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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #1
September 2006

RTI Implementation

Bridging the Training and Practice Gap Through RTI-Focused Internships

By Dawn M. Decker, Sara E. Bolt, & Heidi L. Triezenberg

            Although Response to Intervention (RTI) is a relatively new concept within federal special education legislation, it is not a new concept for most school psychologists. Special education and school psychology journals have been publishing information on progress monitoring tools, such as curriculum based measurement (CBM), for over two decades (Deno, 1985; Fuchs, 2004; Hintze, Shapiro, & Lutz, 1994; Rosenfield & Shinn, 1989). Intervention design and consultation skills have been an important part of training within many school psychology programs for the past few decades (Fagan, 2000). In fact, in order to receive approval from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP, 2000), school psychology training programs need to demonstrate that they provide training in problem solving, intervention, consultation, and progress monitoring, all of which are important for the effective delivery of school psychology services using an RTI framework.

Training-to-Practice Gap

            While the development of knowledge in these areas has been an important focus of school psychology training for quite some time, students have not often had adequate opportunities to practice and receive feedback on their application of such skills in practice. Federal, state, and local policies have a significant influence on school psychology practice (Reschly & Bersoff, 1999); their programs may require time-intensive administrations of traditional intelligence and achievement tests. As a result, many practicum and internship field supervisors may not be able to provide adequate modeling of interventions and consultation to students. Without sufficient modeling, and a corresponding lack of adequate supervision, it is questionable whether students will ever put their coursework training into practice. A recent survey of school psychologists indicated that although many school psychologists reported being trained in curriculum-based assessment, they did not report frequent use of this training in their practice (Shapiro, Angello, & Eckert, 2004). This seems to indicate a need for greater attention to initial practice experiences of school psychologists in order to bridge the training-to-practice gap.

             Recent and forthcoming changes in legislation, regulations, and policy are likely to allow school psychologists more opportunities to apply their training in intervention and consultation within practice settings. School psychologists may soon be able to apply an RTI framework in helping educators, parents, and students make a variety of educational decisions. In order for these legal changes to result in optimal outcomes for K-12 students, it is important that new school psychologists have adequate opportunities to develop related skills in applied settings. A recent study of school psychology interns suggested that there is a need to increase consultation experiences within the internship year to increase the self-efficacy of beginning school psychologists (Trant, 2001). Because early field experiences likely have an important influence on later practice, we want to encourage graduate students to consider completing internships in settings that offer sufficient support and supervision for applying RTI-related skills.

            Several internship sites exist that provide substantial related support. Each author recently completed an internship in such a setting, and we consider these experiences vital to our understanding and future application of RTI-related skills in practice. The remainder of this article is intended to provide guidance to current students as they consider obtaining internships in settings where RTI is systematically used to inform decision-making. This information may also be helpful to those in supervising roles who are seeking information on how to best support staff in systematic implementation of RTI procedures. It also may be helpful to school psychology faculty who want to enhance training in related areas. We provide coursework recommendations, factors to consider when selecting a site, tips for preparing to work in a RTI site, and recommendations for trainers on preparing students to work in sites that are systemically using RTI.

Coursework Recommendations

             Although we surmise that most school psychology training programs provide at least some training in the following skills, we encourage students who are interested in securing internships in settings that are systematically using RTI to obtain extensive training in the following areas:

            1. Tools for progress monitoring. RTI should be determined with measures that are valid and reliable for the purpose of monitoring progress. Although further development and research on progress monitoring instruments is needed, there are several tools currently available that can help individuals determine whether particular interventions are helping students meet long-term objectives, i.e., curriculum based measurement (CBM) and structured observation systems. To effectively assess RTI, interns need to know which tools are particularly helpful as well as recognize the extent to which these tools contain error and need further development to maximize their sensitivity to student growth over time (Hintze & Christ, 2004).

