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Tier 3 of the RTI Model: Author Interview

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Dan Florell:  Welcome to NASP dialogues. The dialogues podcast focus on events and issues in school psychology. I'm Dan Florell, the NASP webmaster and moderator of our current dialogue. Today we're discussing a new book titled Tier 3 of the RTI Model: Problem Solving Through a Case Study Approach. And we have the privilege of having both of the co‑authors, Sawyer Hunley and Kathy McNamara, with us. Sawyer, why don't you tell us a little bit about your background here?

Sawyer Hunley:  Thank you Dan. I am actually working at the University of Dayton as a faculty member in the school's psychology program. I am the coordinator of the program. My additional activities include working with NASP as the NCSP Board chair and I have been interested in research in a number of areas including that of this book and following up with problem solving for Tier 3 case studies and also I have worked in program assessment, program evaluation and the impact of learning space on learning.

Dan:  And Kathy.

Kathy McNamara:  Thanks Dan, it's good to be able to join you today. I am the director of the school psychology program at Cleveland State University in Ohio. I am also affiliated with NASP as the current chair of the ethics and professional practices committee. I have done a number of publications and presentations on the topic of ethics, but my real dedication is to research in the area of early versions of RTI that were implemented, specifically in Ohio a few years back. We pioneered some of the work on intervention based service delivery models in schools and I've published a number of articles and done some presentations on that topic.

Dan:  Sawyer, as an introduction could you give us an overview about Tier 3 RTI case study and how the two of you came together to write this book?

Sawyer:  Yes, I'd be happy to Dan. Kathy and I had been talking for a while about the need for specific guidelines for Tier 3 of the RTI process. I had been studying the case study rubric or developing the case study rubrics for several years as an aid for my students at the University of Dayton. My purpose was to assist them in having a structure for actually accomplishing the problem solving process and then it was also to help me to be able to evaluate their skills as problem solvers.

Kathy had been working in the area of studying the problem solving process in the state of Ohio and had noted many ideas and issues that needed to be resolved for it to be an optimal process for use by practitioners. And we also together felt there was a need to clarify the difference between a response to intervention process and special education eligibility.

The RTI process has a goal to find interventions that work for hard to reach students as opposed to special education eligibility which tends to just identify students and give them a label based on their characteristics.

So we agreed that there was a definite need to develop this book and answer some of the unanswered questions that were still affecting people who were trying to implement the process.

Dan:  Well I know it's coming out at a good time because there are an awful lot of good questions regarding that and so... Kathy your book focuses a lot on the use of problem solving model in RTI, how can your book help school psychologists that are struggling with implementing RTI in their districts?

Kathy:  Well, first of all I just want to make a quick comment about the fact that what Sawyer didn't tell you is the actual scheme for the book was hatched in the middle of a tropical storm in Miami during the summer NASP meeting so... [laughter]

Dan:  I was in that tropical storm actually. I recall that.

Kathy:  We think that spirit somehow carried through the book. [laughter]

Kathy:  In any case, one of the things that I've observed over the years, I worked as a practitioner for fifteen years before coming to the university and when I did come to the university and it was clear that we were moving in the direction of more of a focus on interventions as opposed to simply diagnoses and labeling as school psychologists. One of the things that was very clear to me is that there were lots of practitioners who had not been trained in the kinds of skills that are needed to actually go through the problem solving process. Many of us, including myself, had been trained in more of psychometric model for school psychology.

So it was my frequent comment that it really wasn't fair for us as a profession to be asking people to focus on developing interventions when we really didn't have very good methods for letting people know what the skills were, how to use them and so forth.

So I really pictured this book as a way to provide some that support to people in other words, we want you to focus on interventions as school psychologists and here's how you can go about doing that.

In addition to that, one of the things that Sawyer just eluded to a moment ago that was a concern for both of us was the fact that you know many of the current models of RTI, the progression is from typically a standard protocol approach at Tier two and when that doesn't seem to be effective moving directly on to special education eligibility as Tier 3.

