NASP Communiqué, Vol. 34, #5
Problem Solving and RTI: New Roles
for School Psychologists
By Andrea Canter, PhD, NCSP
National Association of School Psychologists
IDEA 2004 and its accompanying regulations present new challenges and opportunities
for school personnel working with at-risk and special needs populations. In
particular, changes in the identification of learning disabilities to include
Response to Intervention (RTI) procedures have significant implications for
the role of the school psychologist. The movement toward problem solving models
of early intervention and disability identification is not new as such systems
have been implemented at district and state levels over the past twenty years.
What is new is the strong support in law for “the use of a process
that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention
as part of the evaluation procedures” for students who may have Specific
Learning Disabilities (SLD), as well as the mandate that states no longer can require districts
to consider an IQ/achievement discrepancy criterion.
“Response to Intervention” (RTI) refers
to an array of procedures that can be used to determine if and how
students respond to specific changes in instruction. RTI does not refer to
a specific model, test, or single procedure, and RTI is often used within a
Problem Solving model to help identify effective instructional strategies and
evaluate their effectiveness. RTI by itself is not intended to serve
as a single criterion or single procedure for identifying disability.
“Problem Solving” refers to a broad,
sequenced model (often referred to as a “three-tiered model” although
some district designs use more than three stages) that seeks to determine what
instructional supports are needed to solve student achievement problems (and
sometimes expanded to address behavior problems as well). Problem Solving models
include early intervention components—general education classroom and
school supports and ongoing evaluation of student progress—and referral
for special education evaluation when those early supports fail to produce
sufficient gains. Problem Solving models focus on improving student performance
rather than classifying a disability. In some districts, implementation of
the Problem Solving model includes incorporation of RTI procedures and nontraditional
assessments in the determination of SLD. Across states and settings, there
is no single “problem solving model” but rather many variations.
Challenges and Opportunities of Problem Solving and RTI
There is confusion among some educators, including some school psychologists,
regarding how the elimination of the IQ/discrepancy criterion requirement will
impact the functioning of school psychologists and, more generally, the assessment
process. Contrary to some initial interpretations, the changes in the law actually
build on the school psychologist’s expertise in assessment, whether cognitive
or otherwise. IDEA 2004 does not prohibit or discourage the use of standardized
measures of cognitive ability. Comprehensive assessment is required in all
areas of suspected disability, including SLD. IDEA, from PL 94-142 in 1975
through the newly reauthorized IDEA 2004, never specifically required intelligence
testing. In fact, prior to 2004, the federal law called for a finding of a “severe
discrepancy” between achievement and intellectual ability, but
did not specify how “ability” should be measured. Rather, many states have
required that teams consider discrepancy between IQ test performance
and achievement test performance as the primary criterion for LD—this
has not been a federal requirement.
RTI is a component of comprehensive assessment.
The administration of standardized tests of cognitive ability is not antithetical
to the provisions of problem solving approaches using RTI criteria—the
new law does not create an “either/or” process. Teams must still
conduct relevant, comprehensive evaluations using qualified personnel, which
necessarily will include school psychologists whose skills remain essential
to the determination of SLD, as well as to the determination of other disabilities.
Indeed school psychologists’ broad expertise extends far beyond gate-keeping
roles and the increased opportunity to tap into these skills is a distinct
advantage of the new provisions of IDEA 2004.
RTI and Problem Solving increase the need for school psychologists.
The design, implementation, and evaluation of problem solving and RTI approaches
create new opportunities and greater need for school psychologists, while also
requiring their active participation in more familiar—if expanded—assessment
roles. In fact, historically, staffing trends reflect increased positions and
responsibilities of school psychologists in districts using these models. For
example, in the Minneapolis Public Schools, the number of district school psychologist
positions doubled over the ten years following implementation of a district-wide
problem solving model that included RTI procedures, despite declining budgetary
resources. Most new positions were funded directly by principals seeking expanded
services (see Marston et al., 2002, in “Resources”).