            2. Problem analysis. Information collected through screening and progress monitoring typically provides limited data to inform the development of a specific intervention plan. Additional information must often be collected to know how to most effectively intervene on behalf of a student who is struggling. Ruling out attendance, hearing, and vision problems is needed to avoid developing an inappropriate target for intervention. Information may need to be collected to determine whether a student’s difficulties represent skill or performance deficits to adequately identify appropriate intervention strategies (Gresham & Elliott, 1984). Interns also should have training in the analysis of various contextual factors (e.g., curriculum, instruction, environment) that may influence a student’s development of skills (Howell & Nolet, 2000).

            3. Effective instruction/intervention. Although problem analysis skills are important to address the individualized needs of students who are struggling the most, it is equally important to be familiar with what has been shown to be effective for improving the achievement of other students in the past. Several groups of researchers have highlighted common components of effective instruction (Good & Brophy, 1984; Ysseldyke & Christenson, 1993). By connecting an analysis of the problem with what is known about effective instruction, interventions can be designed such that they have a high probability of improving student achievement.

            4. Consultation. The effectiveness of an RTI framework rests on the extent to which appropriate interventions are implemented by teachers. It is important for school psychologists to be effective communicators and to help teachers understand the rationale for intervening in the general education classroom to address the needs of students who are struggling to learn. Only when teachers implement interventions with substantial integrity can one know whether or not a particular strategy is helpful to a student’s learning, and therefore should potentially become a regular part of the student’s instructional programming.

             5. Program evaluation. Although much emphasis has been placed on using RTI to inform entitlement decision-making, RTI procedures ultimately can be used to address system-level problems as well. Heartland Area Education Agency (AEA), an agency that has been systematically using RTI to address students needs for over a decade, has recently revised its original problem-solving model in order to more efficiently address problems that may occur on a school-wide basis (Grimes & Kurns, 2003). School psychologists’ skills in analyzing the effects of school programs can be helpful within schools and districts that are considering RTI procedures to inform school improvement. Taking courses that address program evaluation and prevention programs can help prepare prospective interns with these skills.

6. Facilitating systems change. Although several education agencies, such as those that we will highlight in this article, have been using RTI to inform decision making for several years, substantial variation is present in the extent to which all schools, administrators, and teachers have “bought-in” to an RTI model for service delivery. During our internship years, each of us encountered several educators and administrators that were resistant to this approach. It was important for us to understand the change process and the varying perspectives that educators may have on how to most effectively address student problems. During our internship experiences, we each quickly learned that school change can be slow and that to facilitate change we needed to think carefully about how our ideas for best helping struggling students were portrayed to educators and administrators.

 Considerations in Selecting an Internship Site

At least a year prior to the start of internship, prospective interns should begin thinking about their goals and expectations for their internship experience. When thinking about obtaining an internship at a site that is implementing an RTI model for the delivery of services, prospective interns may want to give special attention to the factors outlined below. Thinking about these factors, along with their individual goals and expectations, may help prospective interns determine whether or not an internship site is a good match. (Note: In Table 1, we have included information on these factors according to the three different agencies in which we completed our internships.)

1. Length of implementation of RTI. Prospective interns may want to consider the length of time that the district has been systematically using RTI for decision-making. Districts that have been implementing RTI for longer periods of time are more likely to have trained staff who specialize in RTI-related skills, and are more likely to have established materials and resources for use. They are also more likely to have teachers and other school professionals who understand and are committed to using RTI for service delivery. If a district has just recently started systematic implementation of RTI for decision-making, they may be seeking interns who are willing to facilitate the change process and who come from training programs that provide the skills necessary to begin RTI implementation. Regardless of the length of time the district has been implementing RTI, it is important to acknowledge that systems-level change takes time and change agents are needed at all levels of the process. Being involved at any stage of the change process is valuable, but prospective interns may want to consider the point within the change process that they personally want further training.

2. Amount of training. Prospective interns may want to find out about the amount of additional training that they will receive in the administration of RTI-related assessment tools and in designing interventions for struggling students. Some agencies and districts may provide extensive training while others may assume that interns already have the prerequisite skills based on their university training experiences. Prospective interns may want to evaluate their level of development in knowledge and skills required for working in a RTI site (e.g., ability to conduct progress monitoring, connecting assessment information with intervention selection). If prospective interns feel that their skills could be further refined, they make want to ask district personnel if training opportunities will be provided to strengthen these skills.