And we felt that wow, that a really important place for school psychologists in this process would be to setting aside the Tier 1 and Tier 2 kinds of activities. Taking a look at what specifically are the needs of this student that caused him or her to be inadequately responsive to things that seem to work for most kids.

And for us that meant moving into Tier 3 and taking a close look at you know what's going on with this student, what kinds of issues, what kinds of environmental factors are getting in the way and then to design an intervention specifically to address those things.

Dan:  OK. Great and then one of the things though in the problem solving model in addition to school psychologists, trying to help struggling districts is they are often uncertain as to their own role and RTI. And I know you have a chapter on consultation where you say that school psychologists have two critical consultation roles in the development and implementation of RTI. What are those consultation roles?

Sawyer:  I'd like to take that one Dan.

Dan:  Sure.

Sawyer:  I believe, Kathy and I have talked about this quite a bit and we feel that the first role in the RTI process is for the school's psychologist to act as a change agent to try to facilitate the implementation of Tiers 1 and 2 in the district. And actually there has probably been a fair amount of discussion in the literature about that part of the RTI process, but we wanted to emphasize the importance of joining with the teachers to help them to define their long and short term goals. To assist them with identifying and empirically validated prevention and intervention activities.

To help with gathering data and analyzing the data so that we can identify what's working and what's not at a system level and also to be able to assist them in selecting students to move from the different Tiers from one to two and then from two to 3.

The second role is to serve as a problem solving facilitator for student's who really didn't respond well to those first two tiers and that requires an in depth assessment individualized for that particular student some hypothesizing and some hypothesis testing to determine if we can find interventions that are sort of outside the box.

That are not what have been identified as tried and true methods and apparently the tried and true methods have not worked for those children or students in the earlier tiers. So our job is to be creative, use data to verify high probability interventions that are going to be hopefully successful with the students.

And then to implement the intervention, if needed, to evaluate the results of the intervention and monitor the evaluation data. Then, if needed, in the end, use the information and the data that have been gathered to assist the student.

We determine whether or not the student needs a high intensity intervention or needs a change of goals, which may constitute the need for special education services.

Dan:  And so, when you're talking about this Tier 3, it sounds like you're really focusing on the individualization of the intervention. One of the really neat things I like about the book is that you have a whole chapter with really great examples devoted to single‑case design. Can you briefly explain the role of single‑case design in this successful implementation of RTI?

Sawyer:  Sure. Kathy and I see single‑case design in two ways. A brief single case design is used for hypothesis testing. We want to generate enough hypotheses so that we're going to, at least, accept one and we're going to, at least, eliminate one. The reason for that is we want to reduce bias in our decision‑making process about what we think is going to work for this particular student.

Our underlying belief is that, if they didn't respond in Tier 1 and Tier 2, then it is because we have not, necessarily, targeted the appropriate focus or the appropriate reason for the problem in academic or behavior.

So, we generate hypotheses and we test those hypotheses through single‑case designs that are very brief. In many cases, this test can occur within one day or one session. Most of the time, we use an AB design, which is baseline data compared to intervention data to see if this brief implementation of an empirically tested or an empirically generated intervention is successful or not.

Then, we are able to identify those interventions with the high probability of success and does better or not. Once we have identified those with the high probability of success, then we implement those for a longer period of time.

And, this is the second way that the single‑case design is used in the case study, and that is for progress monitoring and decision making once the interventions have been selected.

In this longer term, we can use the single‑case design to answer a number of questions. For example, you can use a multi‑element design which has the capability of answering the question of which intervention works best or which characteristic of the intervention is most powerful?

Or, we can use a changing criterion in design to measure learning or to determine, in advance, what our expectation should be, in terms of growth for a learning‑type activity.

