RtI Reality: Practical Application of Research (Part 1)

By Joanne Allain, M.A.

In 2001, the federal government finally required that educators be accountable for the achievement of all students through the requirements of No Child Left Behind.  In 2004, the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, gave us the permission and structure to do so through Response to Intervention, or RtI (aka, Multi-Tier System of Supports, or MTSS).

RtI is defined as  “… the practice of (1) providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to student need and (2) using learning rate over time and level of performance to (3) make important educational decisions” (Batsche et al., 2005). One might argue that this is what we have always done in education, but unfortunately,  many students only received assistance if they qualified for special education services. Others got what little assistance teachers could provide in between the myriad of “educational priorities” that changed with each election.

In my practice, I consult with districts and schools across the country to turn RtI/MTSS research into practice. While adhering to the research is necessary and beneficial, it can also create unintended obstacles when applied in its literal form.  Response to Instruction and Intervention is so critical to the advancement of our educational system that we must discuss its practical application as it pertains to our individual settings.  To that end, I am pleased to share a series of columns that will explore, clarify, and provide options for educators.

While implementing this research-based practice, it is important to keep in mind that, just as children learn differently, each RtI/MTSS implementation is unique to the educational community that adopts it. Data are always the key. If the data say the model is working, then it is!

Let’s begin with the very concept of RTI/MTSS.

RtI/MTSS is the way we educate students, not just one more thing to do!

Depending on the district or school, the very concept of RtI/MTSS changes. In some schools, it’s a time of the day, or RtI time. In others, it’s a class or subject, as in I teach RtI. In yet others, it’s something we do to students when they struggle too much and we have to put them into RtI. In many cases, RtI/MTSS is another new initiative or just one more thing to do. Thus, it is subject to the swing of the pendulum and the budget ax.

Multiple interpretations of RtI/MTSS suggest that we may need some clarification.

Response to Instruction and Intervention is a philosophy of education or a “unified system of education … (that) places primary importance on meeting the needs of all students” (Faust, 2006). This philosophy envisions a system in which all students reach their potential through a system of structures, supports, and safety nets carefully designed to meet their instructional needs, whether they struggle or exceed expectations. Educational institutions that embrace this philosophy create a series of supports that focus on instruction and intervention driven by student data, not adult preference. It is the system and/or structure under which all educational plans and resources—both human and financial—serve children.

To visualize the concept of RtI/MTSS as educational philosophy, I consider a favorite graphic organizer, “Blueprint for Writing,” from the comprehensive literacy intervention LANGUAGE! by Dr. Jane Fell Greene. Designed as a house with a roof, walls, pictures (details), and foundation, this organizer offers a compelling visual of a fully implemented philosophy.

Everything education occurs under the roof or philosophy of RtI/MTSS—academics, behavior, and planning all converge to ensure the foundational goal of student achievement and school improvement. This means that every instructional plan we make, every dollar we spend, every resource we allocate, and every class we schedule is based on student achievement data through a structure that provides a multi-tiered system of supports.

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 4.00.54 PM

Graphic Organizer: LANGUAGE!, 2004

Content: Joanne Allain, 2012

In an RtI/MTSS philosophy, data-driven instruction and intervention are the way we do business. As depicted in the graphic organizer, all planning, decisions, and allocations revolve around the needs of children.

Adopting and implementing an RtI/MTSS philosophy not only allows for innovation and improvement, it demands them—as long as student achievement data guide all decisions. In his article, Faust (2006) describes fully functional RtI as  “… a unified system [that] serves students rather than creating ‘silos’ where students go to receive interventions and support based on a disability label or other risk factors.”

Words count. How we talk and think about RtI/MTSS has significant impact on its priority and place in our educational system. Is it the flavor of the month, or the way we educate our children?  How do we ensure that RtI/MTSS will withstand the passage of time and changes in personnel and funding?

We strive for an educational system that serves all students, all the time. At the center of an RtI philosophy is the belief that we “label the need and not the child” (Lyon & Fletcher, 2001), label the instruction and not the teacher, and label the resource and not the funding stream. I believe we are ready. I know our students are.

Stay tuned for the next blog post: “The RtI Pyramid: What does it really mean and how does it apply to my school or district?”


Batsche, G., Elliott, J., Graden, J. L., Grimes, J., Kovaleski, J. F., Prasse, D., et al. (2005). Response to intervention: Policy considerations and implementations. Alexandria, VA. National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Faust, J. (2006). Response to intervention and problem solving: An administrator’s perspective. In Case: The News Letter for the Council of Administrators of Special Education, 47(4), 1–2.

Lyon, G. R., & Fletcher, J. M. (2001). Early Warning System. Education Matters, Summer, 2001.

Joanne Allain,MA, a national consultant with 3t Literacy Group, works with states, districts and schools across the country to develop, implement and coach practical, customized RtI systems, instruction and intervention.  Her career experience at both the classroom and district level provides the unique perspective of a practitioner in real schools with real students. Joanne is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention; A Planning Guide for Middle and High School, Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools and RtI: The Forgotten Tier; A Practical Planning Guide for Building a Data Driven Tier 1 Instruction Process. Joanne can be contacted at joanne.allain@3tliteracygroup.org .


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