Sunday / July 21

7 Recommendations for Improving RTI

Flipping classrooms

Please be sure to read my previous blog post on the major findings from the new federal report, “Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading”.

In response to this new report, I would like to provide the following recommendations to improve RtI processes around the country.

Recommendation 1. Academics is interdependent with behavior.

I often ask teachers with struggling students two critical questions:

  • Do you have students who are behaviorally acting out because of academic frustration?
  • Do you have students who are academically not learning (or not learning quickly enough) because they do not have certain behavioral skills (sitting in their seat, paying attention, working in interpersonally effective ways with others)?

When they answer “Yes” to both questions they are demonstrating that academic instruction, learning, and mastery is interdependent with classroom discipline, behavior management, and student self-management.

Thus, it does not make sense for our RtI processes to focus only on academic skills…to the exclusion of students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

Indeed, if a student does not (a) have the social skills to get along with others (e.g., in a cooperative learning group); (b) feel emotionally secure in class (e.g., due to teasing or school safety issues); or (c) have the behavioral skills to organize themselves (e.g., to work independently), then the even best teachers, curricula, technology, and instruction will not result in the desired academic outcomes.

Recommendation 2. Intervention occurs along a continuum of instruction.

Many state RtI guidebooks and systems do not provide a research-based continuum of services and supports that help to organize and differentiate the difference between “instruction” and “intervention.” These guidebooks talk about the need for intervention, but rarely provide any specificity.

PASS Model Slide 215The figure left represents the PASS (Positive Academic Supports and Services) model.

As you can see, RtI starts with an effective teacher providing sound, differentiated instruction, supported by good classroom management, and the data-based monitoring of students’ academic and behavioral learning and mastery.

When students are not learning (or learning quickly enough), an assessment process must be conducted to determine why the progress is missing (see Recommendation 3 below). This assessment could be done (a) by the teacher, (b) with the support of grade-level colleagues as part of a Grade-level RtI Team, or (c) with the support of the multidisciplinary Building-level RtI Team. How the teacher assesses the problem is determined largely by his/her skills, and the duration or intensity of the problem (see Recommendation 7 below).

Once the underlying reasons for the problem have been validated, the teacher (once again—by him/herself, supported by grade-level colleagues, and/or with members of the Building-level RtI team) strategically decides how to solve the problem (see Recommendation 4). The problem may be solved through strategically selected:

  • Assistive support technologies
  • Remedial approaches
  • Accommodation approaches
  • Curricular modification approaches
  • Laser-targeted Interventions
  • Compensatory strategies

When students are demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral problems, a comparable continuum is used (after completing the needed functional assessments) that consists of strategically selected:

  • Skill Instruction strategies
  • Speed of Learning and Mastery Acquisition strategies
  • Transfer of Training strategies
  • Emotional Coping and Control strategies
  • Motivational strategies
  • History of Inconsistency strategies
  • Special Situation strategies

Recommendation 3. Diagnostic or functional assessment needs to clarify screening test results (at Tier 1)

Many state RtI guidebooks, adopting the flawed approaches of the U.S. Department of Education’s RtI technical assistance centers, advocate for a “wait to fail, then assess” strategy. That is, when students are not succeeding academically (for example) at Tier I, they recommend 30 minutes of largely unspecified group interventions at Tier II. Then, if the students are still having problems, they recommend a diagnostic (or, for behavior, functional) assessment as the entry point to Tier III.

And yet, critically, I don’t know many doctors, electricians, car mechanics, or other professionals who would not do a diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the problem solving process… to ensure that their first recommendations are their last recommendations (because the problem is solved).

And so… Why would we, in good conscience, “allow” a student to struggle for six to ten or more weeks in the classroom, and in a Tier II intervention, so that we can get to the point where we finally do a diagnostic assessment to figure out what really is wrong?

And why would we do this knowing that, after these multiple and prolonged periods of failure, the problem may be worse (or compounded), the student might be more confused or frustrated, and we might need even more intensive interventions because we did not identify and analyze the problem right from the beginning?

ALL of these practices and issues were confirmed by the RtI Report.

Recommendation 4. Assessment must link to intervention.

Many state RtI guidebooks and systems do not delineate the different types of assessment (e.g., screening versus progress monitoring versus diagnostic versus implementation integrity versus high stakes/proficiency versus program evaluation assessments). This often occurs because state departments of education write their guidebooks to meet a statutory requirement… rather than to educate their practitioners.

Relative to RtI processes that will effectively help students with academic or behavioral difficulties, state guidebooks and systems typically do not emphasize the importance of linking diagnostic assessment results with the instructional or interventions approaches that have the highest probability of success.

Critically, when school practitioners do not strategically choose their student-focused instructional or intervention approaches based on reliable and valid diagnostic assessment results, they are playing a game of “intervention roulette.”

And, as in Vegas, the “house” usually wins. But, in the classroom, the loss here is the student’s loss.

Every time we do an intervention that does not work, we potentially make the problem worse, and the student more resistant to the next intervention.

