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Volume VII Issue VIII

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Response to Intervention (RTI): An IDEA Whose Time Has Come

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


The Journey from Public Law 94-142 to IDEA 2004
The historical background included here is excerpted from the U.S. Department of Education website and from the writings of Daryl Mellard, University of Kansas and Doug and Lynn Fuchs, Vanderbilt University, all of whom are principal investigators for the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities.

Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA/Public Law 94-142), in 1975. That law stated these purposes:

  • Assure that all children with disabilities have available to them…a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs.
  • Assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents…are protected.
  • Assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities.


According to the U.S. Department of Education website, in the 40 years since the passage of Public Law 94-142 (EHA), significant progress has been made toward meeting major national goals for developing and implementing effective programs and services for early intervention, special education, and related services. In 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities (emphasis added), and many states had laws excluding certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or mentally retarded. To achieve national goals for access to education for all children with disabilities, a number of special issues and special populations have required federal attention. These concerns are reflected in a number of key amendments to the Education for the Handicapped Act (EHA) and IDEA between 1975 and 2004. The 1990 Amendments to EHA (PL 101-476), changed the name of the law to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Today, approximately 6 million children and youth receive special education and related services to meet their individual needs. Other accomplishments directly attributable to IDEA include educating more children in their neighborhood schools, rather than in separate schools and institutions, and contributing to improvements in the rate of high school graduation, post-secondary school enrollment, and post-school employment for youth with disabilities.

What Is IDEA 2004 All About?
IDEA 2004 authorizes, but does not mandate, the use of student responsiveness to scientifically-researched interventions as an alternative to waiting until an IQ-achievement discrepancy is established before students are considered for special education support. The term Response to Intervention (RtI) is not a part of IDEA 2004; it has, however, become shorthand in the literature for the process of early identification of learners struggling academically or behaviorally and, as appropriate, the provision of increasingly more intensive interventions. Even though the construct was originally intended to promote early identification of learning problems and determination of whether or not special education under the category of specific learning disabilities would be appropriate, RtI has in many instances become an “overall approach to school improvement through general education” and “in this context, RtI is a comprehensive support system aimed at maximizing achievement of all students by closely monitoring student response to instruction and adjusting instructional approaches based on student progress.” (Fuchs and Fuchs, Batsche, Cummings, and Young) The Lee County, Florida2008 Response to Intervention Manual describes the RtI process as an early intervention and prevention process with the goal being to eliminate the future need for special education services for the child by intervening before a gap in academic achievement becomes too great. It further states that RtI is about prevention and early support, and is not a retooling of the pre-referral/child study team process.

The National Research Center on Learning Disabilities lists the following features generally included in RtI frameworks:

  • Universal screening within the first weeks of school
  • High quality classroom instruction based on field-tested instructional design principles
  • Ongoing assessment of classroom performance
  • Use of research-based interventions/instruction
  • Use of a multi-tier model of support with frequent monitoring of progress (benchmarking) during each level
  • Fidelity in the implementation of researched-based interventions


The RtI construct has focused more attention on the general education classroom and requires that students’ general education teacher(s) be a part of the team that identifies students needing special education services. It also requires that we act on our belief in the capacity of all students to learn and that we rethink how services are delivered to students in our schools. RtI ensures that poor instruction is not a possible explanation for learning difficulties when the vast majority of students are succeeding with appropriate scaffolding, extensions, and accommodations in that general education classroom.

As with any new initiative, it is important to read as much as possible and discuss those readings with others committed to the achievement of all students. The literature on RtI, including books, research studies, journal articles, blogs and e-newsletters, provides insights and suggestions about the powerful potential and possible pitfalls of implementation. Below are some ideas to keep in mind:

  • A significant pattern in the research is the importance of children learning to read in the early elementary grades. Equally important is the use of proper instructional techniques in the teaching of reading to young students. Some writers caution about having young students work with paraprofessionals or parent volunteers who have limited reading instruction expertise. The use of improper techniques can result in students falling behind in their skillfulness in decoding and comprehending what they read. Many experts stress that the development of literacy skills by third grade is essential in order to avoid irreversible difficulties that will inevitably occur in later grades thus impacting high school graduation rates as well as future economic success.


