NASP Communiqué, Vol. 34, #3
Conceptual Confusion Within Response-to-Intervention Vernacular: Clarifying
By Theodore J. Christ, Matthew K. Burns, & James E. Ysseldyke
The Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004
states that a local education agency “may use a process that determines
if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part
of the evaluation procedures” (Pub. L. No. 108-446 § 614 [b][A]; § 614
[b][2 & 3]). This is commonly referred to as Response to Intervention (RTI)
and represents a substantive departure from traditional diagnostic and subsequent
resource allocation in the 30 years since the discrepancy model was first operationalized
in federal regulations. The traditional discrepancy model approach to
learning disability (LD) diagnosis has experienced widespread criticism (Aaron,
1997; Fletcher et al., 1998) due to many factors, including inconsistent implementation
(Haight, Patriarcha, & Burns, 2001; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 2002), failure
to differentiate low achievement from LD (Fletcher et al., 1998), and a lack
of treatment validity (Aaron, 1997). As a result the Office of Special Education
Programs conducted an LD Summit in 2001 to examine LD diagnostic procedures.
RTI was presented as one alternative approach to the discrepancy model (Gresham,
2001) and was later endorsed by the President’s Commission on Excellence
in Special Education (2002) and by several professional organizations (Fuchs,
Mock, Morgan, & Young, 2003).
Although the explicit inclusion of RTI in federal special education law is
a recent event, RTI has existed in the field for many years (Fuchs et al.,
2003). Existing RTI models that were implemented on a large-scale basis
demonstrated strong and positive effects (Burns, Appleton,
& Stehouwer, in press), but some important inconsistencies among them were
noted (Burns & Ysseldyke, in press). A review of the literature and many
professional discussions reveal that there are meaningful subtleties in the
RTI vernacular that have the potential to confuse professionals and negatively
affect implementation. The purpose of this paper is to propose clarifications
to the language related to four separate issues: a) RTI-problem solving vs.
RTI standard protocol; b) response vs. resistance to intervention; c) response
vs. responsiveness to intervention; and d) response to instruction vs. intervention.
RTI – Problem-Solving vs. RTI – Standard Protocol
Problem-solving (PS) is a general term that describes any set
of activities designed to “eliminate the difference between ‘what
and ‘what should be’ with respect to student development” (Deno,
2002; p. 38). In contrast, RTI refers to any set of activities designed
to evaluate the affect of instruction, or intervention, on student achievement.
RTI is an approach to evaluate a student’s response to an ecological
context of instruction and/or intervention. We propose that the terms RTI and
PS each represent distinct processes which may converge, but are not synonymous.
PS is a systematic process designed to change student outcomes. RTI
is a systematic process to determine whether change has occurred and
under what conditions.
Fuchs et al. (2003) described two groups of RTI advocates: early interventionists
who advocate for standardized and validated treatment protocols (Standard Protocol;
RTI-SP) and behaviorally-oriented school psychologists who see RTI as synonymous
with problem-solving (RTI-PS). While the conceptual distinction between the
two approaches is sound, the language is confusing because the contrast implies
that RTI-SP is somehow distinct from, or inconsistent with, problem solving.
On the contrary, both RTI-SP and RTI-PS can fit within a problem solving framework. The
fundamental difference between RTI-SP and RTI-PS is the level of individualization
and depth of problem analysis that occurs prior to the selection, design, and
implementation of an intervention. Because the difference between the two
RTI approaches is not related to their potential applications within a problem
solving framework, it is confusing to label one approach as PS.
In an RTI-SP application, a standard set of empirically supported instructional
approaches are implemented to prevent and remediate academic problems. Such
approaches might include partnered reading activities, direct instruction of
phonological or phonics skills, or reinforcement of skills through computer
programs (Case, Speece, & Molloy, 2003). A key feature of RTI-SP is that
standard instruction/intervention protocols are used with minimal analysis
of the deficit skill (e.g., Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies; Fuchs, Fuchs,
& Simmons, 1997; McMaster, Fuchs, Fuchs, & Compton, 2005). In contrast,
RTI-PS is a more flexible process with an emphasis on individualized interventions
that derive from the analysis of instructional/environmental conditions and
skill deficits (Tilly, Reschly, & Grimes, 1999). RTI-PS is guided by a
systematic analysis of instructional variables that is designed to isolate
target skill/sub-skill deficits and shape targeted interventions (Barnett,
Daly, Jones & Lentz, 2004). Procedural problem analysis examples include
the functional assessment of academic skills (Daly et al., 1996; Daly et
al., 1999; Daly et al., 1997) and Curriculum-Based Evaluation (Heartland
AEA 11, 2000; Howell & Nolet, 2000; Upah, 2002).
Neither RTI-SP nor RTI-PS is more consistent with the spirit of problem solving
as described by Deno (2002) in that both RTI applications are designed to reach
the same goal, which is the reduction or elimination of an academic problem.
