RTI Adrift

The roll out of Response To Intervention nationally shows progress in all 50 states and significant enthusiasm for this new model of education (NASDSE). However, RTI is showing signs of grandiosity, being viewed as an entire new way of educating at-risk children, through overhauling complex relationships between general education and special education in one fell swoop. In contrast, enthusiasm for addressing the problem of special education misidentification is muted. In working with the two concepts, one gains the impression of only weak advocacy for reducing the numbers of at-risk children placed in special education. A Google search for “Special Education RTI” produced 296,000 entries, whereas a search for “Special Education Misidentification” produced 11,500 entries.

Yet clearly the impetus for RTI and other general education pre-interventions came from the lively debates in 2002 over the excessive use of the learning disability category. The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education proposed:

“Improving this process [eligibility determination], coupled with research-based early intervention programs, may reduce the number of children who are identified as having a disability, particularly when early identification and intervention are in place and research-based interventions are provided before referral” (Commission).


“Recommendation—Incorporate Response to Intervention. Implement models during the identification and assessment process that are based on response to intervention and progress monitoring. Use data from these processes to assess progress in children who receive special education services.”

Where will RTI take us without strong linkage with the federal goal of misidentification reduction?

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) has argued for an “integrated service delivery system” where eligibility determination is a value-free outcome entrusted to IEP teams:

“There are two overarching goals of RtI. The first is to deliver evidence-based interventions and the second is to use students’ response to those interventions as a basis for determining instructional needs and intensity. Special education eligibility decisions can be a product of these efforts, but is not the primary goal.”

It seems clear enough that the purpose of RTI and similar programs is not to provide general education with an efficient remedial system supporting classroom teachers facing difficult-to-teach children (cf. Cortiella, RTI). It is not a movement to reform general education, making use of special education personnel for expertise. The spirit and direction of IDEA 2004 is to correct an historic and pervasive FAPE issue.

The idea of loaning special education personnel to general education so it can organize a method of helping at-risk children is a side track that doesn’t guarantee IEP teams will behave any differently if they receive referrals. In fact, after RTI programming teams might view their decisions as proforma decisions because eligibility has already been validated by another school process.

For some children pressures to refer to special education might grow, especially if RTI procedures are implemented hastily, or minority children fail to perform according to RTI standards when those procedures are culturally biased. RTI could exacerbate the tendency toward self-fulfilling prophecies among classroom teachers (cf. Massachusetts Solution).

If RTI is to be tested and judged, it should be evaluated primarily on its capacity to reduce special education over-identification. It should reduce referrals and placements, and placement decisions should improve in accuracy across all categories of disability.

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