A case analysis of an elementary school's implementation of response to intervention.
The study provides an illustration of an elementary school's implementation of a model of Response to Intervention (RTI). The school was selected to be the pilot for RTI implementation within the district. The study employed interviews of all members of the school RTI Leadership Team and select members of the district-level RTI Leadership Team. An inductive, thematic analysis of participants' testimony revealed critical features and contextual issues related to RTI implementation. Major themes included the widespread frustration of participants with traditional prereferral and referral systems regarding special education eligibility and services, careful development of a school implementation plan and process, new role and responsibility challenges given RTI implementation, and the importance of principal and teacher leadership. Participants also provided descriptions of implementation obstacles or barriers and perceived improvements in instruction and student learning. Limitations of the study (given district and school contextual factors) and recommendations for effective RTI implementation are provided.
Keywords: elementary education, case study, intervention, special education
Fuchs and Fuchs (2006) identified rising costs and criticisms of the IQ-achievement discrepancy as sources of dissatisfaction that have provided impetus to the Response to Intervention (RTI) initiative. They summarized criticisms of the IQ-achievement discrepancy model as overidentification of middle-income class students of dubious disability and underidentification of lower-income class, low-performing students; employment of a "wait-to-fail" model that undermines early identification and intervention; and inability of the discrepancy model to distinguish when low achievement is due to disability versus ineffective teaching.
Although there is much consensus over the historical problems that have promoted the RTI alternative, there is much less consensus on other aspects of RTI. Fuchs and Deschler (2007) contended that some stakeholders emphasize preventive intervention in general education, others stress special education eligibility determination, and others argue for both purposes. In a widely disseminated work on RTI sponsored by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDE; 2008a, 2008b), Batsche et al. (2008) provided a definition that omitted any reference to special education eligibility determination. The National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI; 2010a), on the other hand, stipulated a definition that includes explicit reference to identification of students with disabilities. Shinn (2007) termed an emphasis on preventive intervention and support for all students as rti (lowercase); when these components are used for the purpose of eligibility determination, he referred to the process as RTI (uppercase). Fuchs, Fuchs, and Steckler (2010) characterized those who emphasize RTI as a system for preventive intervention in general education and special education identification as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) group, and the general education reform-only stakeholders as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) group. Even within special education, there are those who view the major value of RTI as preventive and improved instruction in general education. A survey of the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) membership on the views of local directors of special education regarding RTI indicated that most directors viewed the primary benefit of RTI as improvement of instruction versus reduction of numbers of students classified as learning disabled or reduction of the disproportional representation of minority students.
In addition to competing definitions, purposes, and perspectives, varied models of Response to Intervention exist. Most reviews (Bender & Shores, 2007; Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006; Shores & Chester, 2009) compare and contrast standard treatments protocol, problem-solving process, and a mixed standard treatment and problem-solving model. The standard treatments protocol model emphasizes treatment fidelity, evidence-based instruction, replicable teaching procedures, and standard treatment protocols within a tiered instruction approach. The problem-solving approach also emphasizes the importance of student progress monitoring and the organization of schools for tiered instruction but embraces a more flexible, less prescriptive, and more individualized problem-solving approach to intervention planning and implementation. The problem-solving approach tends to be favored by practitioners (Shores & Chester, 2009) but lacks the research base of the standards treatment model. Fuchs and Fuchs (2006) suggested that the standards treatment approach may be stronger for academics but added that a problem-solving approach may be most effective for behavioral concerns.
Others have sought common ground among the disparate perspectives by attempting to delineate key features or attributes of RTI systems. Barnes and Harlacher (2008) differentiated RTI principles (why RTI is important) from features (what RTI looks like). They argued that the principles are the same across models of implementation, although the features may differ. Glover and DiPerna (2007) reviewed the existing evidence base for what they term "core RTI features," and the core included tiered intervention, student assessment and decision-making, evidence-based intervention, fidelity or procedural reliability, and sustainability of systems-level capacity. The NCRTI (2010b) also released a document on essential components. Although these various taxonomies have some difference, there is much overlap.
Some have attempted to develop manuals to guide states, districts, and schools in the implementation of RTI to bridge the theoretical debate over RTI with actual practice. Johnson, Mellard, Fuchs, and McKnight (2006) developed a "how to do it" manual for the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities (NRCLD). Kurus and Tilly (2008) published, on behalf of NASDE and the CASE, a blueprint for local school implementation of RTI. The blueprint is based upon the definition of RTI provided by Batsche et al. (2008). Action steps for building consensus, building infrastructure, and beginning implementation are provided.