Then, finally, an important question to answer is does the intervention generalize across behaviors or across settings or people? You can use the multiple baselines for that. So, it does serve two purposes. One is a short, brief testing and the other is for long term progress monitoring and decision making.

Dan:  So, a very flexible design in the single‑case design here as far as it can be used for a couple of different purposes. These are very helpful as far as measuring progress in RTI and really drilling down to that individualization that you discussed a little earlier. Now, switching a little bit, your book also addresses an issue that's puzzling a lot of practitioners and even some State Departments and that's how RTI can be used in eligibility decision making? How do you answer that in your book?

Kathy:  Well, Dan, this is really a central issue, I think, these days with people struggling with RTI. It's the Special Education legislation that gave the impetus to implementing RTI in schools. So, of course, the two are really tied closely together. One of the things that Sawyer has already mentioned, that formed the framework for our discussion about special ed eligibility is that we believe that Tier 3 does not equate to special education.

We feel very strongly about that because we think there are some wonderful tools, that Sawyer has just described, that can be used to come up with some effective interventions for kids. Whether or not they are then certified as special education, we feel strongly that the goal is to come up with an effective intervention.

So, some folks in the field are talking about resistance to intervention. In other words, if the student doesn't respond to intervention, then that is evidence of a disability. So, it's almost a pessimistic approach, which says that there is no intervention to be found for this child.

It just labels the child as having a disability and hope someone figures it all out down the road. We felt like, "No, we really need to be focusing from start to finish on finding an intervention that works."

So, for us, the idea of special education is not labeling a child who's resistant to intervention, but rather studying the nature of the intervention itself. So, we look for a successful intervention, sometime we find not a successful one, perhaps a promising intervention.

But in either case, if the intervention is of significant intensity and is very specialized in nature, then, for us, that would de facto evidence supporting the existence of a disability. In other words, in order for this child to be successful in school, she has to be exposed to an intervention that is of great intensity and it is highly specialized.

The way that we, specifically, talk about eligibility is in terms of the idea that a lot of people are talking about which is dual discrepancy. That is, neither the rate of growth nor the level of performance on a particular measure is adequate.

So, the dual discrepancy is considered by many to be evidence of a learning disability. We also talk about a diminishing discrepancy. That is, a student who's making progress but is having trouble closing the gap.

So, that student, we might say special education or the intervention of great intensity seems to be helping. We need to certify it in an IEP in order for the intervention to continue because of its resource intensity.

There's a last point I want to make about that, which Sawyer and I also feel really strongly about, and these forms are great part of the rubric that Sawyer was describing. Speaking specially from an ethical standpoint, it really is not appropriate to identify a student as having a disability unless you can assert one thing.

That the interventions that have been applied at Tiers 1 and 2 have been done with integrity. I think that's a real problem. I think, in many cases, educators are saying, "OK, we tried this, we tried that, none of it worked. Let's go for special education."

I think that the RTI process in Tier 3, in particular, has been a great asset for those of us who's been concerned all these years. This is about being able to show that we've truly made significant efforts and implemented interventions for kids, in general ed and, again, have found that they simply are not adequate.

Dan:  Right. I’d just like to add a little cross‑promotion here. One of the newer School Psych Review issues is focused exclusively on treatment integrity and fidelity within a lot of these RTI networks and frameworks. So, it's something that some of our listeners of our podcasts may want to look out for in addition to your book, they get some more technical data on how to do that, maybe influence it, for the better.

Switching now a little bit to all the other books that have been published on the topic of RTI. What makes this particular book unique or sets it apart from others?

Sawyer:  First, I wanted to say that I'm really interested in taking a look at that new School Psychology Review, based on the intervention integrity process, which is going to be very exciting to see. We also have been able to conduct studies to show that integrity or fidelity to the case study model has yielded positive results, so we are able to show that there is a relationship between a well conducted case study and the positive outcomes that we're looking for, so that's really exciting for us as well.

