Surprising New Research Reveals Teachers’ Top Strategy for Success

BRILLIANT Taylor can't believe it!

Did anyone else notice the significant subtext woven through the Response to Intervention (RtI) evaluation report (http://(http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20164000/) that was published last week?  Although the report’s purpose was to provide a large-scale evaluation of the implementation and effectiveness of RtI, I believe this report, which I’ll refer to in this post as the “RtI Elementary Reading Study“, also offers insight into how primary grade teachers manage the challenges posed by RtI while still striving to maximize their students’ success.

Einstein at the chalkboard

I’m a brilliant teacher.

I begin with a brief overview of RtI, review the surprising findings revealed in the RtI Elementary Reading Study, and discuss a strategy—satisficing—that has been widely used by schools in their RtI implementation plans.


Response to Intervention is a framework.

RtI is a framework designed to structure the assistance provided to students who are struggling with academic or behavioral issues. Adopting RtI involves following (at least) three principles:

  1. Provide multiple tiers of support differing in intensity
  2. Allocate school staff to deliver RtI instruction
  3. Use data to make instruction and intervention decisions

The type of academic support provided within “Response to Intervention” is different from the support found in special education settings. RtI enables students who are struggling with one or more specific literacy skills to be recognized quickly by their teachers and provided with intensive, targeted instruction in their area(s) of weakness. In theory, once they have mastered the specified skill(s), they leave the support setting and return to their classrooms.


The RtI model is often represented as a triangle separated into three tiers:


BRILLIANT Response to Intervention triangle


The base of the triangle, Tier One, serves students who are reading at or above grade-level. Teaching students in Tier One involves attending to their development of age-appropriate fluency and comprehension skills, presenting strategies for reading and decoding unfamiliar vocabulary and ensuring that all students are making appropriate progress. Level One is the largest part of the triangle, and most students who are placed in Tier One never engage with the support services provided in the higher levels of the RtI triangle.


The middle level of the triangle, Tier Two, provides intensive instruction to students who are having difficulty mastering skills specified for their grade level. In Tier Two, students who are working slightly below grade level receive focused instruction and targeted supports intended to build their capacity and skills. Some students move from Tier One to Tier Two and remain there for a few weeks before returning to Tier One. Some students might move between Tier One and Tier Two multiple times during an academic year. And, based on their testing data, some students are placed in Tier Two from the start of the school year and remain there.


The topmost layer of the triangle, Tier Three, serves students who are far below grade level and have the greatest difficulty learning new concepts and skills. Again, based on their testing data, some students are placed in Tier Three and remain there, while other students might move between Tier Two and Tier Three throughout the school year. Some school districts consider a placement in Tier Three as a precursor to screening for inclusion in special education.


Don’t let the name fool you:  Response to Intervention is not an intervention.

This model of support provision is called “Response to Intervention” because decisions about students’ placements are made using data that show the students’ responses to the interventions that have been implemented by their teachers (or other school staff) during classroom instruction.

RtI is not a program, a curriculum, a set of instructional strategies, or a kit filled with special materials:  it’s just a framework.  If you imagine the skeleton of a skyscraper—just steel beams, girders, and empty spaces waiting to be filled—you’ve got a mental picture of RtI.


All the decisions about how RtI will be implemented—the specific interventions likely to be most successful with particular students, the time of day during which the small group interventions will be made, what to do when a student is not making progress and her teacher has run out of appropriate instructional strategies, which teachers are going to be responsible for instruction at which levels, what is the trigger that moves a student from Tier One (regular classroom) into Tier Two (specialized, focused instruction on certain targeted skills) and what would trigger a move back to Tier One, how are cut-off scores going to be utilized—are made at the school site level, with input from the teachers, resource specialists, and administrators.  Clearly a great deal of time must be dedicated to establishing and maintaining routines and procedures, choosing appropriate materials (and seeking new materials), finding time to collaborate, and examining students’ work.



Implementing RtI

Prior to the RtI Elementary Reading Study, research on RtI typically involved small groups of students (under 100), engagement with few select schools, and a research design that established instructional conditions that were strictly controlled by the researchers in charge.  By contrast, the researchers engaged in the RtI Elementary Reading Study examined data gathered from 1251 elementary schools across 13 U.S. states.

These researchers had access to a wide and rich range of data from each school and were able to identify key issues and practices employed by the teachers in each school.  Unlike previous researchers, the authors of the RtI Elementary Reading Study were able to drill down to nitty-gritty details and to learn how RtI works in real life settings.

The researchers were surprised by much what they learned about the delivery of RtI.


Surprise #1.  The variation in organizing services for reading groups


In previous studies, intervention services were provided to students only in Tiers 2 and 3 as the guidelines for Response to Intervention specify.  In this study, however, researchers found that some schools offered intervention services to (at least some of the) groups at all reading levels.  In fact, 45% of the impact schools provided Tier 2 interventions to groups of students at all reading levels.


