Response to Intervention: Instructional Challenges for Teachers in High Need Contexts
by Sharon L. Nichols, Felicia Castro-Villarreal & Amanda Ramirez - 2017
Background: This study adds to our understanding of how elementary school teachers in culturally and linguistically diverse contexts think about the implementation and impact of Response-to-Intervention practices.
Purpose of Study: The purpose of this study is to understand elementary school teachersí beliefs about the challenges associated with RTI implementation with high need, high risk student populations.
Research Design: This was a semi-structured interview study with eight elementary school teachers.
Findings/Results: Interview data indicate that while teachers noted the potential of RTI systems and processes, most expressed dissatisfaction with implementation variability, inadequate training, slow matriculation through the tiers, and widely diverse student learning needs. Teachers also noted challenges associated with having to differentiate instruction and management with widely diverse learners while at the same time being pressured to meet accountability targets.
Conclusions: We conclude that although RTI has become more widely understood and recognized, there remain serious implementation challenges and confusion in contexts that serve culturally and linguistically diverse students. We recommend improved training at the university and preservice level to prepare teachers for work in tiered problem-solving frameworks and to help teachers better understand the academic, social, and affective needs of our increasingly diverse student population.
The goal of this article is to explore how teachers and students are impacted by onerous and sometimes conflicting federal policies. Although both general and special education teachers have long contended with enormous federal policy demands and pressures (Berryhill, Linney, & Fromewick, 2009; Valli & Buese, 2007), the most recent iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind, 2001, and Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015), and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997, 2004) have created a special set of circumstances that play out as competing instructional expectations for student achievement. On the one hand, high-stakes testing accountability systems of NCLB and ESSA demand monolithic academic progress and results defining learner success as a product (standardized test score). By contrast, IDEA (2004) emphasizes differentiated learning and instruction that defines learner success in terms of progress and improvement. These competing goals can be quite difficult for teachers to navigate and juggleespecially when working with students of varying abilities and needs such as those who are poor, for whom English is a second language, who have a learning disability, or those who present with multiple and cumulative risks (Brunsting, Sreckovic, & Lane, 2014; Kaufhold, Alverez, & Arnold, 2006).
In this article, we explore one policy that is at the center of these forcesResponse to Intervention or RTI. We begin with a brief introduction to RTI and its rationale followed by a brief overview of the varied nature of RTI implementation and effects. We then discuss some of the inherent challenges of adhering to RTI implementation fidelity in the current accountability environment. Borrowing from John Carrolls (1963) model of learning, we argue that the expectations and goals of RTI frameworks conflict with the demands and pressures of high-stakes testing accountability, especially when working with students whose needs and talents vary widely. Next, we present data from semi-structured interviews with teachers in two high poverty culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) elementary schools. These data shed light on the instructional challenges faced by teachers trying to follow RTI protocols while at the same time having to meet accountability benchmarks and expectations with high risk and high need learners. We conclude with implications for policy and practice.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF RTI
Response to Intervention is a multi-tiered framework of increasingly intensive instructional supports in which students are assessed at least three times a year using curriculum-based measures for the purposes of matching instruction with students learning needs (Kaminski & Cummings, 2007). In RTI frameworks, instruction is data-based and thus continuously evolves to match individual learning needs creating a recursive process rooted in student performance on frequent and formative skill-based assessments (Cummings, Atkins, Allison, & Cole, 2008). Students requiring increasingly intensive instructional supports are provided with a progression of tiers of targeted interventions. At Tier I, teachers rely on benchmark assessments to inform whole class instruction and to identify students who are at risk for academic failure and in need of more intensive and differentiated instructional interventions and supports. Students identified as at-risk for academic failure as indicated by a predetermined cut-off score on benchmark assessments would receive Tier II supports (usually delivered in group format) to address their learning needs. Once a student begins to receive Tier II supports, their progress is monitored for academic response or nonresponse again to inform next instructional steps and decisions. School districts predetermine the length of time students should receive tiered supports and specify decision rules for measuring progress. Students failing to respond move to Tier III (usually one-on-one support or small groups of 2 to 3 students) where more individualized interventions are provided. Although special education professionals have long embraced this instructional (and intervention) approach to addressing varying and diverse learning needs (Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008; Elliot, 2015; Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; OConnor & Sanchez, 2011), it wasnt until the passage of IDEA (2004) that RTI became one of the central frameworks guiding instructional decision making in both special and general education classrooms.
RTI instructional models emerged in response to two critical issues in special education (Johnson, 2011). First, the number of students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities (SLD, the largest subgroup of the special education population representing 2.5 million students or 35% of all students receiving special education services) has grown and are increasingly educated in inclusive classroom settings (Cortiella, 2011; Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014; Elliot, 2015). This situation has created instructional challenges for general education teachers. RTI provides a useful framework to assist teachers in inclusive classrooms to better identify needs, remediate, and expeditiously intervene to support students who are performing below grade level peers and who are at-risk for a learning disability.
Second, the traditional IQ-achievement discrepancy model for diagnosing learning disabilities has been wrought with criticism and deemed woefully inadequate. With this model, students are diagnosed with an SLD if a student shows average to above average aptitude (i.e., norm referenced IQ score) and below average (1 to 1 ½ standard deviation difference) academic achievement (i.e., norm referenced achievement score). This arbitrary discrepancy is problematic for several reasons. First, it represents a wait-to-fail philosophy as relying on this rigid (and arbitrary) discrepancy makes early intervention and identification difficult. Young children often do not exhibit the IQ-achievement discrepancy necessary to meet eligibility criteria for an SLD and consequently fail for prolonged periods of time before their achievement is low enough to meet special education criteria (Vellutino, Scanlon, & Lyon, 2000; Vellutino, Scanlon, Small, & Fanuele, 2006). Because of the lapse of time between identification and services, and considering data showing the effectiveness of early interventions for preventing childhood learning and behavior difficulties (e.g., Slavin, Karweit, & Wasik, 1993), it became pressing to provide an alternative identification method that would offer supports more immediately and expediently (e.g., Fuchs & Vaughn, 2012; Yell, Katsiyanni, & Bradley, 2011).
