Guest bloggers:

  • Mimi Corcoran, President and CEO, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
  • Judy Elliott, Ph.D., Education Consultant; Member, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) Professional Advisory Board; Former Chair, RTI Action Network Advisory Board
  • Stevan Kukic, Ph.D., Education Consultant; Former Chair, National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) Professional Advisory Board

There is no shortage of ideas on how best to support struggling learners. Education reform initiatives come and go in schools and districts as new ideas emerge in the field. One bedrock principle most educators today agree on, however, is the need to assess students’ skills, understand each student’s progress, and then adapt teaching to help build those skills.

This “evidence-based” approach hasn’t always been the norm and is the product of many efforts over the years. One such method is Response to Intervention (RTI), and the story behind its growth to national adoption serves as a model for how nonprofit, philanthropic, and public school partners can drive systemic change.

About a decade ago, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) partnered with the Cisco Foundation to create an online network to directly support and facilitate the scale-up of RTI. At the time, RTI was viewed as a powerful new approach to support teachers in identifying students’ learning issues early and providing targeted services.

Across the country—in Florida, Iowa, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois and other states—educators and experts were coming to similar realizations about the need for prevention, early identification, and intervention. Seeing the overlap among efforts, NCLD started convening partners who could then collaborate and develop RTI as a national solution to a common challenge in schools.

We had a big idea—which we called the RTI Action Network—and knew we would need more than conferences, white papers, and journal articles to invoke broad scale change. We needed a way to consistently deliver information and recommendations from top experts to parents and educators and engage all partners in an ongoing conversation about their students.

Where do things stand today? A national survey of school district administrators found that 94 percent of school districts in the U.S. were implementing RTI to some degree by 2011 (Spectrum K12, 2011). What might now seem like a routine practice for schools began as a gamble for both NCLD and the Cisco Foundation. Below, we share our insights on how RTI became a national movement to promote the success of all students in a classroom, and how digitization enabled it to happen.

What is RTI?

RTI is a process for determining the effect instructional activities of increasing intensity have on student learning. It works best within the Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) for delivering services to students — one that considers core instruction, professional development, curricula, belief systems, and culture needed by teachers, as well as one that considers the student’s social and emotional well-being. When implemented well, MTSS decisions are data driven using an evidence-based problem-solving strategy.

When implementing RTI, teachers first screen students to see where they might have skill gaps. They then regularly check to see if students are making progress against where they started, and, if not, try a new intervention with growing levels, or tiers, of support. At the same time, teachers work to ensure evidence-based strategies are consistently used during instruction.

If, after a period of time, intensive interventions are not sufficient based on data collection and observations, then the student may be considered for the evaluation of special education services. With this approach, teachers are equipped as “problem solvers,” in which they diagnose the challenge, test new solutions, and carefully track the results.

“With RTI, students have been helped before they have reached the stage of needing special education. When this happens, it benefits everyone: students are encouraged, the teachers receive “proof” that their teaching is effective, and parents are reassured.” (District RTI Coordinator for the Bethany School District, Oklahoma)


What Did We Do?

For 40 years, NCLD has served as the national voice for people with learning and attention issues, and we’ve always worked to bring information to the people who need it most. The development of the RTI Action Network marked a significant milestone in our history, in that we looked at new technology to truly scale this support and expertise.

The use of technology was critical for keeping our different partners connected and for promoting awareness and adoption of RTI. With the Cisco Foundation’s partnership, the following were significant drivers to our success:

Added professional capacity. Through funding from the Foundation, we added new staff members to drive the work and create a centralized team to organize efforts among our different partners. The Foundation also provided a communications advisor, Rob Barlow, who worked as part of the team, lent critical perspective and informed a national communications strategy to spread the word about RTI.

Built our technology infrastructure. With the addition of a new server, videophones, and WebEx software provided by Cisco, NCLD had the resources necessary to communicate with people across the country and quickly process and share information online.

Created digital resources. With this new capacity, we could create digital resources out of the learnings emerging from our experts and district partners. We designed an online platform, RTINetwork.org in 2008 with the purpose of explaining RTI to educators and parents, and connecting them to advice from top experts in the field. This site hosts frameworks, checklists, toolkits, blogs, and videos of real-world examples of successful RTI use.

“Since developing expertise in RTI, other districts in our state have contacted me, and I immediately refer them to the [RTI Action Network] website.” (School Psychologist and RTI Coordinator. Flagstaff, AZ)

Connected with partners in-person and online. NCLD convened partners in-person and provided on-site technical assistance to more than 300 school districts across the United States. On the recommendation from our Cisco advisor, we also offered a blended model of professional development to school districts through WebEx, allowing us to reach more educators than ever before — a tactic that was in its infancy at the time.

“[RTI Action Network WebEx Webinars] are a great way to view information when life in a school district doesn’t allow me to “tune in” to scheduled meetings. Many thanks for your efforts.” (District Principal, Student Support Services. Nanaimo Public Schools, British Columbia)

The digitization of our approach broadened access to new audiences and helped us to keep educators engaged and invested in RTI. We were able to collect pockets of promising work happening in different states and create a centralized resource for all to reference.

With this powerful collective in place, we came together to successfully advocate for legislative reform — changing Federal regulations to include RTI as a viable screening for special education services, rather than solely relying on standardized test scores. This change encouraged greater adoption of RTI across the country.


How Did RTI Change Schools?

RTI adoption by school districts has exploded over the last decade. When searching for guidance on how to support struggling learners on the websites of state departments of education, school districts, and nonprofit partners, it’s common to see information on RTI and MTSS and, specifically, reference to the RTI Action Network website.

Traffic to the website is as strong as ever, with 800,000 unique visitors in 2016. One popular resource on the site has been our RTI-based Specific Learning Disabilities Identification Toolkit, developed with major education associations as partners, including the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

Wichita Public Schools has been fully committed to MTSS implementation. A large part of our success has been the use of the NCLD’s LD identification tool kit. This has allowed our district to focus on MTSS prevention, intervention and appropriate identification of students with disabilities. – Neil L. Guthrie, Ed.D  Asst. Supt., Student Support Services, Wichita Public Schools

Moreover, a meta-analysis (Hattie, 2009, 2012) scanned experimental studies on 150 instructional interventions in schools and ranked them by effect size (or, reliable impact on students). RTI methods represent two of the top eight most effective interventions, indicating RTI’s level of scale offers the possibility of having a major impact on student outcomes. That said, there is still significant work ahead regarding the quality and consistency of implementation, and NCLD remains committed to providing resources and solutions to that effort.

It is gratifying to see RTI’s progress is emblematic of a larger push in education reform toward evidence-based instruction, as new teaching standards and student performance measures have been introduced. We believe our RTI story represents the potential of a true partnership between nonprofits and foundations.

“The RTI Action Network is helpful to my work. I like how it is fine tuned to different instructional levels. It’s user friendly, and the Network thought of parents in making the site useful to them too.” (Ph.D. Intervention Specialist, ISD 271, Bloomington, MN)

In 2007, the digitization of such efforts was still being pioneered, and today, its potential is much more sophisticated. The lessons we have learned in our partnership with the Cisco Foundation inform our work to this day: digitization can broaden access to the best research and expertise, amplify collective efforts around a shared goal, and encourage the growth of the professional community.

Our support of the NCLD is one example of how Cisco is harnessing the power of the digital revolution to accelerate global problem solving, enabling people and societies to thrive in the digital economy. Our goal is to positively impact 1 billion people by 2025.



Austin Belisle

No Longer with Cisco