And so I think that makes this a strong book that has real value in many ways, but I also think that the positive aspect that Kathy just described in terms of we are looking for the answer to the problem as opposed to determining whether or not a student responds well to the intervention, so it is not whether or not, it is just how can we get this student to respond well.

The other couple of reasons that I think this book would be helpful is that it is a practical step‑by‑step procedure, we give a lot of examples, we actually provide the rubric in the book, and it allows for the use of the rubric for both practitioners and graduate education programs in a number of ways.

The problem‑solving procedure that we use is a guide for those who want to implement the procedure; it also can be used as an evaluation for those who actually do implement the procedure.

The data that can be obtained through the case study outcomes and through the implementation fidelity scores can be aggregated to do program evaluation either in the practitioner setting or at a university, so I think all of these things add to the value of the book, and I think it's a pretty easy read as well.

Dan:  Yeah, and it's not one of those best practice where you're going to have to get your local heavy lifters to take from one place to the other, I received mine in the mail a couple days ago and it's a nice easy handbook, fits in the, well, I'm a very tall person, so palm of my hand but not much bigger than that, so I agree with you, it's very accessible and very easy to tote along. Now you know Sawyer's hit onto a few of the advantages of the book but one of the things that's very unique about NASP is that we usually have two very distinct types of school psychologists regarding age and experience with a large group of interns and new school psychologists and then we also have a very large group of veterans.

Are there unique things in the Tier 3 RTI case study book that's going to offer things for both groups?

Kathy:  Well I think that's an interesting question, especially since my point I was making earlier was we felt strongly that if we're going to be asking people as a profession to start moving more in the direction of intervention planning, then we really have an obligation to provide folks with the tools to do that. So for veterans, if you will, folks who have been in the field for many years, including myself, this model is not something that was part of our original training back in for example the 1970s.

So the way I view the book as a real asset for the veterans, who have been in school psych for many years, is that it helps illustrate for them exactly what it is we're talking about that school psychologists bring to the table, that no one else brings to the table.

I very strongly feel that when we get to the Tier 3, you simply can't do it without a school psychologist, because of our understanding of behavioral issues, emotional issues, learning issues, our ability to collect data, to use data to make interpretations and as Sawyer was discussing a moment ago to generate hypotheses and come up with interventions.

I think that in my conversations with veteran school psychologists, I always say to them "I think that this approach opens doors that a lot of us have been waiting to have opened for many years." I have a lot more to bring as a school psychologist than simply testing and making diagnoses and applying labels for kids.

So I think for veterans for me it's a message that says I think that this is a great new world that we've stepped into, we acknowledge that a lot of the basics are maybe not things that many of us are comfortable with.

This is a very step‑by‑step practical guide to using things that you already know, but applying them in a form that you might not have considered, and bringing that to bear on the whole process of really making things happen for kids.

The other thing that I think it offers for veterans is that I remember when people first started talking a lot about the whole intervention approach, a lot of people thought it was curriculum‑based measurements, and that was a very prominent factor in this whole movement.

And I think what this book does is it pulls together all of those isolated pieces, it talks about curriculum‑based measurement, it talks about behavioral assessment, it talks about hypotheses.

So whatever little piece of that pie you might have with respect to understanding of what this RTI business is all about, I think the book shows people how those pieces all come together and get used to develop an effective intervention.

As far as the newbies are concerned, well, in graduate training we focus a lot on theory, students learn a lot about the behavioral consultation model, in many programs they learn about applied behavior analysis, and I think what this book does for those folks who are conversant with a lot of the ideas that the book is based on, that it shows them the practical application of those ideas.

It shows them how you do use the principles of applied behavior analysis, in functional assessment and so forth, but we don't necessarily use that kind of language.

So I think for them too in a way it pulls together things that they might have learned in isolation, or things that they may have learned on a more theoretical level, and shows them exactly what these things might look like in practice.

Dan:  It sounds like it encourages generalization.

Kathy:  Yes, yes.