Several research teams have attempted to survey the current state of RTI implementation across the states to determine how states are responding to varied perspectives on RTI. A NASDE-sponsored survey (Hoover, Baca, Wexler-Love, & Saenz, 2008) of the nation's state directors of special education focused upon the current level of RTI emphasis in the states, percentage of districts within the states using RTI, each state's formal purpose for using RTI, the status of professional development for statewide training of educators in the use of RTI, the content that was emphasized in the statewide trainings, and the models employed by the states. All of the 44 responding states indicated that they were at some level of implementation of RTI. Seventeen of the states reported 10% or less of the districts implementing RTI; five reported at least 25% or more implementing. The survey enabled states to identify up to three purposes for adoption of RTI. Fifteen states cited the full three purposes--namely, making instructional decisions, determining eligibility for special education services or placement, and eliminating the discrepancy emphasis. Twenty-four states cited the two purposes of making instructional decisions and determining student eligibility for special education. Ninety-three percent of the states were involved in a professional development initiative on RTI. According to the respondents, an overview of RTI practices, student progress monitoring, and data-based instructional decision-making were the major emphases of the professional development. Only 41 states responded to the survey item concerning model selected. Twenty-four states indicated that a combined problem-solving and standard treatment method model for decision-making was selected, 13 states used a problem-solving model, and only one state reported selection of a standard protocol model approach.
Berkeley, Bender, Peaster, and Saunders (2009) also surveyed the status of state implementation, using an analysis of state department websites. Their review focused upon the status of state model development, the model selected, professional development provided, use of RTI for learning disability eligibility, number of tiers in the model selected, domains of implementation, intensity of implementation, progress monitoring, use of research-based practices, and control for fidelity of instruction. They determined that 15 states had fully developed models and 22 were still in model development.
Other states did not adopt a model but provided guidance to districts. Only three states gave no indication of engagement in RTI. Of the 15 states that adopted a model, the majority consisted of a blended problem-solving and standard protocol approach; three states had adopted a problem-solving model, and two states used the standard protocol approach model. Eighty-eight percent of the states provided some form of professional development on RTI. Most states (37) permitted use of either the discrepancy model or an RTI model for determination of learning disability eligibility; only two restricted that determination to an RTI approach. Of the 15 states with developed models, 13 employed three tiers within the models and two employed four tiers. The majority of states with a developed model address academics and behavior, and most discussed the importance of student progress monitoring, use of research-based practice, and the importance of fidelity of implementation, although the degree of specificity varied greatly.
Another survey, conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast (REL-S) (Sawyer, Holland, & Detgen, 2008), extensively analyzed state policies and procedures in six southeastern states, including North Carolina. They reported that the rationale for adoption among the states was to address the issue of disproportionality of identification, improve student achievement, improve general and special education collaborative efforts, and provide an alternative for special education eligibility determinations for students with learning disabilities. North Carolina was the only state in which the initiative was housed in a state's Exceptional Children's Division; RTI was housed in general education units in the other five state departments. North Carolina was one of two states piloting a statewide initiative, implementing a four-tiered problem-solving approach with an elementary focus for the pilot. Surveys conducted by Hoover et al. (2008) and Berkeley et al. (2009) reached similar conclusions regarding the North Carolina model. North Carolina employed a train-the-trainers model that trained local school personnel in the state's problem-solving model and on other RTI practices. Teams of local school personnel with different key roles in RTI (teachers, specialists, and administrators) were encouraged to attend training together. North Carolina also provided recommended forms to guide local RTI efforts; the forms were not required, however. North Carolina personnel also were cited for identifying involvement and commitment of local administration as a major facilitating factor related to effectiveness of the training and eventual implementation. North Carolina personnel also encouraged local districts to start small when planning the RTI initiatives at the district level.
What is less known is the impact of these various state policies and procedures on local school implementation of RTI. The REL-S survey of state departments included much information regarding the importance of local factors on successful implementation of state policy. Hilton (2007) argued that whatever might be the dictates of state or federal policy, schools will only be successful with implementation of RTI if it includes district support, strong school leadership, teacher leadership and buy-in, and clear decision-making and communication. The "how to do it" manual developed for the NRCLD (Johnson et al., 2006) includes a descriptive sampling of school case studies that met criteria set by the Center, but there is no information regarding the processes employed and challenges faced by the identified case schools in accomplishing RTI implementation.
The purpose of this study was to delineate critical features of an elementary school's implementation of a RTI model and the contextual influences related to those events, according to the perspectives of the participants. The school was the first school within the district to attempt implementation of RTI. Therefore, this case study aimed to add to the literature on the process of implementing RTI and serve educational researchers and educators who work with RTI by providing a deep description of one elementary school's implementation of an RTI model.