3. Type of supervision. Prospective interns will want to consider their expectations for supervision when selecting a site. Some internships are full-time equivalent school psychologist positions where interns are responsible for a full caseload and function independently. In these places, minimal direct supervision is provided, although it is likely available when sought out by the intern or deemed necessary on the part of the supervisor, and should comply with NASP standards. Other internship sites may provide more scaffolding where schools and/or cases are shared with a practicing school psychologist, such as a supervisor or mentor. Prior school experience and comfort level in functioning independently could influence the amount of supervision that prospective interns need.

            4. Type of decisions for which RTI is used. Districts vary in the types of decisions for which they are using RTI. As highlighted by Burns, VanDerHeyden, Ysseldyke, and Telzrow (2006), RTI data can be utilized for multiple purposes such as determining special education eligibility, evaluating systems outcomes, and making accountability decisions. Although it is often more widely used to address academic development, some agencies are using RTI in a similar fashion to address student social-emotional development. RTI procedures may be used to address a variety of different needs within any given agency, which may present unique learning opportunities for interns. For example, the Minneapolis Public Schools has used an RTI framework to reduce the overrepresentation of minority students in special education; working within this agency provides interns with the opportunity to get experience in applying RTI to meet the needs of diverse populations.

Before Starting the Internship

            The internship year can be very exciting and rewarding, but at the same time challenging and stressful. In order to prepare, we encourage prospective interns to consider doing the following shortly before beginning their internship:

            1. Learn about the characteristics of the population that your assigned school/district serves. This is certainly not a guideline unique to preparing for working in a place that systematically assesses RTI, but it is something that is important to consider before beginning internship. The effectiveness of certain interventions may be dependent on the context in which the interventions are delivered. There also may be certain needs within the school/district for which it may be important to know what types of school-wide interventions may be most effective.

            2. Learn about the history of systems change within the agency and policies governing current agency practice. In order to be an effective school psychologist within a given agency, it is important to know how far advanced the school or district is in terms of using RTI to drive decision-making. Even within agencies that have been implementing RTI practices for a long time, there may be wide variation across schools and districts in “buy-in.” We consider it valuable to find out as much as possible about the history of the given schools/district so that any recommendations that are provided will be framed in a way such that they will be well-received by those working in a given school

            3. Recognize that systems change is a process that takes time! One of us received a very good piece of advice from one of our supervisors: “Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!” Implementation of a systematic RTI process requires school psychologists to engage in many activities. At first, teachers may need substantial support to put into place systematic progress monitoring and intervention procedures. When RTI is systematically used to make a variety of decisions, school psychologists can be pulled in many directions to assist with a variety of different problems at the school, classroom, and individual level. It is always important to recognize that problems in schools can take a long time to “solve.” Holding unrealistic expectations for initial practice can quickly lead to burn out! Although we think systematic application of RTI is a step in the right direction that will allow school psychologists and school systems to better address student needs, it is important to keep in mind that change takes time.

Recommendations for Trainers on Preparing Students for RTI Internships

            One of the most important ways that school psychology trainers can prepare students for working in RTI internship sites is to provide students with adequate training in each of the six areas of coursework outlined above (i.e., tools for progress monitoring, problem analysis, effective instruction/intervention, consultation, program evaluation, and facilitating systems change). The knowledge and skills that students gain from their coursework provide a foundation on which students build skills upon during their internship. Trainers also play a critical role in guiding students to particular internship sites. Thus, it is important for trainers to be knowledgeable about what sites are working to implement RTI principles and to encourage students to consider those sites. Finally, trainers should be ready to support and guide students as they work through varying levels of systems change within their sites. This support should be provided, and may be essential for students who are working in traditional internship sites who are interested in introducing the idea of RTI within their districts.