Dan:  I thought you'd like that one. Well, a question, I've been down in the NASP convention bookstore a time or two and one of the most frequently asked questions of course is "If I have the money for only one NASP book, which one would you recommend I buy" and I guess this goes along with the last couple of questions of why should somebody buy the Tier III RTI Case Study.

Sawyer:  Well in addition to what we mentioned already, that it's practical, that it answers a number of questions about Tier III, which you indicated was timely in terms of what people are asking about, it's easy to understand and we provide examples. So I think those are all things that are really appealing to people who want to go out and do something, make a change, you could probably read the book very quickly, though I don't know, we've been working on it for a couple of years, I don't know how long it takes to read the book.

Dan:  Well let's say you can read it quickly but you can spend lots of time with it also. It's a quick overview and also provides sufficient depth if you need to.

Sawyer:  And I think there are some of us in the field who really enjoy being able to evaluate how well we're doing, and it provides some specific, I hate to use the word, statistics, but techniques for analysis that are not so complicated. I mean there are many ways to do statistical analysis of things, but I think we have been able to identify easy to use statistics that can generate some numbers that are helpful to analyze how well we're doing.

And I think people appreciate that, it's just like working with students who respond well when they see "Wow I'm making improvement here" or "I'm doing this the way that I thought I was doing it."

This gives people a chance to really look at their own practices and say "Is this the best I can do?" so I think a motivating strategy for school psychologists and students who are learning the process to be able to self‑evaluate their own practices.

So those are the main reasons that I think it's a very positive book, and it takes a positive outlook on what we can accomplish. So for me, the field of school psychology is the most exciting because what we sell is success, and this is a way to sell success.

Dan:  And I'm always looking for a good solid book that balances theory and scientific evidence which I absolutely love, with the practical and easily‑implemented interventions, which the students always love. So, do you see this book being used in either undergraduate or graduate training programs, and what type of courses do you think it could be applied to?

Kathy:  Well, Dan, we do feel that the book is an appropriate one, in fact one of the things that we feel really good about with the books is that it can be used either by practitioners or in university training programs. I think probably that we would suggest it's probably more appropriate to graduate‑level, because it has that very strong professional practitioner focus.

Dan:  Right.

Kathy:  The idea being that as a practicing school psychologist, here's a step‑by‑step guide to this process. In the book we do talk about the fact that this approach is founded on some I've already mentioned some applied behavior analysis, and so forth. So it's not really a foundation text, it doesn't go into a description of all of the concepts and constructs underlying ABA and other approaches, but we understand and recognize it's founded on those principles.

So rather than a foundational text or course, we think it would be probably most useful in courses for example in behavioral assessment, functional assessment courses, intervention courses. I teach a course in academic assessment that I will almost certainly have plenty of uses of the book for that.

Practicum and internship I think would be opportunities where the book would be very useful, particularly since we could use in those settings the rubric that Sawyer's been talking about, number one a guide for students step‑by‑step it's almost an integrity checklist, but also as a rubric for evaluating the quality of students' performance.

Dan:  Right, right. And I like the fact that there are several of those courses that you mentioned it in. Because I know one of the things that all of us are aware of is the cost of books, having to buy however many for every course, and to try to find some texts that can cross several courses, so that they can utilize them as an ongoing living thing and not a "toss it as soon as this semester's over" kind of book.

So this sounds like one of those, just like I know in our program Best Practices Five is one of those, you buy it at the beginning, you can use it throughout your training, and not just for a course, and that sounds like it's something that could be really useful here, too.

Now I know your book's being co‑published by NASP and Corwin Press, and one of the reasons that I think NASP has decided to co‑publish it is to reach out to others beyond the field of school psychology. So in addition to school psychologists, are there other student service providers who may find the book helpful?