Another significant problem is a lack of empirical evidence supporting the reliability and validity of the IQ-achievement discrepancy model for identifying SLD (Vellutino et al., 2000). The required IQ-achievement discrepancy profile rarely differentiates discrepancy low-achievers from nondiscrepancy low achievers (Kavale & Fornes, 2000; Vellutino et al., 2000; Vellutino et al., 2006). Further, the IQ-achievement discrepancy model has contributed to special education disproportionality related to race, language, and culture (Artiles, Trent & Palmer, 2004; Donovan & Cross, 2002; Harry & Klingner, 2014). With this model, many students who exhibit long term academic achievement never receive special education services and supports due to below average cognitive ability. These students, often described as slow learners, curriculum casualties, or disadvantaged due to linguistic difference, cultural diversity, and/or lack of sociocultural learning opportunities, historically perform lower on IQ tests and consequently do not meet SLD eligibility criteria (Artiles et al., 2004; Harry & Klinger, 2014). Taken together, this traditional diagnostic model for identifying and servicing students with learning disabilities has been inadequate, invalid, and by many accounts biased against certain groups.
Informed by these problems, a 2002 Presidents Commission on Excellence in Special Education recommended that the IQ-Achievement discrepancy method be replaced by a more ecological process for identifying, diagnosing, and supporting students with learning disabilities. The Commission urged policymakers and educators to adopt instructional practices that would include frequent formative assessments to help root out the source of learning challenges and perhaps most importantly, provide appropriate instructional supports as efficiently and expediently as possible. RTI became an ideal alternative that had the best potential to meet these goals.
RTI IMPLEMENTATION AND EFFECTS
The Commissions recommendations were incorporated into IDEA (2004). The IQ-achievement method, while not eliminated, was no longer the mandate for SLD identification. Instead, IDEA (2004) allowed states to choose from three options that still included the IQ- achievement method as well as RTI and/or some type of research-based method for examining students cognitive strengths and weaknesses (see Vellutino et al., 2000, and Velluntino et al., 2006, for a more detailed discussion of the strengths and critiques of each). All states opted to include RTI as part of their special education policy; however, they varied widely in terms of the role, emphasis, and level of guidance offered to practitioners for implementation. As of 2016, 14 states partially (in combination with one of the other two options) or exclusively required (sole option) RTI as part of SLD identification processes. The remaining states permit RTI methods, essentially leaving it up to district and/or school-level officials to decide on how it would be incorporated into practice (Zirkel & Thomas, 2010). Under permitted conditions, local practitioners are free to use RTI methods as one of three options in the SLD identification process (Hauerwas, Brown, & Scott, 2013).
Whether states require or permit RTI for SLD identification, implementation guidance and support vary widely (Hauerwas, Brown, & Scott, 2013; Sullivan & Long, 2010; Zirkel & Thomas, 2010). This can be problematic as implementation fidelity of RTI not only requires close adherence to intervention protocols but also requires an assortment of specific decision rules that guide teacher instruction. For example, decisions include how long students should remain in each tier and the performance criteria for determining risk and response (i.e., how much academic progress constitutes responsiveness? What test criteria should be used?). In many states, an absence of guidance and clarity mean decisions are up to district and/or school-level professionals. Although RTI is intended to provide a clearer, more objective set of decision rules to reinforce the validity and reliability of SLD identification and diagnosis, the absence of uniformity, guidance, and accountability equates to variability in implementation and effectiveness (Balu et al., 2015; Barth et al., 2008; Haurwas, Brown, & Scott, 2013).
Large-scale effects are elusive due to implementation variability. For example, Balu et al. (2015) examined RTI with over 20,000 students from 13 states during the 20112012 school year. They compared RTI practices between an impact sample of 146 elementary schools in 13 states with at least three years of RTI implementation and a reference (or comparison) sample of a random selection of 100 elementary schools representing the same 13 states. Key findings suggest that RTI implementation varied. For example, only about half of the reference sample had adopted RTI practices whereas 86% of the impact sample had. But perhaps more revealing was the within group variation. For example, among impact schools, RTI practices varied including frequency of interventions that were offered, allocation of staff, and use of universal screening assessments. Thus, even when relatively specific RTI features are adopted, there remain variability in their implementation.
Balu et al. (2015) also found that among the impact sample of schools, intensity of reading interventions increased for below grade level students such that those students participated in more small group learning, received more instruction overall, as well as instruction that focused more on phonics and phonemic awareness than students who performed at or above grade level in reading. Thus, RTI implementation seemed to have the effect of promoting Tier I instructional efforts in the form of more small group learning and enhanced instructional time for below grade level readers in first grade. However, the effects of assigning students to Tier II or Tier III interventions had a statistically negative (but relatively small) impact on reading outcomes. By contrast, across all schools in the sample, they found that school-level impact of reading interventions on reading comprehension across all grade levels varied widelysome schools demonstrated more negative effects whereas others more positive effects. Importantly, implementation variability and analytic limitations make it difficult to assess the degree to which outcomes are determined by RTI practices (Balu et al., 2015).