Challenges of the new model. There are, of course,
challenges to school psychologists working in districts that undertake the
shift from traditional psychometric (norm-referenced) approaches to a more
pragmatic, “edumetric” problem solving model (focused on measuring
changes in individual performance over time). Such challenges include
the shift from a “within child” deficit paradigm to an eco-behavioral
perspective; a greater emphasis on instructional intervention and progress
monitoring prior to special education referral; an expansion of the school
psychologist’s assessment “tool kit” to include more instructionally
relevant, ecologically based procedures; and most likely the need for additional
training in all of the above.
New and Expanded Roles
School psychologists working in districts that opt to develop problem solving
and RTI procedures can offer tremendous value and expertise at many levels,
from system-wide program design through specific assessment and intervention
efforts with the individual student.
School psychologists are among the best-trained professionals in the school
district to help develop, implement, and evaluate new models of service delivery.
These roles include:
- Identifying and analyzing existing literature on problem solving and RTI
in order to determine relevant and effective approaches for the local district
- Working with administration to identify important stakeholders and key
leaders to facilitate system change (obtain “buy-in”).
- Conducting need assessment to identify potential obstacles, concerns, and
initial training needs.
- Designing an evidence-based model that best fits local needs and
- Planning for and conducting necessary staff training for implementation
(e.g., training in evidence-based instructional interventions, evaluating
- Developing local norms for “academic achievement, e.g., CBM and other
measures of student progress, and monitoring the reliability and validity
of these norms over time.
- Implementing and evaluating pilot projects.
- Overseeing district level implementation and ongoing evaluation.
- Ongoing communication and consultation with administration, school board,
- Identifying a systemic patterns of student need (e.g., identifying persistent
difficulties among kindergarten and first grade students in basic phonics
skills) and working with district personnel to identify appropriate, evidence-based
School psychologists are often assigned to leadership roles on school teams.
Even when not designated as a team leader, the school psychologist often is
regarded as a leader regarding such issues as assessment, mental health, home-school
collaboration and school-agency collaboration. As members of the intervention
assistance and special education teams, school psychologists play critical
roles in the implementation of problem solving and RTI efforts, including:
- Ongoing consultation regarding implementation issues as well as regarding
individual student needs.
- Collaborating in the development of team procedures, e.g., developing procedures
for referral, monitoring and evaluation at each tier of problem solving;
developing specific procedures for measuring response to intervention; developing
observation and interview protocols, etc.
- Identifying team training needs and providing, or helping team obtain,
relevant training (including training in applying progress monitoring procedures
- Serving as liaisons to parents—helping parents understand the new
model and how it impacts their child, helping to ensure that parent input
is integrated into each tier of intervention and subsequent evaluation.
- Serving as liaisons to community providers and agencies who may not be
familiar with the new models—conducting inservice about the models
to community providers; ensuring appropriate involvement and communication
with community providers (with parent consent).
- Providing oversight of progress monitoring and integration of all data
in team decision-making.
Serving Individual Students
Most school psychologists will continue to spend the majority of their time
working with individual student problems. Within problem solving and RTI models,
these activities will likely include:
- Consulting with teachers and parents regarding early intervention activities
in the classroom and at home. Because PSM and RTI emphasize early intervention
(Tier 1), school psychologists may spend more time and effort at this stage
than they did under traditional models.
- Demonstrating (and training) progress monitoring strategies as part of
the individual student intervention plan, and assisting staff in interpreting
data as part of the ongoing decision-making process.
- Observing students in the instructional environment in order to help identify
appropriate intervention strategies, to identify barriers to intervention,
and to collect response to intervention data. Although observation has always
been part of the school psychologist’s repertoire, PSM and RTI approaches
place greater emphasis on gathering ecological data.
- Evaluating student’s cognitive functioning. As always, the school
psychologist plays a key role in the comprehensive evaluation; this is true
in PSM and RTI models, although the specific procedures used may be different.
When students are referred for consideration of SLD or other disability categories,
it is essential that the team gathers information about cognitive functioning.
Depending on the rules and criteria used in your state and district, information
regarding cognitive ability might include observations of the student during
instruction, an historical review of the student’s academic progress
and health history, interviews with parents and teachers, review of data
reflecting the student’s response to intervention, direct measures
of cognitive ability (such as intelligence tests or informal tasks), and/or
direct measures of specific cognitive processes related to specific academic
skills. Using multiple sources of data to address student’s cognitive
functioning not only reflects best practices but also minimize the impact
of biases and limitations of standardized norm-referenced IQ measures, especially
for children who are socio-economically, ethnically, and linguistically diverse.
