Tiers without tears

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a process aimed at preventing pupils from falling behind in class and is arranged by hierarchy: Tier 1 referring to general class instruction, Tier 2 to small-group tutoring and Tier 3 to more individualised help. However, there are few guidelines for schools who are interested in implementing RTI, no quality standards that schools must meet and no monitoring systems in place. Based on their experience with researching RTI, MDRC has released a research brief offering some practical guidance for schools who are thinking of adopting a tiered system. These include:

  • Scheduling. Should extra support be during or after school? Will extra staff time be required? MDRC looked at this situation in depth in a 2016 report.
  • Duration and intensity. The number of pupils in an intervention and the amount of time they receive it affect both academic achievement and staffing requirements.
  • If a school adopts a curriculum to help struggling pupils, it should align with the current curriculum while being different enough to meet the needs of the pupils who are struggling. Proper use of the supplemental curriculum might require teacher training and new materials.
  • Staffing. Some programmes use only certified teachers, whereas others use paraprofessionals or volunteers. Some train before the programme starts, while others provide training before implementation followed by coaching as the programme continues. This latter method is most effective but requires more resources.
  • Intervention content. Pupil screening can help identify pupils who need extra help, although no specific curriculum is recommended for RTI.
  • Balancing Tier 2/Tier 3. Tier 2 pupils need less than Tier 3 pupils, but scheduling demands can push both sets of pupils into the same intervention at the same time of day. Tier 2 should be seen as an opportunity to prevent the pupils from needing to enter Tier 3. For Tier 2 to be effective, it must clearly be seen as separate from Tier 3. Pupils must be assigned to the proper tier, otherwise they will receive too little or too many services.

Source: Tiered systems of support: practical considerations for school districts (May 2017), MDRC

Examining Response to Intervention practices

MDRC has issued a new report examining Response to Intervention (RTI) practices and evaluating their effects on the reading achievement in Grades 1-3 (Years 2-4) during the 2011-12 school year.

RTI is a process aimed at preventing pupils from falling behind in class and is arranged by hierarchy: Tier 1 refers to general class teaching, Tier 2 to small-group tutoring, and Tier 3 to more intense tutoring with 1-2 children. RTI practices also include assessing all pupils at least twice yearly, the use of data to determine Tier 2 or 3 placement, and progress monitoring for pupils in Tiers 2 and 3.

A total of 146 US schools using RTI in reading for three or more years and implementing recommended practices (the impact sample) were compared to 100 randomly chosen schools in the same states (the reference sample) that may or may not have been implementing RTI at all. Researchers compared RTI practices between schools, the intensity of RTI use, and impacts on reading achievement.

Among the findings, researchers found that “impact schools” were more likely than “reference schools” to perform universal screening assessments twice a year and to provide staff to help with data gathering and teaching reading.

They also performed a regression discontinuity study of pupils who were just above and below the cut-off point of needing intervention. This showed that assignment to Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention had a negative impact on first grade (Year 2) children on the margin of being at risk for reading delays compared to their peers who were near the cut-off point but remained in Tier 1. Second and third graders in Tiers 2 or 3 demonstrated gains that were not significantly different in the RTI and reference schools.

The authors warn that the effectiveness of the entire RTI system should not be judged based on these outcomes that look solely at a subset of RTI pupils.

Source: Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading (2015), MDRC.