The research questions that framed this study were:
1. What was the sequence of events entailed in the development of the school's RTI implementation?
2. Who were the key individuals involved in the implementation?
3. How did the state and county educational systems influence the implementation?
4. What were the particular school and local school system strengths that abetted the implementation?
5. What were the barriers to implementation?
6. What were the difficult issues or challenges regarding implementation?
7. What were unique aspects of the model implementation for the school?
8. What changes at the school or school system resulted from the model implementation?
9. What data sources or other sources contributed to model implementation?
10. What changes to the process of implementation were recommended by participants?
The elementary school in this study is in the southeastern section of the state of North Carolina. The school had been in operation only 2 years prior to the RTI implementation. The school served 955 students in Grades K-5. It also served a student population that was 15.4% African American, 6.1% Hispanic, 0.3% Native American, 3.6% Asian, 70.1% White, and 4.5% multiracial. In addition, 13.2% of students were students with disabilities and 20% received free or reduced-price lunch. Prior to the year of RTI implementation, students in Grades 3 through 5 were performing below the state average in reading and near the state average in mathematics. Sixty-two percent of the students were on or above grade level in reading, compared to 68% statewide. Further, 75% of students were on or above grade level in mathematics, compared to 76% statewide.
All 61 of the school's teachers were highly qualified, and 25% of them held advanced degrees. The staff represented a wide range of experience; 20 teachers (33%) had fewer than 3 years, 24 teachers (41%) had between 4 and 10 years, and 17 teachers (26%) had more than 10 years of experience. Fifty-nine teachers (96.7%) were White, and one teacher (1.65%) was African American, and one (1.65%) was Asian. Fifty-nine teachers (96.7%) were female, and two teachers (3.3%) were male.
The district asked elementary schools to apply to be the district's pilot RTI school, and the case school won the competition.
Fifteen participants were selected to be interviewed for the study on the basis that they were either district or school leaders during the implementation of RTI and therefore had knowledge of the pilot implementation. Participants included all members of the school's RTI leadership team (10 members). The 10 members of the leadership ranged in years of experience from 4 years to 23 years, with an average of 13 years of experience in education. In addition, the school's lead teacher and four district administrators (i.e., the assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, the director of Elementary Education, the director of Exceptional Children, and the director of Student Services) were also interviewed. The leadership team consisted of the school principal, two assistant principals, the speech therapist, the school psychologist, the guidance counselor, two special education teachers, and two general education teachers.
Seven of the team members participated in extensive RTI professional development, which was provided by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) using the train-the-trainers model discussed previously. The professional development was provided in the spring prior to initial implementation in the fall of the following academic year. The other three members received a shortened version of the RTI professional development provided by the state department later in the summer. The school's lead teacher was extensively involved in the implementation of RTI at the school but was excused from leadership team responsibility, given major responsibilities elsewhere. These district-level administrators were members of the district-level RTI team and were responsible for developing and implementing the district plan for RTI implementation.
A descriptive case study design (Hancock & Algozzine, 2006; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2003) was used to investigate the elementary school implementing a specific pilot program, a RTI initiative. By selecting this single elementary school as a case, the researchers aim to provide a thorough explanation of the critical features and contextual influences related to implementing the RTI model in an elementary school.
Instrumentation and Data Collection
The interview was an unstructured interview that focused on a few primary questions, followed by probes that were influenced by participants' responses. Participants were asked to trace their personal involvement in RTI implementation, step by step, from the very beginning to the time of the interview, and to share successes and challenges that they experienced along the way. The interviewers would often probe with additional questions for purposes of clarification or expansion of testimony at various steps of the process that were outlined by the participant.
All participants provided informed consent for the interview. The authors interviewed each of the participants once. Interviews ranged from 40 to 60 minutes in length. Interviews were conducted at the school for school-based personnel and at the central office for district personnel.
Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The transcripts were then unitized, and the units were then initially coded using an open-coding system (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). After coding two interviews using open coding, the authors met and reanalyzed their codes. A final coding scheme was then agreed upon and used to code all of the interviews. The authors used that coding scheme to individually code three interviews. The authors met to share their codes and determine the inter-rater reliability. Across the three interviews, there were 105 units. The authors agreed on 99 of the 105 units, which is an inter-rater reliability of 94.29%. From there, the authors divided the interviews so that each interview was coded by one of the authors.
After all of the interviews were coded, the research team met again and discussed any data excerpts that were difficult to code. The research team then analyzed each code collectively to make a final determination that the codes accurately portrayed the common patterns or themes of the participants' testimony (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). A time-ordered matrix (Miles & Huberman, 1984; Mills, Bonner, Cook, & Francis, 2006) was developed to illustrate the relationships between the themes and implementation of the RTI model (Table 1). The authors then wrote the thematic descriptions included in the current study. A member check was then completed. The authors provided a draft of the findings to all of the participants. Participants were asked to identify inaccuracies (erroneous additions, distortions, or omissions of events) and whether the themes represented actual events and issues. Twelve of the 15 participants responded. Minimal editorial changes were recommended and incorporated, and unanimous support was reached for the developed themes.