Said a different way: Intervention is not a benign act… it is a strategic act. We should not be satisfied, professionally, because we are implementing interventions. We should be satisfied when we are implementing the right interventions that have the highest probability of success for an accurately identified and analyzed problem.

Recommendation 5. Progress monitoring is NOT an intervention… when needed, focus on strategic instruction and/or intervention

Many state RtI guidebooks and systems overemphasize progress monitoring… and then, they compound the problem by overemphasizing curriculum-based measurement (CBM) to the exclusion of other curriculum-based assessment (CBA) approaches.

In addition, most of the progress monitoring examples—in the state guidebooks that I have reviewed—are in the area of reading decoding and fluency (where the progress monitoring research and writing has been most prevalent).

Rarely do you see state guidebooks discuss progress monitoring for vocabulary and comprehension… not to mention the lack of progress monitoring examples in the different areas of math, written expression, spelling, and oral expression. This is because progress monitoring for these outcomes does not work well with CBM.

Finally, most state guidebooks do not explain how to effectively create (or evaluate the acceptability of) a progress monitoring probe. That is, they do not emphasize that progress monitoring approaches must be connected to the instructional or intervention goals, outcomes, and implementation strategies.

Said a different way:

  • If the instructional or intervention target for a student is increasing his/her understanding and receptive/expressive use of a specific list of grade-level vocabulary words, then the assessment protocol must be designed to sensitively measure these explicit outcomes.
  • If the instructional outcome is a certain format of expressive writing, then reliable and valid scoring rubrics need to be created to guide not just progress monitoring, but instruction and student self-evaluation.

As noted earlier, progress monitoring is an evaluation approach. Thus, for students with academic or behavioral problems, it follows the (a) identification and (b) analysis of the problem, and the (c) intervention preparation and implementation stages. Unfortunately, some educators still believe that progress monitoring is the intervention. Or, they believe that the intervention must fit the progress monitoring tool adopted by the district—rather than the tool being fit to the intervention outcomes desired.

Recommendation 6. The intensity of student interventions and services are based on the intensity of student needs

I have no problem with a state RtI guidebook providing a blueprint on the typical sequences and decision rules that a teacher needs to follow to “move” a student from Tier I to Tier II to Tier III. However, I do have a problem when the sequence must be followed in a rigid, fixed way.

Simplistically, there are two types of students with academic or behavioral problems: students with progressive, longstanding, or chronic problems; and students with significant, severe, or acute problems. For the latter students especially, they often need immediate and intensive (Tier III, if you will) services, supports, strategies, and/or programs. They (and their teachers) should not have to go through a series of intervention layers so that they eventually “qualify” for the services that they need.

I get that many worry about an influx of inappropriate referrals to the Building-level RtI Team. But, if you break your leg, you need to go to the emergency room. If you try to fix it yourself, you may get an infection and lose the whole leg.

The trick is in the training. In the schools where I work, we create a collaborative system where everyone in the school is trained on the data-based problem-solving process. We also create an early warning “problem solving, consultation, intervention” culture, along with a check and balance approach to minimize the number of capricious referrals to the Building-level team.

It works. But more important is the fact that more students are receiving earlier and more successful instructional and intervention approaches. And, the teachers are leading the entire process… with greater enthusiasm, involvement, self-direction, and success.

Isn’t this the true goal of RtI? 

To concretize the ultimate point in Recommendation 6 above: If a student needs to be immediately considered by the Building-level RtI Team, then this should occur without the need for a certain number of interventions implemented for a certain number of weeks, under a certain level of conditions.

In other words, get on with it…

But I want to extend this point: If a teacher needs a consultation with a colleague in order to better understand and work with a student, there should not be restrictions on what colleagues are available.

To be explicit: Too often, I hear that general education teachers cannot consult with special education personnel (teachers, OTs, PTs, speech pathologists, etc.) until a student needs “Tier III” attention. This makes no sense if this earlier consultation will result in “Tier I” success… thereby eliminating the need for more intensive Tier II or Tier III attention.

Sometimes, the reason for restricting the consultation is that the “special education teacher is paid through federal special education funds that don’t allow the consultation to occur earlier.”

This is simply not true.

Even in the most extreme interpretation, the federal special education law (IDEA) encourages early intervening services, and it allows districts to use up to 15% of their special education funding for services and supports that are not directed to students with a disability.


This RtI Report is a wake-up call.

Educators need to be “good consumers” of research and practice. We should not jump on the newest bandwagon, and we cannot assume that a framework will work for students, staff, and schools just because the federal or a state department of education has recommended (or near-mandated) it.

We need to use RtI processes that are supported by sound (not self-selected) research… that are based on extensive, real, and representative (not limited trial) field studies… and that result in demonstrable (not hypothetical, or even meaningless but statistically-significant) student outcomes.

Rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches do not work. Schools need be given the flexibility, within the federal and state blueprints provided, to implement the best problem solving, progress monitoring, and services and supports to academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students. And educational practitioners who are working directly with those students are in the best positions to do this.

Additional Resources:

Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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