RTI Outcome Studies with Smaller Samples Offer More Positive Feedback
For example, Vanderheyden, Witt, and Gilbertson (2007) used a multiple baseline design to evaluate the effects of RTI on screening and special education eligibility determination in five elementary schools in one large school district. Results of the study revealed that fewer special education evaluations were conducted overall but those who were evaluated were more likely to meet eligibility criteria when RTI data were part of the decision-making process. These results suggest RTI was effective for reducing the overall number of referrals made to special education and also resulted in more appropriate referrals suggesting tiered instruction and gated decision making led to more accurate SLD identification. Other tightly controlled studies show RTIs impact for decreasing special education referrals and increasing appropriate referrals also measured by the proportion of students evaluated to those who qualify for special education (Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Cortiella, 2011; Samuels, 2011).
Some of the most robust and positive effects have been found with targeted reading and math interventions in the early grades (e.g., Gersten et al., 2008; Gersten et al., 2009; McMaster, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2005; Vellutino et al., 2006). A meta-analysis examining the effect of RTI for reading revealed reading gains in schools with RTI models (Scammacca et al., 2007). Research conducted at the secondary level, with less control, and with diverse samples however is mixed (Fuchs & Vaughn, 2012). Taken together, even in the best and clearest of circumstances (clear guidance and decision rules for academic performance, a depth of resources and support), RTI instructional approaches are applied unevenly across subjects and grades (e.g., Berkeley, Bender, Peaster, & Saunder, 2009), and often yield varied outcomes for learners (e.g., false positives/negatives) (Compton et al., 2010; Fuchs & Vaughn, 2012). In contrast, some schools implement RTI very rigidly often ignoring individual student needs and response rate and adopt arbitrary decision rules and standard protocol intervention that do not align with individual student needs (Balu et al., 2015). Research suggests both inconsistency and rigidity confound the ability to ascertain RTI implementation feasibility and effectiveness (Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009). Therefore, although RTI has great promise for certain contexts, certain students, and therefore certain classroom conditions, there is still much we do not know about the wide-scale implementation challenges faced by teachers on the ground levelespecially as it plays out in classrooms that are increasingly diverse.
Competing Policy Expectations for Instruction
Competing policy structures make it difficult to implement RTI with consistency or fidelity. On the one hand are policies such as NCLB and ESSA that endorse high-stakes testing accountability that demand teachers and students learn at the same rates and achieve the same level of success defined by end of year summative tests. Regardless of where students begin, teachers are pressured to get students all to the same endpoint. The results of this policy have been largely disastrous (Nichols & Berliner, 2007a; Ravitch, 2010). For example, there is no evidence high-stakes testing accountability has had the intended effect of increasing student achievement or reducing the achievement gap (Braun, Chapman, & Vezzu, 2010; Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2006, 2012; Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). But, there is a large literature demonstrating the ways high-stakes testing has influenced instruction (Polesel, Rice & Dulfer, 2013) that is watered down and disconnected (Au, 2007; Au & Gourd, 2013), undermined how teachers relate to their students (Booher-Jennings, 2005; Nichols & Berliner, 2007a; Nichols & Valenzuela, 2013; Perlstein, 2007), and influenced instances of cheating and gaming the educational process (Figlio & Getzler, 2006; Nichols & Berliner 2007b). The pressures accompanying high stakes testing have also influenced how teachers label, treat, and instruct special education populations (Figlio & Getzler, 2006; Nichols & Castro-Villarreal, 2016).
By contrast, the goals of RTI hinge on instructional differentiation according to where students are as opposed to where they should be. John Carrolls (1963) model of school learning provides a useful framework for thinking about the ways in which RTI instruction and learning relate. According to Carroll (1963) student learning on any given task is best understood as a ratio of time spent to time needed. Optimal learning is maximized when time spent on tasks is equal to the amount of time students need. Carroll (1963) defined time spent as opportunity to learn and student perseverance (motivation) and time needed in terms of students learning rate, quality of instruction, and ability to understand instruction. Thus, students learning progression is a function of five areas including two that are external to the learner (opportunity and quality of instruction) and three that are internal to the learner (perseverance, learning rate (aptitude), ability to understand). Learner under or overachievement can be addressed by examining (and addressing) external and internal learning conditions.
RTI focuses on the underachievement situation. When students are struggling to learn (or fail to progress), RTI models require that teachers explicitly address the two external learning conditions (opportunity and instructional quality). Expanding opportunity to learn and instructional quality affords teachers a way to address two other conditions of learning including student perseverance and aptitude. When a student is struggling to learn, RTI teachers are to provide more time and opportunities to learn through high quality instruction. Through an ongoing process of assessment, evaluation, and instruction that repeats and occurs in collaboration with other adults (specialists, teachers, and parents), teachers should be able to rule out underachievement due to issues of perseverance, student motivation, ecological factors (Is the student chronically hungry or sleep deprived? Psychologically and emotionally disconnected? Possess maladaptive motivational beliefs? What do others see from the student in other contexts?) and learner aptitude (Is this a slower learner? Is the learner just starting so far behind and needs more time? Is instructional quality, delinquency, or gaps in schooling playing a role?). If these variables are addressed, the source of learner underachievement can be better understood (i.e., true disability or some other unaddressed issue?) and subsequently more specifically addressed.
RTI frameworks are much like mastery learning classrooms of decades ago (Guskey, 1987), only with slightly different purposes and goals. For example, the goals of RTI are to focus on the identification and diagnosis of students with learning disabilities and address learner deficits through tiered instructional and intervention supports beginning with the majority of students instructional level (Burns et al., 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008). The goal of mastery learning is to minimize (or eliminate all together) learner differences on academic tasks by creating academic targets that are reachable by at least 80% of the class (Bloom, 1968; Zimmerman & DiBenedetto, 2008). Despite somewhat different goals, procedurally RTI and mastery learning are quite similar. Both involve iterative high quality instruction that is combined with ongoing formative assessments and feedback systems. Meta analyses of mastery learning programs have revealed modest but positive effects, especially with weaker students (Kulik, Kulik, & Bangert-Drowns, 1990); however similar to what we know about RTI implementation, effects vary by grade level and approach (e.g., Guskey & Gates, 1986; Slavin, 1987).