Seven issues or themes emerged from the analysis of the transcribed units (see Table 2). In this section, we describe each of them in detail.
Frustration With Old Models and Systems
Under the traditional prereferral system in the state, a general education "Intervention Team" was the recipient of teacher referrals of students of concern. The referring teacher would conduct a parent interview, after which the team would conduct a records review, an independent observation, and then select and evaluate two interventions to address the concern. Subsequent referral to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team ensued if the interventions were not effective and special education seemed necessary. The IEP team would receive the referral and then follow due process procedures for determining whether the child had a disability and needed special education. The participants shared multiple concerns with this model, showing a major preference for the new RTI process. Under the old prereferral model, participants complained of prereferrals with "no real understanding of the student's problem." There was no student progress monitoring, no real data collection, no evidence that the interventions were attempted with any level of fidelity, and no development of an instructional plan under the old prereferral system. The old system entailed an inadequate "hit-or-miss" intervention selection process without a problem basis. As a result, too many incorrect referrals were eventually made to the IEP team. A major complaint consisted of participants lamenting that far too many students who needed help were never placed in special education and therefore never helped. Many students were referred over and over and never placed or helped. The old system fostered an inability to serve students unless they were found eligible for special education; "It was EC or nothing--special education was seen as the fix it." In spite of consistent tinkering with the old system at the district level, these problems remained. Under the new RTI model, there was extensive data collection to determine the problem, consistent student progress monitoring, development of data-based instructional plans, strong attempts to align research-based intervention selection with the presenting problems, and organized student support and services from the onset of the process.
Participants shared concerns over the IEP team and the eligibility determination process as well. There was frustration with the intelligence and academic achievement testing that too often precluded service to children who just missed cutoff scores. General education teachers took a "why bother" attitude given the too-frequent lack of eligibility and subsequent lack of support. Special education teachers were frustrated with being the "bad guy" in this situation. The norm-referenced data provided little helpful information for teaching, and the process did not bring parents along well. The eligibility determination decision was stark and raised parent distrust that teachers were "just trying to get rid of my kid." Under the new RTI process, parents were very involved in richer communication on instructional planning from the outset, were much more ensured of faculty good intentions, and were much more convinced that their child needed special education if the process came to that conclusion.
District-level administrators were frustrated with lack of progress in special education and other remedial programs. The old model created barriers between general and special education and, in their view, fostered a general lack of responsibility and low expectations within general education toward students with disabilities. They were quite encouraged by the potential for the RTI initiative to break down walls and provide general educators the tools and knowledge to meet their responsibilities in a way that had not been done before.
One teacher explained her frustration at an initial IEP (Exceptional Children Assistance Team [ECAT]) team meeting:
When I went to an ECAT meeting about one of my students, I walked in with a bad attitude. I know that's a shock to you, but I walked in with a bad attitude and I said, "I don't even know why I'm bothering to show up, because he's not going to qualify, because nobody does. I've referred five kids this year and none of them have qualified."
Implementation Process and Procedures
Two years prior to the pilot year and in his initial year of employment, the district local director of special education received information about the state RTI initiative from the regional state department consultant early in the academic year. He shared the information with his supervisor, the assistant superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and a decision was made to travel together to attend a state department presentation for school administrators on RTI. They were intrigued by the possibility of strengthening interventions prior to special education placement and improving outcomes for students with disabilities. The assistant superintendent saw potential in this initiative to "break down walls" between general and special education in the district, which had been a goal of hers for some time. It was also an opportunity for the assistant superintendent to support and get to know better the new local director. At the presentation, most of the attendees were local directors of special education, and they shared their concern that this was an initiative based in special education rather than general education. They also expressed amazement and envy that an assistant superintendent had actually traveled with a local director to attend the presentation. On the way home, they determined that this was an initiative worth developing, and the assistant superintendent was firm in stating that the plan must be a joint general education and special education initiative. Following the presentation, the local director asked two of the district school psychologists to attend the NCDPI professional development sessions and then take responsibility within Exceptional Children for district planning. With all the responsibilities of the new position and with some key personnel losses due to family leave, the local director argued for a year of planning prior to implementation. It was decided to continue professional discussion on RTI at the district level the following year and plan implementation for the next year.
At the start of the planning year, the district hired a new director of Elementary Education, who had been a highly respected elementary principal. The directors of Elementary and Exceptional Children quickly formed excellent collaboration and, in the words of the assistant superintendent, once the Elementary and Exceptional Children directors got to working on RTI, it was "Katie, bar the door. Slow 'em down a little bit!" A presentation on RTI was provided to the district's school principals that fall and the request for proposals soon followed. There was some
disappointment at the district level when only three schools submitted proposals, but the disappointment was mitigated by the clear commitment and energy exhibited by the case school.