Surprise #2.  When intervention services occur

In previous studies, small group intervention services were typically provided Hunh?outside of the time set aside for the core reading block.  Struggling readers  received 90 minutes of reading instruction in their classroom during the core reading block and 15-30 additional minutes of focused Tier 2 reading instruction during intervention.

However, the RtI Elementary Reading Study researchers found the majority of schools (67%) offered at least some Tier 2 intervention services during the core reading block.  Providing struggling readers with intervention services during the core reading block means those support services were displacing opportunities for these students to engage with on-grade-level reading instruction.

These findings raised concerns for Karen K. Wixson, a reading and literacy professor at University of North Carolina Greensboro.  In a recent article in Education Week (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/11/11/study-rti-practice-falls-short-of-promise.html), Wixson said:

“Core instruction is supposed to be aligned with Tier 2, but Tier 2 is singling out a particular component and addressing it in a different manner.  The core instruction is broader and covers a much broader range of skills students need to be exposed to…. [if Tier 2-style interventions are taking up Tier 1 instructional time] students are missing a lot of broader things that are going to make a difference in  their ability to put it all together in functional reading.”


Surprise #3.  Who provides instruction during intervention services

Rly?In previous studies of RtI, non-classroom teaching staff provided intervention services. However, the RtI Elementary Reading Study found that intervention services were provided by whoever had been designated by the schools to provide these services.  The researchers found that up to 47% of schools used classroom teachers to provide intervention services in first grade.




R-t-I IRL (in real life)

Teachers are the essential elements in RtI implementation:  they do the day-to-day interventions and the documentation of students’ learning; they make the adjustments to the various interventions being implemented; they confer with parents, speech-language pathologists, school counselors and school psychologists, and other specialists; and, if necessary, they monitor the smooth flow of students from one classroom to the next during the 90 minute core reading block.

The researchers found that trying to implement RtI “by the book” creates significant challenges and demands for primary grade teachers.  In the RtI Elementary Reading Study report, the researchers recognized that schools “adapted time and staff resources to address students’ needs.”  And Fred Doolittle, a co-author of RtI Elementary Reading Study, raised his own concerns about how the report’s findings would 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)

Prior to the current study, the only studies of  RtI implementation had small sample sizes and conditions strictly controlled by the researchers.  No one had a clue about how RtI was being implemented across the country.  Now we have a much clearer picture of the trends in the implementation RtI.

Unfortunately, the RtI Elementary Reading Study was not intended to provide data about individual students’ performance or individual teachers’ practices.   So we will never know why 45% of impact schools provided Tier 2 interventions to students who are already reading at or above grade level, or why 67% of schools provided intervention services during the core reading block, or why 47% of schools used classroom teachers to provide intervention services.

But I can certainly make a conjecture about how those unanticipated practices came into being and became so widespread:  teachers made satisfices.


Solving impossible problems by “satisficing”

When attempting to make initial implementation plans for RtI teachers across the country faced intractable problems, such as “how can one teacher provide focused intervention services to a small group of struggling learners while simultaneously teaching on-level reading skills to the whole group?”  I believe most teachers resolved these deeply complex problems with RtI by “satisficing” (Simon, 1957).

Satisfice, a portmanteau that combines “satisfy” and “suffice”, describes what happens when a quick decision to a complex and pressing problem is needed:  identify a solution that will suffice and will satisfy the problem-solvers.

RTI pic

Here is an example:

Look at this photograph of Rebecca Decker teaching a small reading group.  Her school in Fresno, California had been implementing RtI for more than three years when this photo was taken in 2011.  Ms. Decker appears to  be providing intervention services to this small group.  However, it’s highly likely that the rest of her class is spread out around the classroom doing partner work or independent reading.  So, while Ms. Decker is providing targeted intervention services to these struggling readers, she is also scanning her classroom, making sure the on-grade-level students are on task, and making mental notes about certain students with whom she wants to check in or follow up.

I assume this instructional arrangement was the result of a satisfice.  The district didn’t have money to hire more teachers or interventionists to assist with RtI implementation, so Ms. Decker and other professionals at her school and in the district came up with a plan that was sufficient and satisfied the key players involved.

Would Ms. Decker have preferred to focus only on her intervention group?  Probably.  She knows they need support and assistance to get up to grade level.  Might Ms. Decker have preferred to work with a whole group of on-level readers and send her intervention group out with a reading specialist?  Probably.  She’d be confident that the struggling readers would be in good hands and she would be able to focus on the needs of her students who are at or above grade level.  However, the current instructional arrangement—though not ideal for Ms. Decker—was the best solution given all the variables and the constraints around time, staffing, space, resources, and materials.  The fact that 67% of the schools included in the RtI Elementary Reading Study are also providing at least some intervention services during their Tier 1 core reading block suggests this practice—though not aligned with the fundamental tenets of RtI—has become an acceptable satisfice.


As a teacher educator, I do my best to prepare my credential candidates to be thoughtful and effective teachers.   And I know all my colleagues do the same.  I’m wondering if satisficing is something I should add to my syllabi…


Simon, H. A. (1957). Models of man: Social and rational. New York: Wiley.

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