The difference is the analysis of instructional/environmental conditions associated
with RTI-PS (Barnett et al., 2004). Behavioral consultation literature refers
to this identification of environmental conditions that are directly related
to the referral problem in order to design and implement interventions as problem
analysis (Kratochwill &
Bergan, 1990; Tilley, 2002). Thus, instead of perpetuating a false dichotomy
between the two RTI applications, RTI-PS should be replaced with RTI-problem
analysis (RTI-PA). The distinction between the RTI procedures persists, but
the alternate language is less likely to spur confusion.
While RTI-PA and RTI-SP are distinct, these procedures can be combined as
part of a larger problem solving system, or what some researchers have termed
a progressive intervention approach (O'Shaughnessy et al., 2003).
A progressive intervention approach typically includes primary (Phase I), secondary
(Phase 2), and tertiary (Phase 3) levels of instruction and/or intervention.
Each successive level is associated with a more intensive level of treatment
and allocation of additional resources to solve the problem. That is, RTI-SP
is more likely to be used during the initial intervention phases to prevent
and/or remediate less severe problems before they have the potential to establish
disabling conditions. RTI-PA/RTI-PS applications can then be reserved for the
more persistent and atypical problems, which would typically correspond with
the problems that were not resolved by standard interventions. This conception
is consistent with the problem solving and resource allocation models presented
by Tilly (2002).
Response vs. Resistance
The “R” in RTI may represent either response/responsiveness or
resistance/non-responsiveness to intervention (although there may be slight
distinctions, resistance and non-responsiveness will be used interchangeably).
The distinction between response and resistance paradigms is important because
the purpose, procedures, and conclusions of each process are distinct. The
resistance model is diagnostically focused whereas a response model is intervention
Gresham (2001) stated that “a resistance-to-intervention approach
to eligibility determination identifies students as having a learning disability
if their academic performance in relevant areas does not change in response
to a validated intervention implemented with integrity” (p. 4). Within
a resistance-to-intervention model, a student is diagnosed and/or deemed eligible
for services based on his/her lack of response to specific interventions.
As part of the resistance to intervention diagnostic process, empirically supported
interventions are selected and implemented to determine whether an individual
is resistant to
“effective” interventions. When resistance is the focus, the emphasis
of the process is to determine whether there is some within-child deficit,
deficiency, disorder, or disability that impedes achievement, or a within-child
deficit that warrants a diagnosis of disability (Mann, 1979). Services are
conferred based on an evaluation process that is designed to determine the
conditions from which a child does not benefit. The process is most likely
to terminate with diagnosis when the evaluation team determines that some specified
set of procedures does not work.
Individuals who respond are deemed ineligible for special education-related
resources and individuals who fail to respond are deemed resistant, and considered
in need of special education resources. The paradox of the resistance model
is that it could fail both responders and non-responders/resistant students.
School resources are often too limited to provide ongoing services to students
who would be ineligible to benefit from special education-related resources based
on their response to an intervention. Once effective instructional conditions
are identified for the responder group, they often are placed back into general
education without sufficient support for ongoing effective instruction. Moreover,
the students who do not respond to instruction are deemed eligible based on
what does not work instead of what does work. In effect, the assessment fails
to inform special education service delivery.
Gresham (2001) described a response-to-intervention model that “comes
from the applied behavior analysis (ABA) camp, which offers a functional rather
than a structural explanation for children’s academic difficulties – that
is, understanding academic failure attempts to relate academic performance
to environmental events” (p. 7). Although Gresham did not label the distinction
between the two models as response- versus resistance/non-responsiveness-to-intervention,
he offered the definitions that helps clarify the distinction between the two
models. Within a response-to-intervention model, a student is diagnosed
and/or deemed eligible to access special education related resources based
on his/her response to intervention, which is used to determine his/her instructional
needs. As part of the response to intervention process, empirically supported
interventions are selected and implemented to determine what set of instructional
conditions most benefits the student. When response is the focus, the emphasis
of the process is to determine what set of conditions the student needs to
benefit from instruction. The process is designed to first identify the set
of conditions that benefit the child and then determine whether services should
be provided using general education or special education resources. Thus, the
response model is more of a resource allocation method than a diagnostic
tool because diagnosis is secondary to the primary determination of what benefits
Unlike the paradoxical approach of resistance models, which place diagnosis
before instructional decisions, response models place instructional decisions
before diagnosis. This should not imply that response models are inconsistent
with diagnostically orientated eligibility decisions. On the contrary, response
models are premised on the recognition that the identification of effective
treatments precedes and supersedes categorical labels. The process of assessment
and evaluation does not terminate until the conditions for response are established.
Subsequently, the magnitude of resources necessary to meet the individual’s
needs is used to guide diagnostic decisions and inform ongoing treatment.
Response vs. Responsiveness
The “R” in RTI may also represent either response or responsiveness to
intervention. A review of the professional literature suggested that when “responsiveness” was
used in place of “response,” the authors were referring to a within-child
phenomenon, much like the distinction between response and resistance. For
example, in a recent article Fuchs, Fuchs, and Compton (2004) proposed that,
“students are identified as LD when their response to generally effective
instruction (i.e., instruction to which most student respond) is dramatically
inferior to that of their peers…If a child is nonresponsive to instruction
that benefits a majority of students…it suggests that disability is
responsible and that specialized intervention is necessary” (p. 217).
