Tiered levels of support like RTI, in contrast, are based on prevention models. Tier one generally consists of an effective core curriculum in the classroom. Theoretically, this will address the learning needs of approximately 80% of students. The remaining 20% will be provided with what is often called “Tier 2” intervention: intervention that targets learning in a fairly generic- but efficient- way. Let’s take the case of reading. Most schools collect progress monitoring data on all students. Then they identify a “cut-off” score that indicates the child is in the lower quartile and may benefit from Tier 2 intervention. At this stage, most schools have a ready-prepared intervention to offer. Some schools used computer-based programs, such as Fast ForWord or Accelerated Reader. Others offer an additional reading group with the school’s literacy specialist. For approximately some of the children involved in Tier 2 intervention, the additional instruction—almost regardless of the form it takes—will be enough to help them get up to speed.
For children with a specific learning disability such as Dyslexia, however, such standard interventions will rarely be enough to close the gap between them and their peers. Instead, these students require systematic, intensive, phonologically-based reading instruction targeted specifically to their individual needs and administered by a highly trained instructor. Students with Dyslexia are generally missing some of the important building blocks of reading—the cognitive components that underlie accurate and fluent reading. However, they often “progress”—ie, memorize enough words—just enough to make it look like they are benefitting from the generic intervention. This makes school staff reluctant to test the child for a learning disability. But unfortunately, memorization is a very inefficient strategy- and the progress will not be enough to close the gap between the student and her peers, nor to repair the foundational skills on which on which reading is built.
We often see students who have inched along in this way- progressing just enough to avoid failure, but not enough to catch up- or, more importantly, learn the skills they need to ultimately become accurate and fluent readers. These students tend to be bright, creative and hard-working. They work hard enough— and usually have enough support from their parents—that they earn passing grades despite falling farther and farther behind in their reading. They often spend hours upon frustrating hours completing homework. They tend to do poorly on tests- but excel in oral participation- or other aspects of the school day. Sometimes teachers wonder if they are making “careless” mistakes—maybe they need to slow down, “try harder”- or, my all-time favorite- “look harder.” They may be reading well enough to get the “gist” of the information—so they can maintain the appearance of being able to read enough to “keep up,” but gist reading is notoriously unreliable in decontextualized reading such as in textbooks- or worse, multiple choice tests.
Often, the parents of these children have repeatedly shared concerns with school staff that “something is wrong” but been (falsely) reassured that “he’s young yet” or “she’s progressing at her own rate.” Your child is not failing, they may add, and so does not have an educational disability. While we’ve no doubt that these staff members mean well, the end result is that the student suffers for years, believing that she is stupid or slow, working hard but never managing to keep up. Finally, frustrated, parents turn to a private evaluator, seeking an understanding. They know their child is smart, they see how hard he is working, and they want to what can be done to help him.
When implemented as intended, Response to Intervention can enhance student learning. The intention of the prevention process is to shift educational resources away from classification of disabilities and toward the provision and evaluation of effective instruction. Through early screening, schools can identify and provide support more quickly to struggling learners. In practice, however, the process all too often delays the provision of appropriate evaluations and services (as noted in this 2011 Memo to all State Directors of Special Education, the U.S. Department of Education). If you have concerns about your child’s educational progress and feel that school staff are delaying evaluation and support, you have the right to request an evaluation in all areas of suspected disability. Put your request in writing. See more about how to get your child evaluated in our ebook, A Parent’s Guide to Educational Assessment in New York.