RtI Finding Its Way

Interview with ERC Response-to-Intervention Consultant Jeff Cohen

ERC’s Craig Levis: There are many different approaches to helping school districts develop and implement tiered intervention systems. What distinguishes the work you are doing with districts from other consultants in the field?

Jeff Cohen: There are two critical factors that distinguish our approach from many other organizations supporting the work on Response to Intervention (RtI). First, we facilitate a comprehensive self-assessment at the building and district levels. Our involvement in this process sets the tone for a collaborative and supportive relationship and ensures that we capture all of the essential elements of RtI that may already exist within the district.  An accurate awareness of strengths and needs is paramount to building a sustainable tiered intervention system.

Secondly, we develop a shared understanding by involving as many stakeholders as possible in the development and implementation phases.  Many organizations offer canned programs in this domain if they do it at all, but this work is generally too complex for that kind of approach. Our experience shows us the more involved teachers and administrators are in the decision making process, the more committed they are in its successful implementation.  We have designed six interactive training modules that will provide all of the background knowledge and information necessary for districts to fully implement RtI, but these modules are modified and facilitated to meet the unique needs of every district.  I like to role up my sleeves and work with the staff through each step of the development.”

Craig: Once the self assessment is completed, what are the next steps for a district?

Jeff: We present the results of the self-assessment to a district leadership team and facilitate a dialogue session on mapping out what the scope of the work will look like based on building and district needs.  As we identify the steps in the action plan, we also identify who will be involved.  We ask each building to commit an RtI team to the process.  Each RtI team must have one representative on a district RtI team.  We work hard to build capacity and  it is through these teams we begin to create enduring change.

This model has been effective in large urban districts (I facilitated for several years in Boston Public Schools and across Massachusetts) as well as suburban and small rural communities.  The personalization and distributive leadership characteristics of our model increase buy-in and staff resolve. We collectively become part of the solution.  I sometimes spend a lot of time talking about the relationships that have to exist for change to happen and perhaps less on the specifics of RtI, initially. But this is where I feel most districts go awry.  So much is being put upon school boards, administrators, and teachers in the form of mandates and initiatives.  Even though RtI isn’t necessarily a new concept, it is a new and very substantial challenge for most districts.  The stakes are high, and with dwindling resources, the uncertainty of change, or simply being asked to do more with less, can be paralyzing to the school transformation process.  Only by developing strong collegial relationships and a common conceptual framework for why the change is needed can we persevere. This is something that ERC takes very seriously and does well.

Craig: Can you describe what the scope of work might look like in a district?

Jeff: “Recently I worked with a district that was celebrating their successes in RtI at the elementary level but was just beginning the raising awareness stage at the middle and high schools.  After the self-assessment was completed, I met with a leadership team from each level.  The elementary team felt very good about having clear consistent protocols and an effective problem-solving process in each building.  One area of need they identified was the availability of interventions at tiers two and three, and the fact that they were not consistent across elementary schools.  A second concern was the lack of a consistent process of analyzing and recording student performance data to be used for special education learning disability identification (LDID).  One of my roles was to facilitate the elementary level team in creating a system to share resources and interventions, including professional development on specific interventions. Teachers are not always used to challenging conversations about values and practices. They don’t have as much time together as in past years and some have lost a part of that skill, so we support getting back to deep conversation with expert facilitation.

In that district we also spent time looking at what protocols other districts were using for the LDID process.  We developed a series of forms based on state guidance and had the forms approved for use by the district attorney.

At the secondary level, I facilitated whole school professional development using our activity-based training modules, to develop a shared understanding of RtI.  Using Principles of Adult Learning, I lead the faculty through exercises that connect the essential elements of RtI to current practices and beliefs in their school.  Universal Design for Learning (CAST.org), Differentiated Instruction (Tomlinson), Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe) are crucial components to the pre-requisite of a comprehensive intervention system: a core curriculum that meets the needs of most learners. Faculty and administrators need to walk away believing that RtI is a win-win strategy.  What teacher wouldn’t want to be able to identify a solution for every student when it comes to academic or behavioral challenges? How much failure does a student need to experience before he/she can find success? Presenting RtI in these terms, I have found that once there is a common understanding, most faculty want to be part of the solution.

Craig: I can sense your passion for students and teachers in your responses. I started by asking you what sets ERC apart when it comes to facilitating the development or improvement of a sustainable RtI system in a district. It is apparent that your ability to establish trusting relationships with all stakeholders is crucial to your success.  What are the outcomes that districts can expect from your work with them on RtI?

Jeff: It is important for districts to have an accurate assessment of what they do well and where they need improvement before a tired intervention system can be implemented. You need to know your precise starting point to develop an effective action plan. Once we identify the strengths and needs, I will work with the buildings and districts in building internal capacity in designing, developing and implementing a problem-solving approach to RtI.  This includes shared responsibilities, data driven decision making, and the Learning Disabilities Identification process.   The district will have clear protocols and resources for tiered behavioral and academic interventions as well as a consistent process that is seamless between grade levels and buildings.  Because it is driven by district personnel, it is more likely to be sustainable.  We continue to provide ongoing consultation as needed once the system is in place.  In our model, a district no longer needing my support speaks volumes about our success!