At the school level, the first individual to learn about the RTI alternative was a veteran special education teacher at the school who had been hired by the principal to lead the special program at the new school. She became aware of RTI after studying the new regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) 2004 and had discussed changes, including RTI, with another colleague at another school. She then attended the NCDPI annual conference on exceptional children, including several sessions concerning the state plan for implementation of RTI, and became excited about the possibilities of RTI for improving outcomes for children with and without disabilities. Her primary issues were how to help students "without dumping on the EC teachers," as these students were consistently referred, but never identified and never helped. She studied the websites of the initial pilot districts supported by NCDPI and then had conversations with her principal and the district local director of special education about wanting to try it at the school. The principal shared her excitement and when the district request for proposals came out, "We jumped on it." The school was awarded the pilot in January of the planning year prior to implementation the following academic year.
After the pilot was awarded, the principal began to put together the school's RTI leadership team. He sought volunteers to attend the NCDPI RTI professional development scheduled for that spring. He wanted committed individuals and individuals who were representative of the school. The team traveled to another city in the state to attend the professional development. The team often struggled with the content and questions of how to apply the content to the school. However, they closely bonded during this process and became united in the effort.
In May, after the professional development, the principal presented the team's plans and commitments for the pilot to the total school faculty and "laid down the gauntlet."
I made everyone make a commitment to it. I told them this is where we're headed, this is what we're going to do. By that time, I was convinced we were doing one of the best things we could for the kids. I told them as much and what I envision seeing over the years and told them this is not something we can dabble with. We have to either commit to this or forget about it. I'm not of the mind to forget about it. So, I told them really I need you to commit to it. If you're going to work here, I need you to commit to this. And, if you can't do that, there will be no harm done and no hard feelings, but we're going to have to talk about where you're going to work next year.
In the summer, the team volunteered much unpaid time to plan the "roll out" of RTI with the entire school faculty in the fall. Key decisions were also made, such as the decision to adopt AIMSweb[R] (n.d.) as the web-based database for student progress monitoring; "We didn't want to do this by hand." The team also decided to focus on reading in year one and to implement a mathematics focus and positive behavior support focus in successive years. The lead teacher and an assistant principal also began the intense effort of accumulating evidence-based interventions for teacher and parental use by grade level and filing them for ease of accessibility. A major activity was planning the presentation to the faculty on the first day that teachers returned to school to obtain "buy-in" from all. The presentation included a humorous skit that mocked the old prereferral model, a working lunch, and in-depth presentation of what RTI is and how to do it. Teachers were told that the intent was for all to work better and not harder. The Elementary Director attended to provide a district show of support.
Much of the work at the beginning of the school year entailed learning the AIMSweb[R] (n.d.) system, including data collection and entry. The lead teacher took responsibility for learning the system, entering student rosters, and teaching others. Members of the RTI leadership team accepted the role of grade-level coaches to assist teachers with the data collection and entry. An assistant principal worked diligently on the master schedule to make sure that people would be available to support the differentiated groups by grade level at different times of the day. The RTI Leadership Team met weekly, sometimes until 7:00 p.m., to define what the decision rules for the school would be for level 1 and how to use, and, if need be, adapt the NCDPI forms for each level for the school. After completing decisions for Level 1, the team moved to Level 2 and subsequently to Levels 3 and 4. In essence, the school was in the position of implementing RTI while building the model. Most of the major decisions had been made by November of the implementation year.
Another team, the RTI Team (vs. RTI Leadership Team), was established. The focus of the Leadership Team went to improving the system, and the RTI team addressed individual student cases. Each team met once a week, and there was some overlap of personnel (50%-60%). In addition, the administrative team (principal and assistant principals) monitored student outcomes once a week. By January, the major systems had been put in place and emphasis turned to continuous improvement of the school RTI model for the remainder of the pilot year.
Participants reported on the requirement of new roles and responsibilities by classroom teachers under the RTI initiative. For the first time, all K-5 teachers were challenged with conducting and recording screening benchmark assessments on all of their students at the beginning of the school year. They had to quickly learn to enter the data on the AIMSweb[R] (n.d.) system, as well as learn to correctly conduct curriculum-based probes of student performance in reading and math throughout the year to monitor student progress. Additionally, they had to learn how to implement evidenced-based interventions adapted from those provided from the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) and recommended by the lead teacher. This included a requirement that they learn how to modify classroom space and schedules to accommodate differentiated instruction within the school's "walk to read" model (an adaption of FCRR's small groups for differentiated instruction model) (Torgerson, 2007). They needed to learn about the array of interventions compiled by the lead teacher for their respective grade levels, including interventions that were appropriate for parents to implement. They had to understand what the levels of the RTI model represented and their role at each level. Finally, they had to learn how to conduct speech language probes and integrate speech-language interventions with ongoing academic instruction.