  • There must be a common understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like. The components of a high-quality instructional program include:
    • Standards-based instruction tied to key concepts and big ideas
    • Explicit strategy instruction
    • Differentiated instruction (including scaffolding and extensions) based on an analysis of student work and assessment results
    • Provision of explicit and systematic instruction with lots of practice, including cumulative practice over time
    • Opportunities for students to apply skills and strategies in reading and writing meaningful text including real-world applications
    • Frequent monitoring of student progress and re-teaching as needed
    • Multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate learning


  • The graphic most commonly used to illustrate the RtI framework is a three-or four-tiered pyramid. The literature is clear that a high-quality research-based instructional program in Tier One is essential. The proactive use of core instructional strategies like those listed above should address the learning needs of 80-85% of students and reduce the number of students requiring placement in special education programs. Those techniques used with all students plus timely and appropriate interventions for those needing more support with Tier Two interventions can minimize the learning gaps that developed when we used only the discrepancy model to identify students needing academic support.


  • Many authors feel strongly that the greatest investment schools can make is to provide solid, research-based professional development for all educators in order to guarantee that the best instructional methods are being used with all students. Not only do classroom teachers need such professional development support, with their changing roles, school administrators and instructional coaches need it as well.


  • Teachers must look beyond test preparation in their instructional delivery. If teachers concentrate on preparing students to pass this year’s test, learning problems will still exist because they have not been addressed with appropriate interventions.


  • Interventions should not be delayed until the results of formal assessments are available; they should be an everyday occurrence with continuous checks for understanding and follow-up interventions as a seamless part of instruction.


  • Data-driven decisions and discussions about instructional and intervention approaches should be the norm. The problem solving process is a powerful tool to use in this situation. The better we can determine the cause of the lack of learning or the inappropriate school behavior, the better we can plan adjustments to the core instructional program. The steps that can drive discussions and the decisions are problem identification, problem analysis (identifying hypotheses), plan development (brainstorming possibilities and selected the most appropriate actions), plan implementation, and evaluation of the results of the intervention.


  • In some districts, educators are asked to monitor student achievement by gathering data and submitting required forms. For some, this can be a cumbersome and time-consuming process that takes time away from planning and collegial collaboration. This may lead to thorough recordkeeping but little change in instructional practice; while teachers may develop proficiency at gathering data, they may have difficulty diagnosing what is causing student difficulties in learning. Professional development focused on implications of the patterns and trends and on digging down to the individual student level can minimize that problem. Collegial collaboration opportunities such as peer observations, development of common assessments, and looking at student work together can maximize the use of data in informing instructional decisions.


  • Whenever any new initiative is introduced, the market is flooded with tools and products to assist schools in satisfying the requirements of the innovation. RtI is no exception; many companies are moving quickly to become RtI “solution providers.” Products range from books to web-based testing tools to instruments to monitor data gathering. There are many worthwhile and reputable products on the market that can support this work. On the other hand, school district personnel need to be discerning about purchases so as not to overwhelm classroom teachers with materials they have to independently figure out how to use. As author, researcher, and consultant Amanda Van Der Hayden wrote, “I think it is useful to keep in mind that people implement RtI, not products.”

There is no denying that teaching is complicated, challenging, and demanding. The attachment to this newsletter is a tool you can use with teachers to stimulate discussion on how we can better meet the needs of all of our students. Titled Ten Intervention Tips to Help Students Respond, the tips are a mixture of the inspirational and the practical, and the goal, as always, is to provide insights that will help educators carry out their jobs.

Download the Ten Intervention Tips to Help Students Respond

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Response to Intervention (RtI): An IDEA Whose Time Has Come” Just for the ASKing! August 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons

“These questions can be used to promote thinking about teaching and learning during the planning process, while teaching, and again when reflecting on the impact of the lesson either alone or with a mentor or supervisor.”

Top Ten Questions