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What Is RTI in Special Education?

5 Min Read
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During a recent school district visit, a principal shared an interesting conversation that took place at her school. The teachers were gathered for a review of students’ academic progress. In between the review of each class, teachers reflected on the increased number of students who were identified to receive additional support based on the universal screening and progress monitoring that is part of the school instructional framework. The teachers were concerned, but not surprised, at how student need had grown in the last few years.

Instead of lamenting that so many students need more support, they focused on the powerful impact of the screening process, instruction, intervention, and progress monitoring. Like many teachers, they discussed the question of special education consideration when a student is not responding to interventions. With so many practices in place to provide personalized, responsive instruction and monitoring, how do they know if a student should be referred for evaluation as a student with a disability? To answer that, we have to take a closer look at RTI in special education.

What Does RTI Stand for in Special Education?

Response to intervention, or RTI, is a system of instructional supports that schools provide systematically to ensure that the needs of all students are addressed. Years ago, RTI was regarded as a special education process because it was introduced in many districts and schools with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reauthorization in 2004.

The primary reason for RTI’s inclusion in the amended law was to address the process used to identify students with specific learning disabilities. The new provision allows teams to provide scientific, research-based intervention as part of the evaluation process, rather than requiring documentation of a discrepancy between a student’s achievement and ability. Teams could consider whether the student’s lack of progress was due to a lack of appropriate instruction, or because of a disability. This change was significant for the appropriate identification of learning disabilities, but even more so for the new processes’ impact on all students.

Response to intervention is often represented using an RTI pyramid with a broad base (Tier 1—general core instruction), middle section (Tier 2—targeted intervention), and narrow top (Tier 3–intensive interventions). In the blog post What Is Response to Intervention?, you can find instructional strategies to support response to intervention in education and a breakdown of the three RTI tiers.

What Is the Difference Between RTI and Special Education?

RTI always begins in general education with universal screening and strong Tier 1 instruction. Differentiation is provided for all students to support their learning. Supplemental supports are implemented as needed as part of the RTI model.

When students need additional instruction or strategies for learning, interventions are provided, and progress is monitored. Through the RTI process, teams will sometimes find that the interventions are insufficient for students to progress. In some cases, these students may be referred for evaluation to determine if they have a disability and require special education services.

Special education is specially designed instruction provided to eligible students. These services may be provided as part of the RTI framework by delivering more specific, prescriptive, intense interventions with additional strategies for data collection and progress monitoring as detailed in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

In September 2022, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, tweeted, “Students with disabilities are general education students first.” The spirit of this tweet is the most important way to think about special education and RTI. Most students with disabilities who receive special education services spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms. They participate in universal screening, core instruction, monitoring, and intervention. For most instructional activities, students with disabilities access the same resources and supports as their general education peers.

Many students who receive special education services don’t require specially designed instruction in all areas of learning, only in the area of identified disability, which may impact one or more areas of learning. Response to intervention in special education provides the opportunity for special education teachers to deliver IEP services when all students receive individualized instruction. In addition, the special education teacher can serve as a resource to other teachers who are providing intervention for students in need of additional support. The expertise of the special education teacher benefits all students through collaboration with co-teachers and in consultations to problem-solve, design, and monitor intervention strategies.

What Is the Special Education Teacher’s Role in RTI?

What does this look like in real classrooms on a day-to-day basis? I had the chance to talk with Kristin McGraw, the Coordinator of Response to Intervention (RTI) in Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS), in Virginia. LCPS is a large school division in the Washington, D.C. area, and has served as an exemplar in the Commonwealth of Virginia for the development and implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), which includes RTI.

The framework in LCPS has been shared at the state and national levels and provides guidance for schools around the country. Kristin has worked with hundreds of teachers and many leaders to support professional learning and implementation of RTI in schools.

Thinking about the special education teacher's role in RTI, McGraw quickly identified a key characteristic that makes a special education teacher so important for RTI. "They are experts in the field, and they are experts in evidence-based methodology and pedagogy,” she says.

McGraw knows first-hand that the special education teacher is an important part of the team in developing personalized strategies to support all students' learning. The collaboration between special education and general education teachers leads to the development of instructional strategies that benefit all students.

Special education teachers serve as consultant experts in schools and can facilitate teacher insight into what is happening in the classroom. The special education teacher may lead data collection and monitoring, which will guide instruction for all students. For students with disabilities, interventions are likely to vary in intensity, frequency, and duration, and the special education teacher can skillfully provide that instruction for these identified students. The consultant, coach, and direct service provider role requires specialized knowledge and a collaborative approach.

Many students have benefitted from the introduction of RTI in schools and classrooms. The principles that guide the development of special education instruction are rooted in the same teaching and learning strategies and approaches in general education, and they vary in intensity, frequency, and duration. All students are general education students first, making the RTI process crucial to delivering access and learning opportunities to all students.


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