High-stakes accountability systems work against these purposes by defining explicit learning goals and targets students must meet, thereby ignoring the element of time and individual student instructional level. When learning conditions are optimal (students are motivated, able to learn, instruction is of high quality and opportunities are plentiful), then students theoretically would learn at a pace that sets them up for success on end-of-year summative tests (assuming they are reliable and valid and tied to curriculum). In this scenario, student success is possible because internal and external learning conditions coalesce around meaningful learning goals that are paced appropriately for each student. However, when (internal/external) conditions are not optimal (students need more time, students have low motivation, there are fewer opportunities available to students, or there is a learning disability) but students are expected to meet the same end-of-year test goals, it creates a difficult set of conditions for teachers. Faced with the same targets, but little flexibility of time or pacing, teachers and students would be less likely to achieve end of year goals. These conditions are worsened when stakes are attached to test performance. In these contexts, the pressure on teachers to hurry students through the curriculum works against teachers abilities to differentiate, pace learning progress, and remediate learner struggles.
This state of affairs is made more onerous in classrooms serving high need students where behavioral problems are greater, students ability and achievement vary more widely, the learning targets are too high, and time is constrained. In high poverty contexts, teachers challenges to implement effective RTI practices multiply because they serve a greater number of students who struggle to learn because of multiple, cumulative risk factors associated with living and learning in high poverty contexts (Berliner, 2006, 2013: Biddle, 2014). Simply put, these students need more time, and yet teachers must hurry them up and bring them up to grade level if they are to meet accountability demands. Thus, the process of using RTI methods for distinguishing between students with disabilities versus students who are just struggling to learn is made exponentially more onerous and complicated (Cavendish, Harry, Menda, Espinosa, & Mahotiere, 2016).
STUDY GOALS AND RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The goal of our study is to add to limited research on teachers views of RTI processes and implementation in high needs CLD urban school settings (Cavendish et al., 2016; Greenfield, Rinaldi, Proctor, & Cardarelli, 2010; Orosco & Klinger, 2010). We wanted to understand what were the primary challenges and obstacles in one large southwestern urban school district that had been implementing RTI since 2009 and who serve a largely poor, Hispanic, and ESL population. A secondary goal was to see if teachers reports included references to the role accountability played in their implementation of RTI practices. We wanted to see if and/or how high-stakes testing conditions may intersect RTI implementation for teachers in these contexts. Our study takes place in Texas where high-stakes testing has been a staple for decades and has been particularly onerous for high poverty and high minority school populations (Valenzuela, 2005), thus providing an apt climate for exploring this issue. Our guiding research question was: How do teachers in two low-income elementary schools serving majority high-risk Hispanic student populations talk about the primary challenges, obstacles and/or misconceptions surrounding the mandates of providing RTI?
The district in which our schools are situated adopted RTI in 2009. Relative to other contexts the guidelines developed for this district are relatively flexible.2 For example, although teachers are to use RTI as a framework for measuring student academic performance, differentiating instruction, and for identifying (and addressing) specific learning disabilities, specific parameters and decision criteria are only vaguely described and loosely monitored. At the Tier I level, teachers (but especially K6) are to adopt research-based instruction and curricula to promote learning for all while at the same time lead the way in identifying and remediating struggling learners. Teachers who suspect a student is struggling (as evidenced by performance on a benchmark exam) must convene a meeting to develop a specific 1012-week plan for that student, the end of which assessments are used to determine whether the student has responded to differentiated and individualized instruction or not. If a student fails to make adequate progress, another meeting is convened, a plan is devised, and the nonresponding student receives Tier II instructional intervention support which in this district includes standard protocol computer based intervention for reading and math for another 10 to 12 weeks. The process repeats in Tier III however the student is offered more individualized support at this level with more frequency (more days a week) and intensity (longer periods of time). If progress is not made after the recommended 1012-week period, a follow up meeting is scheduled to consider special education or dyslexia referral. Thus, teachers must provide increasingly intensive tiers of support and must convene meetings to review student progress as the student receives the support but the length of time the student is in any one tier is flexible and subject to RTI team consensus. This flexibility is best practice in theory as students should continue with an intervention that is working as seen through progress and growth and should not be subjected to an intervention that is not working as seen through prolonged lack of response or regression (Burns et al., 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008).
Our participants came from two elementary schools located in a large urban and inner city school district in the southwest United States. This district serves 53,701 students, the majority of whom are economically disadvantaged (92%) and Hispanic (91%). The district employed 3,288 teachers most of whom were female (77%) and Hispanic (62%), followed by White (25%), and African American (10%). The district has a large English Language Learner (ELL) (19%) and bilingual (16%) student population. Fewer students in this district receive special education services (10%) than the national average of 13% (Cortiella & Horowitz, 2014).
Both schools from which teacher participants were recruited were higher poverty and had more bilingual students than the district at large. Louis Elementary School3 (LES) enrolled 354 students who were predominately Hispanic (95%) and largely economically disadvantaged (94%). At LES approximately 9% of students qualified to receive special education services and 20% were in a bilingual program. Reynolds ES (RES) enrolled 665 students who were predominately Hispanic (95%) and who were also largely economically disadvantaged (98%). At RES approximately 9% students qualified to receive special education services and an even greater proportion (36%) were in a bilingual program. Most teachers at our schools like their students, identified as Hispanic (97%) at LES and 93% at RES compared to 62% at the district) (see Table 1). A large proportion of students at LES (63%) and RES (66%) were also considered at-risk for academic failure (Texas Education Agency, 2015).