Conclusions

With the legislative changes put forth in IDEA 2004, intense attention has been directed toward the use of RTI. Furthermore, it is likely that there will be increases in the number of districts utilizing RTI, and prospective interns will have a variety of internship opportunities available. In order for prospective interns to find an RTI internship site that is a good match for them, it is imperative that they examine their internship goals and expectations. Internships can be positive and exciting experiences for critical skill development and reinforcement. However, it is important to acknowledge the additional challenges facing interns who are establishing themselves in a new city,  are still completing other aspects of their training programs, and/or find themselves in the midst of systems change efforts. These difficulties can be managed by creating and establishing positive support systems, whether through training and supervision, family and friends, or other means of support that have been effective in the past. We strongly encourage current students to seek out placements in internship sites that will provide quality training and supervision in the development of RTI-related skills. We see this as one potentially effective way to bridge the training-to-practice gap.

References

Burns, M., VanDerHeyden, A., Ysseldyke, J., & Telzrow, C. (2006, March). Using response-to-intervention data for instructional, eligibility, and accountability decisions. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Deno, S. L. (1985). Curriculum-based measurement: The emerging alternative. Exceptional Children, 52, 219-232.

Fagan, T. K., & Wise, P. S. (2000). Chapter 6: The preparation of school psychologists. In T. K. Fagan, & P. S. Wise (Eds.), School psychology: Past, present, and future (2nd ed.; pp. 107-158). Bethesda, MD: NASP.

Fuchs, L. S. (2004). The past, present, and future of curriculum-based measurement research.   The School Psychology Review, 33, 188-192.

Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (1984). Looking in classrooms (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Gresham, F. M., & Elliott, S. N. (1984). Assessment and classification of children’s social skills: a review of methods and issues. School Psychology Review, 13, 292-301.

Grimes J., & Kurns, S. (2003, December). An intervention-based system for addressing NCLB and IDEA expectations: A multiple tiered model to ensure every child learns. Paper presented at the National Research Center on Learning Disabilities Responsiveness-to-Intervention Symposium, Kansas City, MO, download at http://www.nrcld.org/symposium2003/grimes/grimes.pdf

Howell, K. W., & Nolet, V. (2000). Curriculum-based evaluation: Teaching and decision

            making (3rd edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Hintze, J., & Christ, T., (2004). An examination of variability as a function of passage variance in CBM progress monitoring. School Psychology Review, 33, 204-217.

Hintze, J., Shapiro, E., Lutz, J. (1994). The effects of curriculum on the sensitivity of curriculum-based measurement in reading. The Journal of Special Education, 28, 188-202.

National Association of School Psychologists (2000). Standards for training and field placement programs in school psychology. Bethesda, MD: Author. Retrieved September 22, 2005 from http://www.nasponline.org/certification/FinalStandards.pdf

Reschly, D. J., & Bersoff, D. N. (1999). Law and school psychology. In C. R. Reynolds & T. B. Gutkin (Eds.), The handbook of school psychology (3rd ed., pp. 1077-1112). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenfield, S., & Shinn, M. R. (1989). Another issue on curriculum-based assessment/measurement? The School Psychology Review, 18, 297-298.

Shapiro, E.S., Angello, L. M., & Eckert, T. L. (2004). Has curriculum-based assessment become a staple of school psychology practice? An update and extension of knowledge, use, and attitudes from 1990 to 2000. School Psychology Review, 33, 249-257.

Trant, R. P. (2001). Elements and outcome of school psychologist internship supervision: A retrospective study. (Doctoral Dissertation, Northeastern University, 2001). Dissertation Abstracts International, 61 (9-A), 3477.

Ysseldyke, J. E., & Christenson, S. L. (2002). Functional assessment academic behavior. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

© 2006, National Association of School Psychologists. Dawn M. Decker, PhD, is now on the faculty of Central Michigan University; Sara E. Bolt, PhD, is on the faculty of Michigan State University; Heidi L. Triezenberg, PhD, is a school psychologist with the La Grange Area Department of Special Education. All three completed their training through the University of Minnesota School Psychology Program.

Table 1

Comparing Important Features of Various RTI Internship Sites

Heartland Area Education Agency (Iowa)

Length of Implementation:

Heartland introduced a problem solving model in 1990, which focused on addressing individual student problems. Currently, model is being revised to address individual and school level problems.