Sawyer:  Absolutely, we feel that anybody who works on a problem‑solving team in a K‑12 or Pre‑K‑12 school could benefit from using some of the strategies in this book, or using the whole case study approach. Also, any graduate student who, as Cathy mentioned, is able to hopefully use this approach, and demonstrate how well they are able to implement skills as a problem‑solving practitioner.

From the perspective of graduate programs, though, I think there's another value added and that's you can, if you gather these data, and that's what we did at University of Dayton, this year actually, we were being reviewed by NCATE, and we actually used it for our NASP program approval review a couple of years ago.

And what we did was aggregate the data from our students and use those aggregated data to show that not only did our students make a positive impact on the students they served, through the outcome data, but we were also able to show which areas we were strongest in terms of teaching and identify any areas that needed to be changed.

So we were able to aggregate the case study fidelity data, and NCATE and NASP both were interested in and used that information as evaluation type of data to determine whether or not to approve our program.

In addition, if in the field you have a group of practitioners who need to demonstrate that they're doing the type of case study that makes a difference, those data can be aggregated and used for accountability purposes for the district's service delivery.

And as you said, it was a good match for the NASP and the Corwin Press and we also had I believe reviewers from various fields including counseling and administrators and school psychologists who reviewed the text prior to it coming out, and they had felt it was applicable to all of their fields.

Dan:  OK, great. Now, Cathy or Sawyer are there any topics in the book that I didn't ask you about that you'd like to address, anything that you'd like to highlight?

Kathy:  Well, I'd like to say a couple words about the manner in which we talk about interventions in the text. One of the things that I often encounter when out in the school is people requesting "What's the latest book on interventions, is there something I can buy that has intervention strategies in it?" And I was always tempted to launch into a lecture at that point because I feel very strongly that there are many wonderful intervention ideas out there. The trick isn't finding intervention ideas; the trick is finding ways to find the right intervention.

And in this book we really go about a really painstaking process of talking about hypothesis testing and then talking about how to come up with interventions that are linked to those hypotheses. Because if we're not targeting the correct cause of the problem, then the intervention is probably not going to work.

The other thing that we do in that regard is that we really build on the work of other people in the field, there are researchers in school psych who've done some wonderful work on looking at interventions and the characteristics of interventions, strong interventions and so forth, and we talk about that.

We talk about the fact that more than a specific strategy, a good intervention is going to have the following characteristics, so you can look at a variety of possibilities and examine them to see if they have got these various characteristics, and if they do, you're probably on to something.

So it's really more than a cookbook approach, it really talks about being very thoughtful in the process of linking interventions to specific factors that are causing or contributing to problems.

The other thing I want to mention that we haven't talked about is that we also talk in some detail about assessment options. A lot of times school psychologists are saying "Well OK, if you're saying that it's not just about an IQ test, then what exactly are you talking about, by way of assessment?"

So we talk about curriculum‑based measurement, we talk about the different forms of curriculum‑based measurement, again building on the work that others in our field have done, and we also talk about behavioral assessment, things like observing behaviors and quantifying behaviors and doing progress monitoring for behaviors.

So I feel, I guess, that those two things are areas that we emphasize in the book, the focus on interventions and how to go about choosing one, how to link them to hypotheses, and also how to collect data and what type of data to collect, and I think in terms that people can easily follow along and translate to their everyday practice.

Dan:  So it sounds like really giving some very good hardcore kind of tools for implementing successful interventions, and that there are like you were saying plenty of places where you can find ideas for interventions, but are those a good fit for the individual that you have?

Kathy:  Exactly.

Dan:  This book is going to tell you that answer before you have to spend all of your time trying to implement and get frustrated and "Well this kid's incorrigible" and things like that. This would be the good book to turn to and prevent all of that from happening.

Kathy:  Yes we hope so.

Dan:  I would like to thank both of you for coming today to talk to us about your new book Tier 3 of the RTI Model: Problem Solving Through a Case Study Approach, and this is going to conclude this Dialogues podcast – please tune in again for future Dialogues podcasts, available on the NASP website.