Table 1. School and Participant Demographic Information
These two elementary schools were purposefully chosen because of their relationship with a local public university forged to encourage the sustainability in the use of evidence-based instructional and educational methods and practices. We wanted to hear from these teachers because they were in the process of obtaining strategic guidance and support in the delivery of RTI methods and we believed they would offer insightful and valuable information regarding the challenges of delivery and implementationeven with support. We invited all teachers in both schools to participate in an interview study about their views on RTI implementation (N = 61). We received eight volunteers representing a 13% overall response rate from LES (n = 5) and RES (n = 3). All of or participants are females with varying degrees of experience in the classroom and with RTI (see Table 2). A more detailed description of each follow.
Ms. Rodriquez is a Hispanic second grade teacher who has taught for eight years, all of which took place at LES. She has worked with RTI practices for approximately five years, exclusively in this district. When asked, what is it like teaching at her school, she commented on the sizeshe described her experience as challenging because it is small and therefore there are fewer resources and the fact that teachers vary widely in their experience in the classroom poses challenges.
Ms. Vasquez is a Hispanic first year fifth-grade bilingual teacher at LES. This was also her first year with RTI. When asked about teaching at LES, she said she enjoyed it but it is very, very challenging. For Ms. Vasquez, being a first-year teacher meant she was learning a great deal about her teaching, her students, and herself.
Ms. Johnson is an African American second year fourth and fifth grade special education teacher at LES. She has only worked with RTI practices for two years, all at this district. She likes teaching at LES because it is multicultural, she likes the teachers, and she feels like she can ask questions and get answers and resources when she needs them.
Ms. Smith is a White second grade teacher in her fourth year in the classroom, three of which she spent at LES. She has worked with RTI practices for four years. She feels teaching at her school is challenging and up and down which means she cannot coast.
Ms. Villarreal is a Hispanic second grade teacher in her sixth year in the classroom and at LES. She has worked with RTI practices for approximately five years, all at LES. Ms. Villarreal notes that it is very difficult teaching at this school. She notes that the behaviors are difficult and many of her students have behavioral or psychological issues. Ms. Villarreal believes her school sees students with psychological illnesses and learning challenges that are larger per capita than other places.
Ms. Gonzalez is a Hispanic K5 general education teacher who has taught for 10 years. This was her first year at RES but her 10th year with RTI. Ms. Gonzalez has a perspective on RTI that contrasts our other teachers due to her lengthy past experiences with it at her previous district. In that district, RTI practices had been implemented, modified, and refined for years, resulting in clear expectations and decision rules for teachers to follow. As a result, Ms. Gonzalez had a positive view of RTI in general, and could comment on the ways in which implementation of RTI at RES contrasted with her previous district. Although Ms. Gonzalez likes teaching at RES, she notes that the RTI process at this school is not clear, very vague, and inconsistent.
Ms. Castro is a Hispanic kindergarten teacher in her 19th year. She spent all of her career at RES, and she has worked with RTI practices ever since its inception in her district, which according to her is roughly six years. She likes RES and even when given the chance to leave, decided to stay. She likes her kids and enjoys her bilingual student population, many of whom she has kept in touch with over the years.
Ms. Resendez is a fourth-grade Hispanic female teacher who has taught for 11 years but has only been at LES for one. She has worked with RTI practices since its inception in the district, roughly six or seven years. Ms. Resendez notes that at this school you cant just think about the students academically, but you have to think of the whole child. For her, this means presenting information through various modalities (auditory, visual) and adjusting to individual student needs.
Table 2. Participant Information
Table 2. Participant Information Continued
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYTIC APPROACH
We developed a semi-structured set of interview questions that prompted our teachers to think about the RTI process and how well it was working for them in their contexts. Interview questions were developed based on the literature related to RTI implementation and practice (Burns et al., 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008) and were vetted through several rounds of review among research team members before converging on the final set of interview items (see Appendix). Since our goal was to allow teachers talk about their challenges, obstacles, and/or misconceptions surrounding RTI, we allowed flexibility for follow up questions for probing and/or clarification. We conducted all eight hour-long semi-structured interviews in the spring of 2016. Interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed for analysis.
We adopted Corbin and Strausss (1990) grounded theory approach for data analysis. This approach is ideal given our goals to let our data inform emergent theories and hypotheses about RTI practices in high needs contexts. We began with open coding which involved identifying general categories that captured each participants responses to each interview question. Next, we used Axial coding to search for interconnectedness among the original themes. Finally, we used selective coding, integrating our data into superordinate themes that organized all responses. We examined our interview data in two ways: by question and then overall. Our question-by-question analysis revealed cross participant themes, whereas our holistic analysis (between participants) yielded cross cutting themes that organized the entire data set. All members of the research team read each interview independently first, identifying themes and patterns. The team met to discuss independent analyses reflecting a high (at least 80%) level of agreement after the first pass. We repeated this process (independent analysis followed by a group meeting) several times until we obtained greater than 90% convergence on our data. This process yielded four themes: (a) challenges with differentiation, (b) dissatisfaction related to teacher and staff preparedness, (c) challenges balancing IEP goals and the states grade level curriculum expectations to which teachers are accountable (i.e., Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS), and (d) duration of the RTI process.
In this section, we summarize teachers comments that illustrate each of the four emergent themes. Our goal is to highlight the more illustrative examples of each theme. Teacher demographic information is made available for descriptive purposes only. Although it may be the case that experience (or some other background variable) has some bearing on differences in teachers views on RTI, our limited data and sample disallow inferences regarding the role these characteristics may play.
CHALLENGES WITH DIFFERENTIATION
Our teachers reported difficulties associated with differentiating instruction to meet the needs of their students in their efforts to implement an adequate RTI model. Part of the challenge rested with the range of their students social, emotional, and academic needs. For example, when asked what it is like teaching in their school, Ms. Smith said it was challenging and rewarding whereas Ms. Vasquez noted it was hard and challenging and difficult. Ms. Villarreal said, Psychological illnesses and learning challenges are I think larger per capita than other places. This was echoed throughout our interviews. Teachers taught students whose academic, social, and emotional needs were quite variable and challenging.