One teacher explained differences in his classroom after implementation of RTI:
from about 9:45-11:25 we have pretty much our reading literacy block. But for me, I do it as independent work time ... each group is assigned to a certain station, whether it's computers or playing a reading game, board games, map exercises. I had them do some incorporation of reading. But at the same time, I'm also pulling out kids based on their levels of need, strengths and weaknesses, where I pull them out for about 20-45 minutes where I do structured type reading groups. And then sometimes I also do guided groups and I do guided math groups.... Also, the kids that didn't too well on fluency, they're being pulled back on fluency exercises to work on their fluency needs. Those things come from the FCRR.org website. It also can come from anything that we have that is scientifically based researched and then brought back for direct instruction needed if they're getting to level 3. It just depends on where they are and if they are also being pulled out for that 9-9:45 time, which is part of differentiated reading. And then pull them out again for what their strengths and weaknesses are based on the math; I pull them out for math needs as well.
Multiple participants reported on the critical role of the principal in the success of the RTI effort at the district and school level. From the outset, the principal was viewed as excited about and committed to the RTI alternative within the district. The level of commitment expressed by the principal in the initial proposal was a key element in the selection of the school to be the district pilot. The commitment of the principal was also a key element within the district for attracting other principals to the RTI initiative and recruiting other schools to implement it in subsequent years. The principal made a presentation to other district principals in the fall of the pilot year and 11 principals stayed afterward to discuss RTI, even though only three schools would be expected to begin implementation in year two of the district plan.
The commitment of the principal was most noticeable at the school. One assistant principal noted that the principal "communicated deep belief in RTI" and "why RTI is good for children" to the teachers from the "gauntlet" speech in May and throughout the pilot year. Several teachers commented that they trusted the principal and knew that he had the students' and teachers' interests at heart. Several others stated that everyone on the RTI Leadership Team felt most free to share their concerns and disagreements on the Leadership Team. Interestingly, the principal did not chair the team as a signal to faculty that he wanted this to be a team effort, yet he was a constant presence and force. Several commented that he pushed hard but was willing to slow down the decision-making process to get it right. Others commented that a prior history of respect and trust on other issues provided a foundation for collaboration on this very complex initiative. Others remarked that the principal was very open to removing nonessential tasks and responsibilities that took time away from the RTI focus. A major component of leadership reported by participants was the principal's insistence that the initiative be done completely and with excellence. An excerpt of the principal's interview reflects this posture:
We're building a Ferrari, not a Yugo.... I told anybody that would listen that if we're going to do this, we're going to do things right. We're going to be thorough, we're going to take it at a pace that's manageable, but you can't dabble at this program. You have to commit to it or don't. You have to be in a 100% or not. I saw early that that was what it was going to take to do that.
In the main, participants acknowledged the professional development provided by NCDPI and the lead NCDPI trainer as a critical component. The principal commented, "The training, most of it was the best I've ever been to. There were a couple glitches, but overall it was extremely good." The principal also noted that he had formed a professional relationship with the lead trainer and found the trainer to be very helpful. The others commented that the content was initially overwhelming and that it took much discussion in the group to reach collective understanding. The major benefit of the off-site training, though, was the discussion among the team about the content and the application of the content to the school. The bonding experience also helped the team to approach the pilot year with some confidence. A teacher noted that "toward the end, it all came together."
Participants described school- and district-level outcomes that had been improved by the RTI initiative. Participants discussed how general education teachers were much more prepared to problem solve and engage in data-based instructional planning. Most important, numerous accounts were shared of instructional plans that were working for students of concern: "It just takes one child that they had success with to get buy-in." Teachers had better data and could share those data with students to foster motivation. Students knew their functioning levels and could self-monitor improvement. Teachers could use screening and progress monitoring data to explain more clearly problems and progress to parents. In addition, teachers had attained a much greater appreciation for the need for teacher fidelity with interventions. One participant said that there was much more comprehensive intervention and much less superficial adaptation. The speech teacher noted much more integration of speech and language instruction in general education.
At the district level, administrators discussed the excitement that the initiative had engendered. The initiative had led to breaking down walls at the district level. There was great hope that the initiative would eventually provide new tools for communicating data to parents systemwide, using progress monitoring at a district level, and using progress monitoring outcomes as a check against North Carolina end-of-grade test scores.
A teacher shared the impact of the RTI model on one student's reading growth:
He is now reading ... the last probe I did he was at 78 words a minute, so he's gone from 20 to 78 and his comprehension scores, reading lexile level is 408. So that's an indicator right now that he would score a 3 on the 3rd-grade assessment. The way we did it before, I wouldn't have even seen him as a reading issue. I would have just known his comprehension was low and not really been positive of what I could do besides just keep him asking different comprehension questions, and that sort of thing. I would not have tied as tightly and put as much emphasis on the fluency and how they go hand in hand.