Training Provided:

During the 2003-2004 school year, interns and school psychologists new to the agency received at least 22 days of training. This training included the following:

  • Agency wide/office-wide orientation
  • New staff orientation
  • Decision-making/IEP training
  • Organizational/management training
  • Training in Curriculum-Based Evaluation (CBE; Howell & Nolet, 2000)
  • Progress-monitoring training
  • DIBELS training
  • Training related to restructuring efforts to better address school-level problems
  • Data-Driven Leadership (DDL) training to address school-level problems
  • Excel training

Supervision Provided:

Although interns and school psychologists new to the agency serve as the sole psychologists to the schools in which they work, they have “on-call” access at all times to the following school psychologists for support:

  • Lead school psychology supervisor
  • Staff development specialist
  • Licensed psychologist
  • Office mentor

Regular meetings are scheduled across the school year with each of these individuals, some of which are held on site, with constant follow-up and feedback provided on their application of the training provided into practice. All school psychologists work with a special education consultant and social worker to help address needs within their assigned schools.

Types of Decisions Made Using RTI:

  • School improvement
  • Pre-referral
  • Entitlement
  • Evaluation of special education effectiveness
  • Exit from special education
  • Decisions related to academic problems
  • Decisions related to social skill/behavior problems

LaGrange Area Department of Special Education (LADSE; Illinois)

Length of Implementation:

LADSE introduced a Flexible Service Delivery Model (Flex) in October of 1997 when it submitted a proposal to the Illinois State Board of Education to provide special education services via a Flex model. At this time, it was one of only a handful of pilot sites in Illinois implementing this model.

Training Provided:

Prior to the start of the school year, all new staff members receive new staff training which includes an orientation to a flexible service delivery model. Training continues for all psychologists through monthly psychologist unit meetings which address critical issues in working with LADSE students. In addition, LADSE invites nationally recognized researchers in the area of RTI (e.g., George Batsche, Ken Howell) to present on critical topics in implementing RTI and provides ongoing opportunities for skill development through training provided by experienced LADSE staff members. During my internship year, I received further training through participation in the Flexible Service Delivery Consortium (www.fsds.org) and the annual statewide Flex training.

Supervision Provided:

Interns work closely with supervisors and share school psychology responsibilities at their supervisor’s assigned schools. In addition, interns collaborate with their supervisors to design supervision and experiences that meet their specific goals and needs.

Types of Decisions Made Using RTI:

LADSE districts are encouraged to use a problem-solving model for decisions at multiple levels (e.g., district, building, class, individual student) and to address concerns in multiple domains (e.g., academic, behavioral). In addition, many LADSE districts determine eligibility for a learning disability based on RTI criteria.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS; Minnesota)

Length of Implementation:

MPS introduced a problem solving model in 1993 after a waiver was obtained from the Minnesota State Board of Education. An alternative process for identifying students for special education was approved to help reduce bias in special education evaluation (for the categories of Specific Learning Disability and Mild-Moderate Developmental Cognitive Delay only).

Training Provided:

Prior to school starting, interns and new psychologists receive new staff training, which includes an orientation to the Problem Solving Model. Training continues for interns and non-tenured psychologists through monthly meetings that address critical issues in working with MPS students such as conducting best practice evaluations with students from diverse backgrounds, especially English Language Learners. Also, there are monthly mandatory psychological services meetings that provide additional training. From the 2004-2005 school year, some examples of training topics include the following: organizational skills, working with ELL students, basics of crisis management, mental health in the Somali community, positive behavior strategies, and interventions for students with language and math needs. Lastly, MPS relies upon the expertise of its psychological department staff and maintains a close relationship with the University of Minnesota School Psychology Program. These relationships help to enhance the understanding and generalizability of RTI principles.

Supervision Provided:

Interns are matched with a supervisor (someone with expertise in the areas the intern is looking to expand upon) and often an additional mentor on the Problem Solving Team (i.e., team of personnel responsible for training within district regarding problem solving process). Interns can share schools with supervisors/mentors.

Types of Decisions Made Using RTI:

MPS uses a problem-solving model for systematic school-wide screening, monitoring of pre-referral interventions, and determining eligibility for special education (Specific Learning Disability and Mild-Moderate Developmental Cognitive Delay).