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Tuesday / February 25

10 Big Questions About RtI

The other day I said RtI is failing during a speech and sent out a tweet to this effect. I later received a comment from one of my better friends in education and someone I respect greatly essentially calling me out. We had a nice little back and forth and he made me think enough that I felt compelled to write a blog post 

In my presentation, I cited 2015 research by IES NCEE that was published through EdWeek noting a negative correlation in many schools because of RtI implementation. I know other researchers such as Hattie have called RtI a high yield strategy, with an effect size of 1.09 according to Visible Learning MetaX. Where I truly fall in this debate is with Douglas and Lynn Fuchs of Vanderbilt, who essentially say that RtI should work; it is just the implementation that has caused stagnated or negative results. These negative results make it tempting to condemn the whole practice / process.   

The bottom line is that of course RtI works well when done appropriately. The issue is that an overwhelming number of schools and districts are not doing it properly. As a result, RtI is becoming a resource-hungry initiative with inconsistent effects that too many people are simply no longer evaluating. RtI has become part of ‘the way we have always done things’ and is not under the microscope. 

The intent of this writing is to change that. The following questions apply to everyone from classroom teachers to superintendents and I really hope that these questions not only make you think, but that you take the time to actually answer them with the people you work with.  


Few Disclaimers

To be clear, I am a proponent of RtI – I just want all of us to clean up our processes so that we can best serve kids. One additional disclaimer, RtI is not intended to replace Special Education services, but instead be a part of a larger, most systematic continuum of services.  

Additionally, at the risk of causing my comments to blow up, I am going to place the common answer and the correct answer under each question. I do so knowing that there certainly are multiple correct ways to apply RtI in each district, but I think it is illustrative to point out the significant differences between what I perceive (based on experience and research) is the intended deployment of RtI versus the more common ‘actual’ iterations I have observed.  

As a side-note, this LARGELY focuses on students who need skill remediation and not enrichment. That topic alone is worth a couple thousand more words.  


1. Does your program measure success by determining whether or not the process is creating more than ‘normal’ growth?

Ideal’ deployment

The intent of RtI is to close gaps. So, by providing additional intervention and support a student should be growing at a pace faster than their peers. Stated differently, students should be growing at a rate faster than annual expected growth (by whichever measure you choose to use) OR the level of intensity and frequency of intervention should be increased.  

Common deployment

Students are placed in intervention and, as long as they stay ‘on pace’ with their peers, it is viewed as a win. To be clear, in this case ‘on pace’ means remaining behind their grade level expectancy, just not falling further behind. This often leads to kids remaining in intervention (same level of intensity and frequency) for many months or years without an end in sight. I prefer to call this intervention purgatory.  

2. Does your program place the most needy kids with the least trained professionals?

‘Ideal’ deployment

Students struggling with a specific skill first received differentiated instruction from their classroom teacher. If that instruction does not meet the needs of the student, then they move on to an expert in that particular field to remediate their current skill deficiencies so that they can be placed back in the regular education classroom as soon as possible.  

Common deployment

A universal screener of some type is given. A student falls below a certain threshold and the student is often pulled from the most qualified person in the area to a well-intentioned, but under-trained paraprofessional or instructional aide to deliver the intervention. Moreover, the intervention may not address their particular need and the person delivering the intervention may not be adequately trained in the intervention they are providing.  

3. Does remediating student skill deficiency rank above, alongside, or below electives, social science, science?

‘Ideal’ deployment 

Particularly at the foundational levels there is nothing more important than having students performing at grade level in reading and mathematics. Schools must be creative to ensure students have as much possible time in these areas to remediate deficiencies. Exemplar schools have found ways to build this time into their schedules.  

Common deployment

There is a fight for time and a debate as to what is more valuable within a given school. There is no system. Excuses abound and turf wars begin. In some cases, time is built in to the schedule, but interventions are still not delivered systematically or with fidelity within the time and the allotted time becomes little more than a study hall.  

4. Is there a scientific – or even a systematic – process as to what students receive what interventions?

‘Ideal’ deployment

The screener deployed, in conjunction with faculty feedback, are used to best identify the skills the students need remediated to have the best possible chance at success. Given the area of deficiency the school will choose from the interventions they have at their disposal (this may be a large or small quantity) to best target the area of deficiency.  

Common deployment

Students fall below whatever metric is necessary to qualify for RtI and get a one-size fits all approach. Often, this just turns in to homework or classwork support and not true skill intervention. Additionally, too often we group students based on convenience of schedule instead of deficit area. To explain, all of Mr. Smith’s students receive intervention at the same time because the scheduling is convenient and not because they would all benefit from the same intervention.  

