyone working on the same page in the regular education classroom. It also seems to supplement Common Core State Standards.
  13. RTI implies disabilities are fixable, when ongoing learning adaptations are what really might be needed.
  14. When RTI becomes the district’s LD identification program, many other valuable assessments, even those more appropriate to identifying disabilities, are left out.
  15. RTI primarily looks at reading, but there are many other kinds of learning disabilities. The Chalkbeat provides a poignant example at the beginning of their piece.
  16. RTI is questioned by many concerned about identification of learning disabilities and dyslexia. Retired psychology professor Cecil R. Reynolds and Sally Shaywitz, MD and Co-Director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia, say in “Response to Intervention: Ready or Not? Or, From Wait-to Fail to Watch-Them-Fail,”The approach and definition embedded in RTI followed to its ultimate conclusion have the strong probability of eliminating the basic concept of learning disability as it was intended and as it is currently understood. This would be extraordinarily unfortunate, particularly since so much progress has been made in neuroscience in understanding and validating for example, dyslexia, the most common SLD [Specific Learning Disability].[1]
  17. RTI places children on 3 tiers. The tier for struggling readers uses DIBELS, which are tests done repeatedly to check on a child’s ability to name nonsense syllables. Ken Goodman, Professor Emeritus of Language, Reading and Culture, from the University of Arizona, wrote Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it Does. The book is worth a read if you are concerned about RTI, but here is the last paragraph to sum up. DIBELS is based on an outdated, limited scientific theory, and the evidence provided by the present study does not justify its use for the evaluation of an instructional program. Each successive sub-test is not a good predictor of success on the next sub-test, and none of the tests we examined show much relationship to real reading or writing.[2]
  18. The tiers are elitist. Students who do well on RTI get enrichment activities in regular classes, and those who do not do well get more assessment with DIBELS and interventions. This reminds me of the old Bluebird, Redbird grouping from the 1950s.
  19. Students may learn to believe they have a learning disability when they really don’t.
  20. RTI sprouted from NCLB and Reading First, as I said before, and advocates of RTI often use the wordsscientifically-based or scientifically-proven. Many question those words today because of their arbitrary use with NCLB and RF and other programs.

While those who created RTI might have good intentions, it is unproven. Also, as we see in Tennessee, it isn’t working or being funded. RTI is more time consuming and complicated than the discrepancy model. Furthermore, until school districts get their acts together, there are other assessments and methods for teachers and school psychologists to use today, to identify the children with real learning disabilities.

But, most important, RTI appears to seek to eliminate a diagnosis of learning disabilities. This is hugely debatable. Students struggling with learning disabilities should get the help they need in school. They should not be denied assistance because of RTI and its problems, and more randomized research studies are needed before RTI is considered the gold standard.

[1] Reynolds, C.R. Shaywitz, E.E. (2009). Response to Intervention: Ready or not? Or, from wait-to-fail to watch-them-fail. School Psychology Quarterly, 24 (2). 130-145.

[2] Goodman, Ken. Ed. Examining DIBELS: What it is and What it does. Vermont Society for the Study of Education, Inc. 2006.

 Nancy E. Bailey, PhD is a former special ed. teacher and principal, and is the author of Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. Her website and blog are found at NancyEBailey.com.  

“Response to Intervention”—An Excuse to Deny Services to Students with Learning Disabilities? – Living in Dialogue.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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