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RTI for Gifted? Are You Sure?!?!?


I remember many years ago a discussion that broiled in a grade-level staff meeting regarding a 7th grade student at our middle school whom all the teachers were concerned about. As a consistently struggling student, she had been referred for possible Special Education services a few times over the years but never qualified for the services because her overall IQ wasn't quite low enough and she had no IQ-achievement discrepancy. Yet it was clear to her 7th grade teachers, as it had been clear to previous grade teachers, that she needed some sort of assistance. But the hands of the Special Education teachers were tied because the student didn't qualify for their services yet again. The 7th grade teachers were passionate that something needed to be done to give this student the assistance she obviously (to them) needed, and the special education teachers were frustrated that they were restricted by rules, regulations, laws, policies, etc. from being able to reach out to this student and offer her their expertise.

I don't remember what solution, if any, the teachers came up with to help her, but I do vividly recall the passion and intensity of the discussion. In part, I remember it because I recall thinking at the time that I was grateful gifted education (in Montana, at least) wasn't so restrictive. If the teachers and gifted specialist determine a kid needs gifted education services, we aren't limited by magic numbers from providing that student the services.

Yet there are places where "magic numbers" are required for a student to receive gifted education services, and I'm certain discussions similarly passionate to the one above have occurred regarding students who don't have the magic numbers to qualify for gifted education services and yet the teachers (and parents) all know the student needs the services.

When I first learned about RTI, or Response to Intervention, I thought, "Ah, so we weren't the only school with students who needed the expertise of special education services but didn't technically qualify for those services." RTI has been created as a way to make sure the kid gets the assistance/services he needs whether or not he technically qualifies for special education or as having a learning disability.

RTI is a tiered service delivery model, which means different levels of service (instruction, assistance) are provided and students receive their instruction and any assistance at whatever tier (or level) they need that information. So (pardon my simplistic diagrams created in Word, transferred to Fireworks, saved as JPEGs, & somehow uploaded for your viewing pleasure), the green tier (Tier 1) in the diagram below is the Core, i.e. the level at which instruction delivery will be appropriate for most students.


The yellow tier (Tier 2) represents the targeted or strategic interventions that some students will receive when assessments show they aren't quite learning the material after the Core lesson or layer of instruction. Tier 2 is where students receive some additional practice on a skill or additional instruction on a concept in order to help them grasp that skill or concept. The red tier (Tier 3) represents the intensive instruction that a handful of students may need when assessments show that Tier 1 instruction and Tier 2 instruction have not allowed the child desired results (i.e. learning or mastery).

[Interestingly, this tiered visual no longer appears on any of the RTI information sites - or if it does, it's modified. My graphics capabilities are limited, so I couldn't create anything much beyond this for you. I've place these images here simply for all the visual learners out there, not as a be-all end-all representation of an RTI model.]

RTI is instruction in tiers, not students in tiers, so the same given child could receive instruction in Tier 1 for learning the alphabet (for example), Tier 2 for learning the sounds of each letter, and Tier 3 for learning specific consonant blends (such as "cl" and "bl").

I ask you: Whose learning needs aren't represented in this model?

Yep, the gifted student. At face value, the essential RTI model assumes the Core (or Tier 1) will meet the needs of all students who aren't struggling with that skill or concept. Is the core, whole-class, grade-level instruction and curriculum appropriate for the gifted learners you know? Perhaps in some subjects for some advanced learners, but for all of them? Of course not. They have often already mastered the material (or can do so very quickly). Think about this:

> Just as there are some students who are a little bit behind in any given area/subject and who will need some extra assistance (i.e. Tier 2), there are about the same number of students who are a little bit ahead and will need some extra challenge and/or acceleration.

> Just as there are a few students who are significantly behind in any given area/subject and will need some significant assistance (i.e. Tier 3), there are about the same number of students who are significantly ahead and will need significant extra challenge and/or acceleration.

Spend enough time reading information about RTI and you will sooner or later come across a statement that says something to the effect of RTI being a way to make sure that every student, whether struggling or gifted or somewhere inbetween, gets what he or she needs as a learner.

Here, here!

But my concern is that nearly every piece of information about RTI talks about it in relation to the struggling learner. And that is how most schools seem to be interpreting its purpose. Yes, that was its original intended purpose, but you can also find information referring to RTI as a model for effective schoolwide reform, as "Every Ed" rather than "Special Ed," as having the ability to transform how we educate all students. I agree with those last three possibilities (and am excited by them), but they won't happen if the nearly-sole focus of RTI implementation is for only the struggling learner.