5. Are the interventions provided used to the extent necessary which allowed for research-supported results?

‘Ideal’ deployment

Most schools take the time to research, evaluate, and only deploy those interventions that have been rigorously vetted and meet What Works Clearinghouse (or an alternative) standards. After doing so, they use the ‘directions’ to expose students to the intensity and duration necessary (as identified through research) to achieve the stated gains. I might also add; these interventions are provided by someone adequately trained in these areas.  

Common deployment  

We fit whatever intervention we choose into whatever time period we have available. Moreover, even when we use a 40-minute intervention and place it in a 40-minute block, the first several minutes are used for relationship-building, etc. and the student does not have the full exposure to the prescribed intervention.  

6. Does anyone own the results the students are producing? 

Ideal’ deployment

Students in intervention become OUR kids. There is mutual ownership for the student’s progress by both the intervening teacher and the ‘home’ teacher. Both (or multiple) entities view the student’s progress (or lack thereof) as their responsibility.  

Common deployment

Once a student receives intervention, the student’s data becomes ‘ownerless.’ The intervention teacher does not assume full responsibility and the classroom teacher has moved on as that student is now the responsibility of the intervention teacher. Additionally, the ‘handoff’ in many schools is from teacher to paraprofessional and the paraprofessional is often not tasked with keeping data. Thus, there is no data to track and the progress truly becomes ownerless.  

7. Do teachers view it as their ultimate responsibility to provide differentiation within the classroom as the first stage of the RtI / MTSS process? [/h3] 

‘Ideal’ deployment

The first tier of instruction is what everyone gets – and this persists despite AND in conjunction with what we learn on a universal screener. The teacher has significant ownership of the student’s progress and exhausts all possible classroom intervention before moving them into a formal intervention cycle – which may or not be outside of the ‘home’ classroom. This is an important step and distinction since in many cases this means that by default the student will thereby be missing other instruction unless schools have been creative with scheduling and have built universal blocks of time around intervention and enrichment.  

Common deployment 

Teachers do their absolute best and use their typical bag of tricks. If the student is not ‘getting it’ or the benchmarking exam shows limited growth, they are moved into the intervention process and quite frankly may or may not be able to return from the intervention cycle 

8. Are interventions aligned to identified skill deficiencies or are they aligned to the calendarized curriculum?

‘Ideal’ deployment

When done well, intervention is like a medicine. We have diagnosed the student’s skill deficiency and we choose to then deploy the best possible medicine (intervention) that we have to attempt to combat the deficiency. If this medicine (intervention) does not work, then new medicine is either used instead of, or in addition to, the current treatment.  

Common deployment

Intervention follows the calendarized curriculum even if the current skill/content work does not match the deficiency area of the student. As a result, students may be spending additional time working on homework/classwork that is not truly their area of deficit. It is then no surprise that when the next benchmarking exam comes along the student will most likely not show growth in the area of deficiency (because that is not where they received additional support) and then remains in intervention for a longer period of time.  

9. Is every classroom designed to attempt to maximize every minute of every day for every kid?

‘Ideal’ deployment 

The planning and activities are thoughtfully created so that students of all ability levels are being challenged and supported. This essentially removes the teach to the middle concept and forces all of us to think about how we are differentiating daily. The driving question is are we doing our best to ensure our students who are bored with the typical general education curriculum are challenged and are we doing our best to ensure our students who need additional support are having it built into each lesson? SIDENOTE – This is incredibly difficult to actually execute and by me talking about in one paragraph, I am not trying to minimize how difficult this work is.  

Common deployment

We typically teach to the middle and differentiate when we have significant data that groups of students are struggling. As a result, we have several students in each class, every day, that are bored. Conversely, we have several students who shut down because the level of instruction is beyond what they can currently grasp.  

10. Is the process in and out of intervention fluid or can a student get stuck in intervention purgatory? 

‘Ideal’ deployment

RtI / MTSS are viewed like medicine. When a student shows a need they receive a treatment. Their progress is tracked throughout the process and there are clear off-ramps where students can leave the intervention protocol. If the student is not making the anticipated gains and closing gaps, then the treatment needs to be modified or intensified.  

Common deployment

There are quite literally students in schools that have been in intervention for multiple years. There may be some way that someone can show me where this is good for kids and a correct deployment of RtI, but on its surface we can do better. If your system does not have a clear data-based on-ramp and off-ramp for intervention that is reviewed in a systematic fashion, we are doing kids a disservice.  


Simply stated, if you are implementing RtI correctly most likely your school is achieving incredible, and quite possibly, unprecedented academic success. If you have implemented the resource-hungry process of RtI and have seen little or no change in student performance, I am guessing one or more of your issues have been outlined above. Please use this as a call to change because if we don’t a practice with incredible promise will fall by the wayside with the myriad of other high-potential educational fads that have fallen by the wayside.  

Written by

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning principal and Superintendent who is an expert in teacher evaluation, school culture, personalized learning, and student voice. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @MCUSDSupe.

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