Many of our teachers, both new and veteran, commented on the wide academic variability of their students. For example, Ms. Rodriguez noted, I have a special education student who is performing at a pre-K level to a second-grade student who is a GT [Gifted and Talented] student. So it is extremely difficult. Ms. Johnson, noted, the challenges of having all the different levels of where they are . . . were 4th and 5th grade special ed but a lot of them are at the first grade level . . . another student is at an 8th/9th grade level. And Ms. Villarreal noted, its very hard to differentiate when you have such giant levels, differences in levels. . . . I have some kids that are at O and P and the kiddos that are still at A and B on the reading . . . it makes it hard to differentiate enough to bridge the gap. For her, sometimes it feels like your lowest kids get all the attention because youre trying to lift them up and then you feel like youre not giving enough to your higher level kiddos.
Teachers adopted various strategies for dealing with academic differences. For example, our most experienced teacher, Ms. Castro, would strategically scaffold instruction in whole class or small group levels to ensure students at all levels received the content. I differentiated, so for dyslexia, I will just teach the whole classes if theyre dyslexic because it doesnt hurt for them to be taught that way. But for kids who need more time I write directions down, I verbalize them, I ask them to be fed back to me, I chunk them. For special education students, I scaffold more for them . . . but I scaffold for everyone For her, learner variability was an opportunity rather than a burden. For Ms. Johnson, a second-year teacher, it required a great deal of thought regarding how to dumb down the content for her special ed kids. Im a little bit more free . . . when it comes to general ed. with spec ed you have to think about what level that child is on. Ms. Rodriguez adapts by spending more time preparing and meeting the needs of [her] struggling students. Since her GT students are more independent, she spent more of her time with those who are lower level because they have more of a need, theyre more dependent on me and other students.
When students advanced through the RTI process, moving to Tiers 2 and 3 and requiring more time, teachers worried about how the extra academic attention would impact others. Our first-year teacher, Ms. Vasquez noted, sometimes students when they see, oh hes doing something different . . . or it might be the same, but just less questions or worded a little bit differently and they see that, oh thats not fair. How come he or she gets to do that? For others, differential treatment tailored to behavioral needs triggered the same concerns. For example, Ms. Villarreal commented on her worries about her general education students when she gave special ed. students more attention, I think it is hard for gen ed. students. They see it as unfair. Ms. Vasquez made behavior accommodations for one of her students who has autism. However, she noticed other students get upset, and ask her to treat us equally. For Ms. Rodriguez, although her established classroom-rules helped the classroom run smoothly, two students who couldnt control their behavior regularly posed challenges. Both students would act out and disrupt the class. its very difficult for me to control . . . those behaviors have been tough to manage because sometimes it is not a specific event . . . its random. She noted how it is difficult for other students, because they dont have the patience to sit and listen to him.
Students who struggled academically often acted out to protect their self-worth. Our first-year teacher, Ms. Vasquez, was especially concerned about these dynamics, what Ive noticed is that . . . at least two of my students that act out the most are trying to get away from something and thats school work. Why? because they are below reading grade level, very. This teacher also noted that her special education students specifically would try to hide their weakness using excuses such as my iPads not working to avoid participating. Another teacher worried about how tough or soft to be with students with disabilities. Im more afraid to discipline the special ed. students because I dont know how much of their behavior as far as their disability . . . how much of it is controllable.
TEACHER AND STAFF PREPAREDNESS
Teachers reported inadequate training and support to implement interventions with fidelity. All teachers reported a need for more staff and more resources to better support implementation and progress through tiers. Ms. Rodriquez described the RTI process as hard and not very clear. Others noted inconsistent and variability of implementation with some seeing differences from campus to campus and others noting differences between in-service training and actual campus implementation practices. Ms. Gonzalez, who spent several years in a more affluent district, attributed the inconsistency and variability to lack of follow through, accountability, understanding, and training. She described better follow through and understanding at her previous district, which according to her, translated to greater RTI implementation fidelity.
Our teachers requested additional manpower and resources to carry out intervention implementation and data collection processes as some teachers noted lack of resources as major impediments to implementation. Ms. Villarreal requested specific support and stated a need for more special education support in the RTI process and more implementation specialists to assist with implementation and data collection. Ms. Rodriguez suggested involvement of Dyslexia specialists to aid in meeting demand and enhancing resources. And, Ms. Smith emphasized the importance of training when she indicated that the training she received this year blew life into a situation that was getting overwhelming for me.
BALANCING IEP AND TEKS
Most of our veteran teachers reported difficulty meeting students individual learning needs and IEPS while also teaching to state grade level standards. For example, Ms. Villarreal noted how different students IEP goals were from the state curriculum requirements. You look at their IEP and their goals are so different from TEKS. She goes on, maybe they have goals to read sight words, and you know read the first 50 sight words, but how do I combine that with what their IEP goals are? To accommodate, she does a lot of small group and a lot of individual work. Ms. Rodriguez shared similar difficulty with rectifying individual learning needs and state standards when she stated, everyone is held to the same accountability. Ms. Vasquez also communicated this balancing act by stating, teaching has to be the same but different. Ms. Johnson reported difficulty adjusting universal/core instruction to special education students levels. This teacher went on to say she must incorporate a lot of visuals as many of the special education students also have language barriers. Similarly, Ms. Castro described special education students dont respond as easy to basic (universal/core) intervention. Thus, she reported to use higher kids to help with the lower kids.