Many participants commented that the major obstacle was the fatigue and sense of being overwhelmed that stemmed from trying to do so much all at once at the beginning of the year. "Too much too soon" was a common refrain. The principal stated, "You do not know what you do not know." Many participants felt that the initial learning curve was very steep. Many wished that they had had access to AIMSweb[R] (n.d.) earlier so that they could have learned the system before implementation. The delayed access resulted in much of the screening data being "old" by the time of data entry in October. Many wished that they had had training on the differentiated small-group reading model and interventions prior to implementation. Others noted that the 1st-grade teachers, in particular, were overwhelmed with the data collection and entry challenge. The principal quickly decided to be the coach for that grade level to provide additional support. Although all reported that the situation had improved during the year, some teachers did not at first understand the need for timely data collection and entry, resulting in delayed entry that undermined RTI team review of student progress. Some of the teacher coaches felt that they were being asked to take on administrative-type roles and were not comfortable doing so. The struggle to adapt the NCDPI paperwork was time-consuming and the needed meetings were exciting but fatiguing. Even though the leadership meetings encouraged open and honest dialogue, there were hurt feelings and personal disagreements when certain issues were discussed. There were also differing perceptions on who knew most about RTI, given differences in professional development and who knew most about select issues.
Some participants complained that RTI was added, but too little was taken away. In addition to all the RTI professional development at school, teachers still needed to attend all district professional development. Even though the school had access to new helpful data on child performance, K-2 teachers still needed to complete what was deemed a less helpful district assessment. (That responsibility, however, has since been removed.) There was some concern expressed that as the system scaled up from the pilot, not all schools would be equally committed. There was also concern that funding for AIMSweb[R] (n.d.), school psychologists, and the lead teachers essential for the delivery of the instructional models that were developed through the RTI initiative would be cut. At the time of the interviews, there was also some concern that the data were not yet available to demonstrate the impact of RTI on student achievement, as measured by North Carolina state assessments.
The school's lead teacher discussed obstacles related to teachers' implementation:
One of the missing pieces for me with teachers is that we would not have the opportunity to really sit and talk about which interventions really are perfect and how to really hone in on a child's needs and match interventions so that it is right on. I know that everybody was kind of dabbling at first. They have gotten a lot better, but knowing when it's not good and what to pick and how to look at a cold read and decide this child has a decoding problem, or this child's need is just fluency or phrasing, or there's multitude of different avenues to go. Working with teachers on that so they felt better about what they were doing in their room. Because everybody wants their kids to succeed and do better. And I know initially there was a lot of I don't know what to do. I don't know if it's working.
Processes Related to Implementation
The findings from this study confirmed that the RTI model employed at the school was the four-level problem-solving model disseminated by the NCDPI and described elsewhere in the literature (Berkeley et al., 2009; Hoover et al., 2008; Sawyer et al., 2008). Thus, the findings provide an illustration of the impact of state-level professional development on the capacity of districts and schools to implement RTI.
Further, the results of this study mirror many of the essential elements of a recently published monograph on implementation research, including an outline of stages of effective implementation (Fixsen, Naoom, Blase, Friedman, & Wallace, 2005). The results provide evidence of excellent district- and school-level cooperative planning and implementation. District initiatives fostered school initiatives, and school initiatives fostered district planning for scaled-up implementation of RTI at other schools.
Perspectives Related to RTI Implementation
Perhaps most noteworthy is the widespread testimony of participants concerning new hope and new excitement regarding much-improved preventive intervention for students with academic challenges, the potential of improved outcomes for all students, and improved communication and relationships with families. The results also suggest that principal leadership and effective team leadership and problem-solving are key ingredients to making an RTI model work. The principal's insistence on commitment to RTI and excellence in RTI implementation influenced all aspects of the RTI planning and implementation. Based on the data, the fully engaged participation of respected teachers and related service providers on the RTI Leadership Team further communicated the importance of the initiative at the school. Good decisions also promoted good outcomes. Further, there was widespread support among all staff for the new data entry and report system. There was appreciation for starting small with a focus on reading only, but doing this effort fully and well. Although many school staff had a definite sense of "being overwhelmed" at the beginning of the school year, there was also sufficient success to maintain staff spirit and support. As Fixsen et al. (2005) found, obtaining teacher buy-in and providing adequate support increases the likelihood of successful implementation of RTI.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
Based on the data in this study, the following recommendations are provided:
1. For any RTI initiative, build district-level and school-level coordination, as well as support and general education and special education coordination and support. A commitment among all parties to cease an over-reliance on special education as the only remedial option is necessary.
2. Ensure principal commitment and the commitment of key teacher personnel prior to implementation. Consider establishing an RTI Leadership Team to plan and resolve implementation issues and a second RTI team to focus on individual student cases. Use the Leadership Team to assuage faculty concerns when difficulties arise.