This response and responsiveness distinction might seem subtle, but its implications
are significant. Research literature that used the term “response,”
as opposed to “responsiveness,” referred to a process of inductive
hypothesis testing to low-inference phenomena (Barnett et al., 2004). Thus,
a response to intervention approach emphasizes ecological manipulations that
promote achievement without any unwarranted attention to within-child causation.
Such is more consistent with the principles of behavioral analysis and the
experimental discipline of school psychology that is described by Reschly and
Ysseldyke (2002). In contrast, the responsiveness to intervention approach
emphasizes discovering whether there is a within-child cause. Such is more
consistent with hypothetical deductions and high level inferences that are
associated with a less experimental correlational discipline (Reschly &
Instruction vs. Intervention
The “I” in RTI within the literature usually stands for one of
two possibilities, either instruction or intervention. Speece, Case, and Molloy
(2003) described RTI procedures where an individual’s response was evaluated
in the context of general education reading instruction, which is akin to when
student performance is evaluated against standards/benchmarks of expected performance
subsequent to instruction. This evaluation of a child’s response to typical
instruction can be used to guide resource allocation decisions and determine
which individuals should be considered for more intensive instructional procedures. Response
to instruction is the referent when procedures are designed to evaluate
a students’ response to typical instruction and/or slightly modified/intensive
instruction. These procedures typically correspond with primary (Phase I) and
secondary (Phase 2) levels of a multi-tiered model.
In contrast, Barnett et al. (2004) described RTI procedures where an individual’s
response was evaluated in the context of a highly modified and intensive set
of instructional conditions. When typical instructional procedures are highly
modified, then the services comprise an intervention, and the referent
is response to intervention. Thus, “response-to-instruction” refers
to response to core instruction or universal programming, whereas “response-to-intervention” refers
to a student’s response to a substantially modified set of instructional
procedures that are distinct from universal programming (Salvia & Ysseldyke,
The distinction between response to instruction and intervention amounts to
the intervention and evaluation activities. While it is difficult to
define the parameters for what is typical, modified, and/or highly modified
instruction, the more fundamental difference between response to instruction
versus intervention is the frequency and use of assessment data to evaluate
response (Salvia & Ysseldyke, in press). With an RTI approach, assessment
may occur in either a continuous, periodic (e.g., occurring 3-10 times per
year), or annual (1 time per year) schedule. When evaluating response to instruction,
the purpose of assessment is to evaluate general program effectiveness for
the group and identify individuals who will need or benefit from more intensive
instruction. As the intensity of an instruction increases so should the density
of the assessment schedule. Thus, a response to intervention approach requires
both intensive, substantially modified instruction and intensive assessment
and evaluation to monitor, evaluate, and modify interventions as necessary
to ensure effect.
Core instruction is for all students; enhanced instruction is for some students;
and intensive instruction (i.e., intervention) is for only a few students (Salvia & Ysseldyke,
in press). In a multi-tiered framework, assessment and evaluation activities
become more frequent, or formative, with the progression from primary to secondary
and to the tertiary level of instruction and intervention. At the tertiary
level, frequent and direct measurements of student response are used to guide
ongoing development and evaluation of intervention activities in response to
the individual student (Barnett et al., 2004).
LD was first operationalized in federal regulations in 1977, but federal funding
for research to examine the diagnostic process for LD did not occur until the
early 1980s (Burns & Ysseldyke, in press). Thus, the practical application
of the LD model was not adequately examined until after it was implemented.
As a result, inconsistencies in practice were common, and the diagnostic process
was heavily criticized for the widespread inconsistencies in implementation.
RTI is at risk for sharing a similar fate if there is not a concerted effort
to establish shared language and improved dissemination of procedures for the
implementation of existing models (Ysseldyke, 2005). The goal of the current
article is to propose language that will reduce the potential for confusion
as research is conducted and policy decisions are made.
In the proposed language, we advocate the use of RTI-PA (i.e.,
RTI-problem-analysis) in place of RTI-PS (i.e., RTI-problem-solving). We advocate
that the term “response” is more closely aligned
with an intervention-linked assessment and evaluation, and that such terms
as “resistance” and “responsiveness” are more diagnostically
oriented. We believe that it is important that the context and services be
evaluated in reference to the child’s response rather than the child
evaluated in reference to the context and services. Regardless of individual
beliefs, the appropriate language should be used to promote a clear understanding
of the paradigm. Finally, we find that the distinction between response to
“instruction” versus “intervention” reflects the intensity
and typicality of instruction and evaluation activities. When taken together,
these proposed definitions establish a foundation to communicate more clearly
and use language more consistently.
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© 2005, National Association of School Psychologists. Theodore Christ,
PhD, Matthew Burns, PhD, and James E. Ysseldyke, PhD, are on the faculty
of the School Psychology Training Program at the University of Minnesota.