- Under PSM and RTI approaches, determining the most useful procedures to
address referral concerns and the needs of the individual student. School
psychologists may spend less time in formal assessment activities under PSM
and RTI by individualizing the assessment based on student need rather than
complying with “gatekeeping” rules.
- Evaluating student’s relevant academic, behavioral, and mental health
functioning. As part of a comprehensive evaluation, the school psychologist
should always consider relevant academic, behavioral, and mental health concerns
that may impact school performance. This role is no different under PSM and
RTI than under traditional models. If behavioral or mental health issues
are not easily ruled out in considering academic difficulties, the school
psychologist should work with other team members to obtain appropriate, useful
data using empirically supported procedures. (More time might be available
to address mental health issues under new models.)
- Working with team members and service providers to set realistic goals,
design appropriate instructional strategies and progress monitoring procedures,
and periodically evaluate student progress for those receiving special education
services, using RTI and other data.
Meeting the Challenge
The opportunities for school psychologists working within Problem Solving
and RTI frameworks are extensive. To some these opportunities may seem overwhelming—where
in the workday would there be time to add all of these activities
to our current responsibilities? Certainly if the traditional roles of
assessment-for-classification continue, it would be difficult to expand into
these new roles. The point of Problem Solving and RTI, however, is not to add
more tasks but to reallocate school psychologists’ time to better address
prevention and early intervention, and in the long run serve more students
up front rather than at the point of special education evaluation and service.
Where PSM and RTI have been faithfully implemented, this seems to be the outcome—more
psychologist time spent on services within general education, less time spent
on eligibility assessment activities, more time available to address mental
health issues. Some districts report reductions in special education referral
and placement; even where placement rates have remained stable, psychologists
nevertheless report a change in the way they spend their time. The reallocation
of effort will hopefully lead to more effective interventions, both for students
who remain in general education and those who ultimately qualify for more intensive
To meet this challenge, school psychologists will need to be:
- Open to change—change in how students are identified for intervention;
how interventions are selected, designed, and implemented; how student performance
is measured and evaluated; how evaluations are conducted; and how decisions
- Open to training—training (as needed) in evidence-based intervention
strategies, in progress monitoring methods, in designing problem-solving
models, in evaluating instructional and program outcomes, in ecological assessment
- Willing to adapt a more individualized approach to serving students while
also adapting a more systemic approach to serving schools.
- Willing and able to communicate their worth to administrators and policymakers—to “sell” new
roles consistent with the provisions of IDEA 2004.
The new IDEA 2004 does not really mandate significant change or prohibit traditional
practices. Rather, it encourages the adoption of new approaches that promise
better student outcomes. Such innovations in education offer numerous opportunities
to enhance the practice of school psychology to the benefit of all students.
Gresham, F.M. (2002). Responsiveness to intervention: An alternative approach
to the identification of learning disabilities. In R. Bradley, L. Danielson, & D.
Hallahan (Eds.), Identification of learning disabilities: Research to practice (pp.
467-519). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Kovaleski, J., & Prasse, D. P. (2004, February). Response to instruction
in the identification of learning disabilities: A guide for school teams. Communiqué,
32(5), insert. Available:
Marston, D., Canter, A., Lau, M. & Muyskens, P. (2002, June). Problem
Solving: Implementation and Evaluation in Minneapolis Schools. Communiqué,
National Association of School Psychologists website, www.nasponline; NASP’s
RTI References and Weblinks,
National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) (2005). Response
to Intervention: Policy considerations and implementation. Available
from NASDSE Publications at www.nasdse.org
National Center on Student Progress Monitoring —www.studentprogress.org
National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2005). Responsiveness to
intervention and learning disabilities. Available:
Northeast Regional Resource Center, RTI website— www.wested.org/nerrc/rti.htm
Thomas, A. & Grimes, J. (Eds.). Best practices in school psychology
IV. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists. (See
numerous chapters on problem solving and assessment)
Andrea Canter, PhD, NCSP, was a school psychologist with the Minneapolis
Schools for 30 years; she co-led the development of a Problem Solving Model
from 1993-2000. She currently serves as a consultant to NASP and editor of