3. Communicate fully the rationale for RTI, including its potential to better meet the needs of all students compared to traditional prereferral and referral procedures.
4. Implement an RTI initiative, starting with a targeted focus, and then implement at a manageable pace. If possible, implement select pieces, such as a student progress monitoring data system, a system for small-group differentiated instruction prior to full implementation, and evidence-based program adoptions prior to full implementation.
5. Use data outcomes that illustrate success to maintain family and faculty support.
6. Develop a plan for family participation in the RTI process at all levels to build family confidence in such matters as the effectiveness of intervention plans.
Limitations and Summary
The design of the study only permits illustration of one school's effort and may not generalize to other schools. The particular school entails some aspects that may further limit the case as an illustrative example. The school enjoys a very high level of administrative engagement that is not necessarily typical of all schools. When the school was opened 2 years prior to the implementation of the pilot initiative, the principal was able to recruit and select several very high-performing assistant principals, general education teachers, special education teachers, and related service providers. In essence, the personnel capacity of the school for effective RTI implementation was very high. The school's lead teacher had superior preparation in effective instruction in general and effective reading instruction in particular. Her initial work in learning AIMSweb[R] (n.d.) and teaching the systems to others, and the continuous work of intervention selection, lesson modeling, and overall coaching to teachers, were elements that may not be easily replicated elsewhere. The district also provided some elements not easily replicated. The early and complete support for the initiative in word and deed at the level of assistant superintendent is probably not replicable elsewhere.
Nevertheless, this illustrative case does provide a comparative basis for other schools, elementary schools in particular. The case provides detailed description of one district's plan for beginning an RTI initiative and one school's response. Other schools may compare and contrast the process of implementation, implementation strengths, and implementation barriers with their own. Descriptions of one school's implementation process may provide policymakers and professional developers insight into contextual factors and facets of implementation that must be addressed for effective implementation of RTI.
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Richard B. White, Drew Polly, and Robert H. Audette
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina
Submitted October 5, 2010; accepted March 2, 2011.
Address correspondence to Dr. Drew Polly, Department of Reading and Elementary Education, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, COED 370, 9201 University City Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28223. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
TABLE 1 Time-Ordered Matrix: Implementation Process and Issues Unfolding Events Traditional Initial District Prereferral and Planning (2 Years Referral Model Prior) Unfolding Themes Frustration with * Inadequate * Shared central old models and assessment office concern systems over traditional * Inadequate model intervention Inadequate response * Travel to state to unidentified dept. presentation students on RTI * Overreliance on special education Implementation * Identify district process personnel to take RTI leadership * District RTI team formed Classroom implementation Principal leadership Professional development Improved outcomes Implementation obstacles Unfolding Events Pilot Site Select Pilot Site Planning (1 Year Prior) (6 Months Prior) Unfolding Themes Frustration with old models and systems Implementation * Present RTI to process principals * Request proposals to be RTI pilot * Select pilot site Classroom implementation Principal * Identify school * Principal call leadership RTI team for total school commitment * RTI team Professional attends state development training Improved outcomes Implementation obstacles Unfolding Events Pilot Site Planning Implement (August: Opening (3 Months Prior) Day) Unfolding Themes Frustration with * Frustration sustained old models and during difficulties--no going systems back Implementation process Classroom * Learning screening probes implementation * Learning data entry * Learning research-based reading interventions Principal * Revision of * Consistent presence on RTI leadership master schedule for team differentiated groups * Insistence on quality Professional * Other RTI team * Continued state development members attend consultation state training * Gradual roll-out of each * School-wide tier workshop developed Improved * RTI team attends * Data-based problem outcomes state training solving, planning, and instruction * AIMSweb adopted * Ongoing progress * Decision to focus monitoring on reading * Support to all students in need Implementation * Too much too soon obstacles * Delayed access to AIMSweb * Paperwork confusion * Long sometimes difficult meetings and discussions Note. RTI = Response to Intervention. TABLE 2 Summary of Findings Theme Summary Frustration with old models and Participants shared frustrations systems regarding the traditional prereferral and referral systems associated with the special education eligibility determination process and described how RTI had greatly improved the process, particularly prior to referral. Implementation process and Participants described in detail procedures the process and procedures used to "roll out" the pilot RTI effort. Classroom implementation Participants described how the roles of teachers have changed by implementing RTI and discussed challenges. Principal leadership Participants shared how the school's principal influenced the implementation of RTI. Professional development Participants described the professional development from the state Department of Public Instruction and its influence on their implementation of the model. Improved outcomes Participants described specifically how RTI had influenced school and student outcomes. Implementation obstacles Participants described challenges, difficulties, and obstacles related to RTI implementation. Note. RTI = Response to Intervention.