Ms. Johnson reported that the learning expectations are too tough for all of their students, muddying the goals of differentiation. She noted, thats one of the challenges of that [for some of my students] the rigor of the work they have to do in 5th grade doesnt really equal to what their ability [is]. However, another teacher, Ms. Smith described RTI as extremely valuable for Special education students as it helped with fidelity and guaranteed IEP implementation.
DURATION OF RTI
All teachers reported dissatisfaction with the duration of the RTI process in that it takes too long. Teachers reported that issues are not met in a timely fashion which leads to delays in needed services and supports. For example, one teacher expressed dismay with the time it takes to identify appropriate accommodations and lesson plans to meet the needs of students receiving tiered supports. Ms. Castro reported the process taking up to two years and noted the wait is too long especially when they are struggling. Ms. Vasquez described RTI as time consuming. Moreover, many of the teachers communicated misunderstanding of the RTI process as tiered and increasingly intensive instructional supports. For example, Ms. Villarreal noted with RTI, we just identify and then thats where it ends. She goes on to note, its too long, and especially if you cant get parents to the meetings, it can drag on a year, a year and a half, two years . . . in the meantime the child is not getting services. Another teacher, Ms. Johnson, described RTI as too slow, kids stuck in gen ed too long.
Ms. Gonzalezs view of successful and unsuccessful RTI rested in resources, supports, and teacher knowledge and buy in. This teacher reported large gaps in resources and supports available for RTI implementation across the two districts she had worked in. She believed these inequities to explain some of the differences in RTI implementation and buy in across districts. However, she also noted a difference in the range of student concerns across the districts in that less variability in student skill level and behavior also made for easier RTI implementation and follow through. For her, campus support and resources as well as parent support was key to a more streamlined RTI process, which in her eyes also related with better teacher buy-in.
The goal of this study was to understand how elementary school teachers in culturally and linguistically diverse contexts talked about the challenges associated with RTI implementation. The results provide some insight on how our teachers thought about and experienced RTI in their schools and how it affected their work. We uncovered four primary areas of concern: (a) challenges and worries associated with differentiating instruction and behavioral management, (b) lack of support, guidance, and training, (c) conflicts between RTI processes and the state proscribed curriculum standards, and (d) RTI duration. These concerns overlap with what others have reported when examining similar contexts (e.g., Castro-Villarreal, Rodriguez, & Moore, 2014; Cavendish et al., 2016). Namely teachers working with a wide range of academic and behavioral challenges often have difficulties implementing effective RTI practices, especially when support, guidance, and training is lacking.
Differentiating instruction and behavior management was a challenge for all teachers. In these schools, where the range of behavioral and academic issues was wide, teachers capacities to differentiate seemingly grow more difficult. One of the central worries expressed by our teachers had to do with how students interpreted their role and place in the classroom when differentiation was the goal. If some students receive more leniency for disruptive and inappropriate behaviors because of disability status (autism, emotional disorders) how will others perceive the fairness of their teacher? If some students receive extra instructional attention and/or appear to have fewer academic requirements, will other students disengage, grow bored, or assert inequities? This is an especially relevant concern for teachers working in inclusive settings within multi-tiered systems of support where students are receiving various and diverse instructional and intervention supports. Thus, concerns for differentiation and differential treatment should be discussed in larger RTI implementation conversations and how these practices are increasingly difficult to implement yet they et al. Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008; Eliott, 2015).
This issue of differentiating was salient when balancing IEPs and state grade level academic expectations. With more and more special education students receiving supports in general education classrooms, the general education teacher must figure out how to promote academic progress toward annual academic goals for all students, while at the same time adhering to Individualized Education Plans (IEP) for students already identified as a student with a disability. This can be a daunting task as best practices or a particular standard protocol Tier II intervention may not align with instructional techniques and goals of the individual students IEP. This introduces additional layers of complexity as the general education teacher is left to decide how to reconcile Tier I and II approaches with those in students IEPs, and for teachers working in high-need and low SES contexts, for multiple students IEPs. This is also the case for students with Behavior Support Plans (BSP) attending schools with tiered behavior support frameworks in place. Does the individual student BSP align with campus wide behavior support goals? It appears that special education teachers and school specialists (e.g., school psychologists, diagnosticians, dyslexia team members) must provide more support and become more involved in all Tiers of the RTI process to ensure that systems align and processes in special education best fit in those of the general education classroom. This can be achieved through frequent and ongoing collaboration and more seamless integration of general and special education programs.
We also learned that keeping pace with the academic targets delineated by state standards was too difficult when also having to meet the needs of students with IEPs and students who are struggling to catch up. Some of our teachers commented on the futile situation that had them trying to keep their students on pace with curriculum expectations when so many of their students possessed widely variable learning challenges and needs. Teachers questioned the veracity of these learning targets as it related to their particular students. Although some of their students clearly possessed the academic potential and capability, too many were behind or ill-equipped to keep pace putting teachers in a peculiar instructional bind.
Though our findings suggest progress has been made in terms of understanding RTI processes and goals (Castro-Villarreal et al., 2014), the length of time it took to process students through RTI Tiers was frustrating for our teachers. It could be that the burden of differentiating instruction effectively with a classroom of challenging behaviors and academic problems for lengthy periods of time (with little guidance or support) creates a frustrating state of affairs. Although the process takes time as RTI features are based on implementation fidelity and progress monitoring over time, the interventions and supports students are exposed to should be evidence-based and similar if not identical to those implemented in special education settings. Our teachers overwhelming concerns for the duration and length of RTI might relate with the belief that academic skill deficits and challenging behavior are best served in exclusive self-contained settings. If this is the case, it may behoove educators, administrators, and trainers of RTI to invest more time educating general and special education teachers about LRE and RTI goals of meeting student academic needs in the general education classroom with same age and typically developing peers (Burns et al., 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008; Elliott, 2015).
