Do Teachers Look Dumb in New Response-to-Intervention Research?

Teacher w/reading group- young man

Reading group 4


Currently, 70% of U.S. school districts integrate aspects of Response to Intervention (RtI) on their campuses, and most practicing teachers are already familiar with RtI.  Last week, the most comprehensive federal evaluation of Response to Intervention to date was released. The study, focused on RtI’s impact on literacy learning outcomes in grades 1-3, included 20,000 students across 13 states (http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20164000/).


Some findings presented in this new study are unexpected and problematic. More to the point, there are findings that suggest many teachers, schools, and districts have not implemented RtI as it was intended to be.


The study revealed implementation issues at the classroom and school levels:

  • 45% of the schools provided Tier 2 interventions to groups of students at all reading levels, not just to the students who are reading below grade level as indicated by RtI.
  • 69% of schools provided Tier 2 interventions during core reading instruction, rather than providing struggling students with Tier 2 interventions as a supplement to core reading instruction.


And those implementation issues created troubling learning outcomes:

  • Struggling first grade readers who had received targeted reading support in their schools’ RtI programs actually made less progress in reading than virtually identical peers who did not receive RtI support.


These are definitely not the literacy results that RtI was intended to produce.

Reading group 2


When I read this report, I began to imagine how the public might respond to these counterintuitive research findings:

  • “Teachers don’t even know how to do their own jobs!”
  • “Why are teachers so inept?”
  • “Sheesh, teachers are dumb.”


In addition to creating considerable personal irritation, perceptions of this type are harmful to our profession. I fear this report might taint the public’s opinion of teachers in grades 1-3 and lead people to question the professional capabilities of the teachers in the new RtI study.


Luckily, Fred Doolittle, a co-author of the new study, is also concerned about how the report’s findings will be interpreted. He said, “We don’t want to have people say that these findings say these schools aren’t doing RtI right; this turns out to be what RtI looks like when in plays out in daily life.” (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/11/11/study-rti-practice-falls-short-of-promise.html)

Dr. Dolittle

Am I the only one who gets a kick out of a researcher named Dr. Doolittle?


We don’t want to say schools aren’t doing R-t-I right; this is what RtI looks like in daily life. Click To Tweet


According to the report, most existing efficacy studies of RtI were conducted with small populations (fewer than 100 students and only a handful of schools) under conditions established and carefully controlled by the researchers.  In other words, those studies were not intended to document how RtI works at scale in real schools and districts.  This study, by contrast, intended to capture what was happening when RtI was implemented on a daily basis by classroom teachers in their natural habitat.  This is a very important point.  When researchers document what teachers do in their classrooms, they quickly notice that–regardless of what the district or the principal requires—teachers can find pockets of autonomy in which they implement small changes or adjustments to aspects of their practice that are not working well.


Reading group 3

For example, when teachers are implementing a new instructional procedure or format, most will to go “by the book” for a while to learn how the procedure works and, perhaps more importantly, how the procedure works for them.  Over time, most teachers will begin to tweak the procedure, making small adjustments that integrate the procedure more smoothly into their already-established instructional routines and patterns and their beliefs about student learning.

Making these small adjustments is such a commonplace of teachers’ work that they go unnoticed.  But too many small tweaks could have an impact on the fidelity of the implementation of the new procedure.  Perhaps the RtI implementation issues mentioned above were the result of teachers’ collective “procedural drift” away from the established RtI procedures toward personal forms of RtI practice they found more efficient.


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