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RTI and SWPBIS: Confronting the Problem of Disproportionality

By Edward McKinney, Charles Bartholomew, & LaReasa Gray

This article is one in a series on equity in schools and promising practices in addressing disproportionality developed by members of the African American Subcommittee under NASP’s Multicultural Affairs Committee. The authors acknowledge the support of the African American Subcommittee for their insightful discussions on the article’s topic, as well as for the group’s professional allegiance.

As indicated in an earlier article in this series (Sullivan et al., 2009), disproportionality is considered to be an issue of equity and access in general and special education and refers to “the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category” (Oswald, Coutinho, Best, & Singh, 1999). Labeling students as disabled when they are not creates many negative problems for these students and their communities. For instance, overrepresented groups are disproportionately affected by negative consequences associated with special education labeling and placement, including stigmatization, lowered expectations, substandard instruction, and less rigorous curricula, as well as isolation from the educational and social curricula of general education (Sullivan et al.).Long-term consequences include lower graduation rates, limited employment opportunities, independent living challenges, and limited access to secondary education opportunities, as well as lower wages and higher arrests compared to nondisabled peers and disabled White peers (Affleck, Edgar, Levine, & Kortering, 1990; Losen & Welner, 2001).

In addition to the issues outlined above, the effectiveness of special education has been questioned. Recshly (2004) suggested the ineffectiveness of special education may stem in part from problems embedded within the system. With increased research efforts and litigation, some progress has been made in addressing the lack of effects shown for special education. However, problems such as nonaccountability for student outcomes (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2003), misdirected focus on service delivery, focus on placement instead of interventions and outcomes (Bianco, 2005), and the persistent gap between what has shown to be effective in research and what is commonly done in practice (Greenwood & Abbott, 2001) still remain.

The aforementioned problems illustrate the necessity of adopting a different perspective for determining what is important, how services are rendered, and how success is measured. This redirected perspective should focus on providing services which accentuate documented improvements in academic, behavioral, and emotional competencies (Reschly, 2004). To address academic deficits, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services has promoted the important use of multitiered academic interventions, such as small group tutoring in general education with progress monitoring, selective interventions in general education, and more individualized services brought to special education students with the goal of carefully exiting them from these services in the future (Pearson, 2007). In the area of behavior, multitiered behavioral interventions were also highly suggested, and included school-wide positive discipline, effective classroom organization and behavioral management, selective interventions in general education, and more intense wraparound services brought to students placed in special education for behavioral reasons (Pearson, 2007). Such multitiered strategies correspond to response to intervention (RTI) and school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) initiatives.

Response to Intervention

RTI has been viewed as a process that could possibly help reduce disproportionality and improve the educational outcomes of many minority students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. RTI is a process that includes the provision of systematic, research-based instruction and interventions to struggling learners. Interventions are matched to students’ needs, and their progress is monitored frequently (Chidsey, Bronaugh, & McGrew, 2009). Most importantly, Fuchs and Fuchs (2009) stated, “The purpose of RTI is to reduce the risk of serious, long term, negative consequences associated with exiting school without the skills needed to succeed in life.” The National Education Association (2007) reported that the core features of an RTI process are as follows:

  • High-qualty, research-based instruction and behavioral support in general education
  • Universal (school-wide) screening of academics and behavior to determine which students need close monitoring or additional interventions
  • Multiple tiers of instructional strategies that are progressively more intense and include the use of scientific, research-based interventions matched to student needs
  • Use of a collaborative or problem-solving approach by school staff in developing, implementing, and monitoring the intervention process
  • Continuous monitoring of student performance during interventions using objective data to determine if students are meeting goals
  • Follow-up measures assuring that interventions were implemented as intended and with appropriate consistency (fidelity)
  • Use of progress-monitoring data to shape instruction and make educational decisions
  • Parent involvement throughout the process

While RTI holds significant promise for schools and districts, school psychologists and other educators should be aware of issues that could limit the effectiveness of RTI with culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. First, school districts using the RTI model have the option of using the standard treatment protocol or the problem-solving protocol. The standard treatment model requires the use of research-based interventions in response to the academic or behavioral needs of a student, and the student’s response to the intervention is measured and evaluated (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2006). The standard treatment protocol has shown some\ research support with CLD students (Vanderwood & Nam, 2008); however, using the standard treatment protocol alone (a somewhat one-size-fits-all approach) may not have the flexibility to consistently meet the diverse challenges facing many minorities. Crockett and Brown (2009) described how the problem-solving model looks more at the needs of the individual child within the context of the child’s ecology (e.g., educational background, L1 and L2 language proficiency, immigration/environmental patterns, and developmental history). The problem solving protocol closely examines why a student is struggling and individualizes interventions to address the student’s unique needs. However, the problem-solving model alone can be time consuming and require extensive knowledge of evidence-based interventions among staff (Bender & Shores, 2007). When considering this information, the diversity of our schools, and multiple needs of some immigrant students, schools may want to consider using a combination of the two approaches by implementing a standard intervention and then problem solve when and if the standard intervention is not effective.