These data only provide a snapshot of the issues associated with RTI implementation in high-risk, high-poverty elementary school settings. Although our grounded theory approach yielded informative ideas and issues associated with RTI implementation, we cannot be certain how much of our teachers instructional struggles are RTI specific and how much are typical of any highly diverse classroom where teachers struggle to balance instruction and management goals while pressured to meet ongoing curriculum goals. Still, our methodology allowed teachers to express their thinking and experiences working within an RTI system with a CLD student population. More research is needed to compare RTI decision-making across contexts.
We also acknowledge that our analysis and interpretations may be influenced by two of our three authors relationships with these schools. These two authors had spent time working with several teachers in each school assisting with RTI practices. Although they did not directly work with our participants, these ongoing relationships may have influenced how data were viewed. Importantly, one author had no contact with either school or any of the teachers and therefore provided an outsider view throughout the entire data collection and analysis process.
Our data underscore the inherent complexities of implementing a strong RTI process in culturally and linguistically diverse settings. One issue that emerged had to do with teachers struggles to differentiate when faced with significant academic and behavioral student diversity. Our teachers (rightfully) worried about how decisions made for one student would impact others. This insight reflects reasonable understanding about how teachers messages about ability, effort, and value are internalized by their students. However, contexts where the pressure to differentiate is high makes it difficult to avoid. RTI policy must be flexible enough to allow teachers discretion for minimizing ability-laden messages. Similarly, for RTI to be effective, it seems important to release teachers from rigid academic targets. More research is needed to better understand how the intersection of standards, differentiation and instruction impact classrooms of students with different types of instructional and behavioral challenges.
A major policy concern was that of the conflict between state accountability standards and meeting the differentiated and individualized needs of an increasingly diverse student body. Our teachers were challenged by competing RTI processes and IEP protocols that often conflicted with expectations for preparing students for end of year tests. Until high-stakes testing systems are completely abandoned, these conditions are unlikely to change. The implementation challenges reported by our teachers working in a high need contemporary school setting leads us to question the practicality and feasibility of these practices in real world contexts under real world conditions. Is the weight of multiple and sometimes competing policy demands too much for teachers working in high need contexts? What aspects of RTI and other educational policies need to be reconsidered, re-conceptualized, or adapted? Although our teachers report improved understanding of processes, most of our teachers still noted confusion and misunderstanding especially as it relates to implementation and decision rules. Persistent confusion may suggest RTI processes are still unclear, inconsistent, and vague. Our teachers struggles and concern mirror early concerns and criticism regarding RTI implementation and role in SLD identification (Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009). Therefore, more research is needed to understand how current educational conditions and especially standards-based curriculum pacing impacts teachers RTI decision making processes.
Our data also underscore the importance of and continued need for support and training for RTI implementation (Castro-Villarreal et al., 2014). These preliminary findings may indicate a need for improved training at the university and preservice level to better prepare teachers for work in tiered problem-solving frameworks. In light of our teachers discontent with current training, resources, and supports offered at the district level and state RTI guidelines requiring implementation, it is recommended that teacher training programs consider restructuring training to resemble that of special education programs especially their responsive and student-centered focus which also matches core features of tiered problem-solving models. This training and pedagogical shift is recommended considering the quickly changing needs of future educators and the increasingly diverse student body, namely the fact that 75% of students receiving special education services will receive those supports in the general education classroom (Burns et al., 2005; Chard & Linan-Thompson, 2008; Elliott, 2015). Our teachers thinking about current training and resource practices may also point to the ineffectiveness of time limited professional development and suggests utility in pyramidal, train the trainer models for ongoing teacher coaching support and larger state level adoption of such coaching practices as an alternative to traditional professional development approaches.
Due to the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in American schools and considering our teachers thinking and experiences about their work in a contemporary setting, it is recommended that teachers be exposed to issues regarding equity and disproportionality in education as well as sociocultural learning theory (Moll & Gonzalez, 2004; Penuel & Wertsch, 1995; Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978). This training will assist teachers in considering students sociocultural context and background when thinking about students learning and behavior. In addition, this training and context would allow teachers to identify and build on students cultural and linguistic strengths as a way to better meet students learning and instructional needs. This training would also teach educators to become more reflective and to critically examine instructional practices and student response or lack of response in tandem and as it relates to students unique cultural and linguistic histories.
In closing, our teachers' thinking and experiences working in an RTI framework brings to mind ideas of change and Peers law which states, a solution to the problem changes the problem (Brown, Pryzwansky, & Shulte, 2011). RTI was implemented as an alternative SLD identification method and to prevent learning problems. Our teachers challenges to implement RTI and variability of implementation nationwide suggests some unintended consequences that warrant the continuation of the problem-solving process and dialogue as we strive toward more equitable educational systems for all.
1. According to the executive summary (p. 5), the impact sample included schools that followed four specific practices no later than 20092010 year: (a) use of three or more tiers of increasing instructional intensity to deliver reading services to students, (b) universal screening of all students at least twice a year, (c) use of data for placing students in Tier II or III, and (d) use of progress monitoring to determine whether intervention is working for student laced in Tier II or III Balu et al. (2015). Evaluation of response to intervention practices for elementary school reading: Executive Summary. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Science, US Department of Education. from: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20164000/pdf/20164000_es.pdf 2. The state of Texas offers general guidelines for how Local Education Agencies might implement RTI, but does not make reporting on progress or implementation a requirement. These guidelines include: (a) high-quality research based instruction, (b) universal screening for academic and behavior problems, (c) multiple tiers of increasingly intensive intervention, (d) fidelity measures, and (e) continuous progress monitoring. Thus, state regulations and recommendations allow significant flexibility for districts to develop their own RTI framework and decision making criteria (Zirkel & Thomas, 2010). 3. All names (district, schools, teachers) are pseudonyms.
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