By Diane Lauer

Across the nation, middle level leaders are either preparing for or are in the process of implementing Response to Intervention (RTI) frameworks to increase individual student success. RTI is a natural evolution of what good middle level schools have focused on for years—creating responsive school systems that meet diverse learner needs in both the academic and affective realm.

RTI is a process by which individual classroom teachers and collective school systems meet student needs. It is an outgrowth of the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and because of this, many educators mistakenly believe that RTI is a special education initiative when in fact it is a general education initiative. Because states and individual school districts are using RTI practices as part of a process to identify students with specific learning disabilities, the idea that RTI is merely a new approach to get students “identified” continues to be a misconception that needs to be corrected. Response to Intervention is so much more.

What is RTI?
Many middle level educators feel a sense of validation and connection to their own site- based work when they learn about RTI. However, there are important concepts that will stimulate some new thinking for middle level educators. Leaders who seek to effectively implement RTI must understand the core principles of RTI and act strategically while implementing its frameworks and practices.

The core principles of RTI involve the following elements:

1. A belief that all students can learn and achieve as a result of effective teaching and collaborative, systemic interactions.

2. A culture and climate that clearly defines, models, and teaches behavioral expectations while providing systematic positive reinforcement.

3. Universal access to rigorous, standards-based curriculum and research- based instruction available to each and every child coupled with targeted and intensive interventions for those who have additional needs as evidenced through data.

4. A comprehensive assessment system that allows schools to intervene at the early stages of need, inform instruction, and monitor the ongoing progress of student learning.

5. A collaborative problem-solving process that uses data to determine and select evidence-based interventions that accelerate student progress toward targeted goals.

6. A system that involves parents and families early, consistently, and in meaningful ways to ensure student success.

7. Strong building leadership that visualizes, plans, implements, and refines systemic practices that lead to continuous improvement and increased student learning.

Getting Started
One of the best ways to get started is by visiting middle schools that have successfully implemented RTI practices for at least two years. Getting an inside look allows principals and their leadership teams to see theory in action. “Doing” RTI is more than having the “stuff” to do it with. Of course there is a level of infrastructure that schools need to practice RTI effectively: an assessment system that provides both universal screening as well as progress monitoring information; a tiered array of increasingly intensive interventions; an articulated standards-based curriculum implemented with research- based instructional strategies at the universal level with fidelity; and a problem-solving mechanism to monitor and match student needs. In addition, principals need to understand the systems behind the scenes that create a seamless flow of information, decisions, and resources.

School site visitations allow principals and their leadership teams to generate answers to the following questions:

  • How are schools using their financial and human resources within the scope of what they have available to them? In other words, how do schools operate differently with the same resources?
  • Which roles and responsibilities may need to be repurposed and what strategies can encourage this transformation?
  • What does the problem-solving process look like in action, how are families engaged, which staff members are involved, and how does information flow?
  • How is the effectiveness of the core curriculum monitored and who ensures that teachers are effectively trained to implement it?
  • How do teachers hold themselves accountable for using research-based instructional strategies and successfully differentiating to meet individual student needs?
  • How can data be organized and accessed effectively and efficiently so that everyone is engaged in the process of increasing student learning?
  • How do schools create time to collaborate about the needs of students and delineate how each will work to support student learning goals?
  • What does it look like when schools are working with families and communities at a proficient level?

Additional Resources
Middle level leaders interested in finding out more about Response to Intervention can access the following for more information:

Diane Lauer is the director of instructional coaches in the Thompson School District in Loveland, CO. She is also a member of the NASSP Middle Level Task Force. She can be contacted at