RtI effort pays big dividends in elementary literacy

The Vermillion School Board learned Monday that the practice of getting highly involved in meeting the literacy needs of some of the school district's youngest students is paying high dividends.

The district's Response to Intervention (RtI) program is having a positive outcome for students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Austin and Jolley elementary schools.

RtI is defined by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education as the practice of providing high-quality instruction and intervention matched to student needs, and using learning rate over time and level of performance to make important educational decisions.

"Last year, we started the groundwork," Elementary Principal Mark Upward said. "We did so some inservice, and we put a lot of this in place last year. This year is when we are starting to do the RtI model."

"It's not a curriculum," said Kim Johnson, principal at Austin Elementary. "It's a practice of how we make our meeting time work better for our students, and how we assess our students' needs and practice intervention that will help them meet their goals."

Upward said students are evaluated using a state education standard called a discrepancy model. "We test the ability of where the child can be (academically), and the we test their achievement, of where they really are," Upward said. Many times, he said, there is a number of students whose tests results in those two areas aren't far enough apart – in other words, there's not enough discrepancy in the scores – for some children to qualify for special education programs.

"So you wait another year, and then you test again," Upward said. "And it (the child's test scores) are getting closer for them to qualify. And so you wait another year."

A child, under the practice of testing and waiting and testing again, may finally qualify for special education services. But in such a process, the student isn't receiving the extra services he or she is needing.

"With RtI, since it's based on a tiered approach, if you follow the RtI program, you can qualify kids for special education using the RtI model," Upward told the school board. "That's one of the reasons we went into it. We also saw it as an opportunity to reach all of the kids that we need to teach."

"Rather than waiting for them to fail to get extra help," Johnson said, "we are able to identify problems early on and begin proactive interventions, giving the students a chance to succeed."

RtI, she explains uses data to drive the instruction given to elementary students, and is not a new approach. "We are using research for our instructional practices. It's just fine-tuning what we have already done, and making it better," Johnson said. "It gives us the data analysis that we need."

The importance of early intervention was highly stressed by both Upward and Johnson. The extra effort given to children at an early age has positive results. According to research, children who fail to read in the first grade have a one-in-eight chance of ever catching up without extraordinary and costly interventions.

"RtI is designed to be that early intervention," Upward said, "and it was designed originally for students in kindergarten and first and second grades.

Basic principles of RtI include early intervention, as Upward mentioned, multi-tiered intervention service delivery, the use of an integrated data-collection and assessment system, and data-based decisions based on a problem-solving model.

"I think the primary piece that is important is that kids are being pulled out of their reading core," Johnson said. "All students are together in the classroom for their core curriculum reading instruction. Those that need more assistance leave after and beyond that, and we work very hard on our schedules to make that a sacred block of time."

Students' progress is monitored on a frequent basis, she said.

"The teachers at each grade level meet weekly to talk about the students they are serving," Upward said. "In each building, there is a problem-solving RtI team."

Data that supports the RtI approach has been gathered over the past years in schools across the country that introduced the concept to students as part of a pilot program. It was discovered that RtI improves academic results for students at all levels. The research in the program also gauged its effectiveness, with findings that indicate that it would take two hours of intensive daily instruction for students in the fourth grade to make the same gains as 30 minutes of instruction to kindergarten students.

The core curriculum for beginning reading instruction includes phonetic awareness, alphabetic principle, accuracy and fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. "Our reading curriculum is firm in all five of those components," Johnson said. "With that solid core, we are building a stronger foundation."

She shared a statistic that she describes as "profound." Research has shown that despite the success with early literacy, those promising gains seem to dissipate as students move into middle grades. While U.S. students in fourth grade score among the best in the world in literacy and in math, by 10th grade, U.S. students score among the lowest in the world.

"The research hopes that by building a stronger foundation for all students, we would be building more success for later on – that our students would truly become life-long readers," Johnson said. "RtI is what good teachers have always been doing. This program just fine-tunes it and gives us the data and research to back it up.

"I have seen our teachers work harder than they ever have to do what they already have been doing," she said, "as well as all of the extra components of the RtI instruction and taking the time to talk about each child."

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