To me, it was simply instinctive to recognize that the tiers of instruction could be flipped to represent how we as schools can and should also provide tiered services for our advanced learners. And in the state of Montana we are in the beginning stages of trying to utilize RTI in both directions. Knowing this, I contacted my district's person-in-charge-of-RTI last year and offered to talk to our RTI committee about RTI for gifted and the response I got was, "Well, I don't think that's necessary. This is really more of a special education thing and doesn't have anything to do with gifted."

My fear is that any district adopting RTI with that line of thinking will (continue to?) ignore the tiered needs of its advanced/gifted learners while at the same time easily recognizing the tiered needs of their struggling learners.

So, not that I have the power to do this, but in order to help schools know that it can and does work both ways, I propose the RTI tiers - at least in implementation! - should look more like this:


[And really, if you turn it on its side, what does it remind you of?


MmmHmm - a bell curve.]

Here in Montana, we recently hired a GT Specialist at the state level (our Office of Public Instruction). [This means we finally actually have someone at the state level in a GT position!] And her job in part includes helping Montana districts implement RTI in the advanced/gifted direction, too. OPI asked me to be on the interview team and this meant missing a day of school this past spring to go to Helena and meet the candidates. When I explained to my students why I was going to be gone, I told them about RTI and drew the 3-tier model up on the board. Each time, no matter what the grade level of students I was talking to, their immediate response after hearing the explanation was, "But what about us? Where are we in all that?" It was so obvious to them, too, that there were missing tiers.

Is your district (or your child's school) implementing RTI (or their own version of it)? Here are some possible questions you could pose to find out if/how tiers of instruction will also apply to advanced/gifted learners:

* Those are great strategies for how we can reach the kids who struggle grasping a skill or concept. What strategies are we going to use to reach (i.e. stretch) the kids who already have a handle on the skill or concept?

* As we will already be assessing all students frequently [a key piece of RTI], how can we use that data to better reach/teach our advanced learners, too?

* We're putting into place a great continuum of services for our struggling learners. How about we examine also putting into place a continuum of services for our advanced learners?

* So these are our strategies for reaching our learners who are a bit behind. What are our strategies for reaching our learners who are a bit ahead?

As fuel for your questions, I recommend reading some RTI information sites and pulling quotes from RTI documents about "educating ALL students." For example, the following quotations come from the Montana RTI Trainers Training Manual (perhaps it is the same manual used in all states, I don't know...). (In each case, the emphasis is mine.)

"Response to Instruction (RTI) is the practice of providing high-quality instruction to all students based on individual need."

"…creates a continuum of instructional supports."

"Students who score at the higher level of Tier 1 should be receiving instruction that will continue to keep them challenged."

"Student learning is evaluated based on how quickly that student acquires instructed material (learning rate). The effect of this shift [in philosophy and process] is that it enables educators to focus on how much and what types of instruction students need, which increases accountability for student learning." (Which begs another question you could pose: * Shouldn't we as educators also be accountable for the learning of our advanced students?)

"Essentially, RTI is the practice of: (a) providing high-quality instruction/intervention matched to all students’ needs and (b) using assessment to determine learning rate and level of performance to (c) make important educational decisions to guide instruction."

If RTI is being promoted as a means to improve learning and instruction for **ALL** students, then let’s make sure that actually happens.

Want to learn more about RTI? Want to find out more about RTI's implications for gifted education? Try these links:

RTI Action Network

National Center on Response to Intervention

Colorado Department of Education RTI page (Colorado is including gifted in their RTI implementation)

Thinking Points - RTI and Gifted Education (also from Colorado Department of Education)

Council for Exceptional Children - RTI Information and Articles

National Association of State Directors of Special Education - Response to Intervention Project

Pieces of Learning - Progress Monitoring Forms for Gifted Learners (I have not used these and therefore don't have an opinion on them one way or the other, but found them while hunting for RTI + gifted info and figured someone out there might want to check them out.)

Gifted Child Today, Vol.32 No.3, Summer 2009 Special Issue: Response to Intervention I do subscribe to "Gifted Child Today," but it is delivered to my school address, so this new RTI/Gifted issue that I'm very much looking forward to seeing is somewhere in a pile of district summer mail that hasn't yet been delivered to my box (we haven't started school yet here - although do soon). So I have just written this entire post and now discover/realize that my timing is either really good (many of you out there will be interested in this topic due to GCT's latest issue) or really bad (because as soon as I finally am able to see the issue, I will probably discover information and resources I could've linked y'all to here in this post). Either way, I guess I can update if/as necessary.