Next, progress monitoring measurements should be applied to examine meaningful information about students’ academic levels and their rates of improvement. These measurements tend to be sensitive to small gains in student improvement, correspond to high-stakes testing, and better accelerate learning when teachers use progress monitoring to inform instructional decisions (Fuchs & Fuchs, 2009). However, these measurements do have limitations. For example, research has documented significant magnitudes of error among various oral reading fluency measures (Ardoin & Christ, 2009), which could impact decisions regarding a student’s response to intervention.

Lastly, there is no guarantee that RTI will eliminate the disproportionately high number of African American students labeled with mental retardation, particularly in states that allow the use of cognitive assessments in an RTI process. However, employing alternative models, such as the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) cross-battery approach can help practioners conclude whether cultural and/or linguistic factors systematically influenced test performance (see Cultural-Language Matrix worksheet; Flanagan, Ortiz, & Alfonso, 2007). CHC theory is supported by a network of validity evidence (development, neurocognitive, etc.) stretching across 70 years (McGrew, 2005). Practioners who use the cross-battery approach are likely engaging in one of the most promising practices to help reduce inaccurate mental retardation certifications among CLD students (Flanagan et al.).

School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support

One of the largest challenges facing educators in the United States is addressing problem behavior within the school. One study indicated that general education teachers reported, on average, 1 in 5 of their students exhibited disruptive/off-task behavior and 1 in 20 exhibited aggressive behaviors to the point where interventions were necessary (Myers & Holland, 2000). Many educators continue to rely on traditional discipline practices that generally involve punishment and/or ineffective exclusionary options. Thirty years of research has consistently demonstrated that African American youth are overrepresented in the exclusionary discipline consequences of suspension and expulsion (Children’s Defense Fund, 1975; Skiba & Rausch, 2006) in schools. Cartledge et al. (2002) also reported that Black males are more likely to receive more severe punishment than White students who commit the same type of behavior. According to Fenning and Bohanon (2006), suspensions and expulsions are the most common responses in discipline policies, but they are ineffective in meeting the needs of any student and often exacerbate the very problems they are attempting to reduce (Sugai & Horner, 2002).

In 2003, a joint research conference was held by the Civil Rights Project and Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice to explore suspension and expulsion policies. One of the resulting themes was the term school-to-prison-pipeline, which essentially means that school-wide discipline data mirror juvenile justice and prison data in the overrepresentation of students of color (Fenning & Rose, 2007; Wald & Losen, 2003). Fenning and Rose and other researchers suggest changing the punitive nature of discipline policies in the schools and finding more proactive responses, such as those consistent with models of positive behavior support, which can teach and acknowledge alternative expected behaviors rather than just react. As was alluded to earlier, the focus on behavioral support is apparent in recent amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which stipulate conditions in which schools are expected to consider functional behavioral assessment and positive behavior support procedures (IDEA, 1997; Horner, Crone & Stiller, 2001).

School wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS), which is commonly referred to as behavioral RTI, is a proactive approach for addressing student behavior and is grounded in applied behavior analysis and empirically based approaches to behavior management. Similar to RTI, SWPBIS is a multitiered framework that offers a range of interventions that are systematically applied to students based on their demonstrated level of need (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). SWPBIS also emphasizes altering the environment and preventing inappropriate behaviors by teaching desired skills and reinforcing appropriate behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). It was developed initially as an alternative to aversive interventions used with students with disabilities who engaged in self-injury and aggression (Meyer & Evans, 1989). More recently, the technology has been extended from an individual approach to an intervention for entire schools. SWPBIS is not a new intervention package nor a new theory of behavior, but an application of a behaviorally based systems approach to enhancing the capacity of schools, families, and communities to design effective environments that improve the fit or link between research-validated practices and the environments in which teaching and learning occur. School psychologists have the opportunity to lead this effort in the schools, in part because practical research-based solutions exist and these solutions come from the field of psychology (Horner et al., 2001). According to the National Educational Association (2007), core features of the SWPBIS model are as follows:

  • Behavioral supports are defined as primary (school-wide), secondary (classroom), and tertiary (individual)
  • A continuum of positive behavioral supports exists for all students within a school
  • Students’ lifestyles improve in a variety of domains (personal, social, family, work, and recreation)
  • Problem behavior becomes less effective, efficient, and relevant for students
  • Productive behavior becomes more functional for students
  • Implementation occurs throughout the school, including classroom and nonclassroom settings, such as hallways and restrooms

To be effective for all students, whole-school initiatives such as SWPBIS must be supported by culturally responsive practices when addressing learning and behavior (e.g., identifying specific interventions found to be effective for CLD groups). If this is done and SWPBIS is implemented comprehensively and with fidelity, SWPBIS could help reduce discipline problems in schools and the high number of emotionally disturbed certifications among African Americans students, and improve the learning environment for all students.

But what are those culturally responsive practices, and which ones are needed in addressing learning and behavior problems in the school setting? A number of authors have attempted to answer the first part of this question, with varying levels of success. The core underpinning of their answers, however, appears to be based on the belief that culture is an indispensable ecological context of human development that has a profound impact on human behavior (Singer & Wang 2009). In a society like the United States, which is composed of people who have different cultural heritages and live in diverse cultures defined by shared ethnicity, language, and religion, people determine a particular behavior as appropriate or inappropriate or even problematic on the basis of specific cultural values and beliefs as well as certain circumstances in which the behavior occurs. Therefore, some behaviors that are viewed by most professionals from the mainstream culture as unconventional or problematic might not be unacceptable or troublesome to individuals and families of diverse cultures and vice versa. It is important for practitioners to realize the existence of contrasting cultural values and their impact on understanding human behavior and behavioral intervention practices. The fact that social behavior norms used to help identify maladaptive and problem behaviors are not defined in a cultural vacuum is one of the most important components of culturally responsive practices.

In addressing the challenges of planning and implementing SWPBIS, Chen, Downing, and Peckham-Hardin (2002) have recommended these culturally responsive practices:

  • Service providers must acquire some understanding of the culture of the families with whom they work.
  • Although certain characteristics may be influenced by a family’s particular cultural background, each family should be regarded as an individual and unique system.
  • Service providers should learn about the family’s preferences related to sharing information and making decisions so they can tailor their communication style to accommodate these cultural differences before developing behavioral support plans.
  • In working with interpreters, service providers should not assume that the interpreter understands the family’s culture just because he or she is fluent in the family’s language.
  • Programs need not only qualified interpreters but also bilingual/bicultural staff to serve as cultural mediators as well as to serve families directly.


In an article written by Hill M. Walker (2003), an interesting development in the field of medicine was cited which has some current implications. In the mid-1700s, a British naval surgeon discovered the cure for scurvy, which would often decimate the crews of sailing vessels. The cure involved a simple dietary solution, but it was not fully implemented across the British naval fleet and merchant vessels for another hundred years (Valente & Rogers, 1995). The number of untreated sailors affected with scurvy after a cure was found is not known, but it is obvious that the 100-year gap between science and practice was too long. Unfortunately, this gap exists in many scientific areas, but nowhere is this gap greater than in the field of children’s mental health (Walker, 2003), particularly with African American youth. Great progress has been made over the past few decades in the understanding and treatment of children’s mental health needs, but it is obvious from the statistics referenced earlier in this article that broad adoption and implementation of evidence-based interventions (i.e., in practice) continues to lag behind the research (i.e., the science).

As is indicated in this and previous articles in this series, promising practices exist for addressing disproportionality. As school psychologists, who are social justice advocates and professionals anchored by our ethics, we must assume the onus of considering these promising practices and sharing them with our schools. For some practitioners this may be seen as excessive and burdensome, especially because of the paradigm shift needed to expand our traditional roles in the schools. However, a greater danger lurks in the lives of children and the individuals whom they affect if we continue to practice with a science-to-practice gap and wait in silence as the British naval surgeons did more than 300 years ago. Nonetheless, this article clearly supports the need for a closer look at RTI and SWPBIS models of service delivery if we are to adhere to our principles and ethics in helping at-risk students.


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Edward McKinney is a school psychologist in the Metropolitan-Davidson School District in Nashville, TN.
Charles Bartholomew, PhD, is a school psychologist in the DeKalb County School District in Atlanta, GA.
LaReasa Gray is a graduate student in the school psychology program at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.