What have been your experiences with RTI's implications for gifted students in your schools? How are your schools utilizing the RTI model/process to reach ALL students? Do you see RTI as a potential benefit for gifted education and gifted students, or as a concern, or both?

A final thought from Susan Winebrenner (2001): "Learning is forward progress from point of entry."

P.S. If you haven't yet taken my quick survey, please do so! Thanks :o)


Great post! We don't use RTI specifically, though we face many of the same problems. I found myself nodding when you asked how many conversations have taken place regarding gifted students who didn't meet the numbers. We have that exact problem.

My current goal in our school board is to help regular classroom teachers (and principals!) see that the gifted pull out program doesn't, on its own, meet the needs of gifted learners. I see them for 7 days a year. Unfortunately, this type of programming leads to the "gifted on Tuesdays" attitude. I'm working to help classroom teachers (and did I mention principals?) see that our gifted kids' needs are just as great as our special education needs. There's a reason that (in Ontario, anyways) gifted is part of the spec. ed spectrum.

I love your new diamond graphic. If you don't mind, I may borrow that idea for a presentation. I will certainly give credit.

Bravo! Thanks for writing this. I, too, have argued for a continuum of services for the gifted based upon level of need as is done in special ed. I even made a little animated visual on a power point that shows how the bell curve can fit to a pyramid of services, but I like your application to RTI and the very logical diamond that is represented. I will share this with my students and others.

This is great - so timely! My child's school is going to begin implementing RTI (although in CT they have nonsensically prefaced it "scientifically based") this year and I've been trying to figure out what it will mean for him.

My first posting went to the wrong entry.. I teach in a large county school system in metro Atlanta. We came back to work in early August and at a pre-planning meeting we were told that our gifted students would automatically be on Tier 4 if they exhibited gaps or failing in any major area. We have been using RTI for the past two years. This demonstrates the the recognition of the needs of our gifted students. This is the first year we have heard this so the proof will be in the pudding.....

I'm a special ed teacher in a First Nations school in Canada. I've been researching intervention strategies and I'm so glad to read this post (thanks Twitter!).

Yes! I'm a gifted coordinator in a district that's already pretty ahead and the RtI curve. I have made it my point to insert myself into the conversation. We have the wording, and fortunately we have a Student Services coordinator who sees the structure as that "diamond" you were referring to. It will be a struggle to make sure the idea of "challenge" stays in the conversation, but I'm prepared...

I enjoyed reading your article. RTI is certainly a topic in the spotlight. I am currently a second grade teacher in a district in Oregon. This past school year was the first year in which I had heard RTI being discussed within my school. I agree that the emphasis is most certainly placed on our struggling students. What I find so intriguing is the difference in definition and implementation of this program across different states and districts. Within our school district the focus is not to help those students who clearly need extra academic support and do not qualify for special education, but rather the RTI model has been implemented as a way to intervene and reach our struggling learners before special education is needed. The intention within our school is to reduce the number of students referred for special education, not just merely as a strategy to help those who do not qualify for special education. I think that this is a notable distinction in intentions.

While I do agree that it is important that we are careful to consider the possible impacts of RTI on all students, I do understand the focus on struggling learners. Within our school district there has been a large focus on enrichments for our talented and gifted students, and in my opinion not as much focus on interventions for our struggling learners. It sounds that the opposite is true in many other cases. These are conversations that we as educators need to be having with each other statewide. We should be striving to best meet the needs of all students, not just one particular group of students. This is why I appreciated the diamond structure. Having common understanding and sharing information such as this will ultimately benefit our profession and more importantly our students.

Tamara, you've asked some very significant questions regarding RtI for gifted and high end learners. Those who are also exploring these questions and will be attending the NAGC convention in St. Louis in November may be interested in attending one of the "Signature Series" sessions, "Beyond Buzzwords: Operationalizing Response to Intervention for Gifted Students." During this session Elizabeth Shaunessy & I will be sharing the journey of a large urban district's implementation of the approach for gifted and high-end learners.

In is interesting to consider your perspective, although I think your graphic of the "bell curve" diamond is not terribly useful. In my work with RtI, I refer to the process as "response to instruction." I also consider using the initials to "recognize time is important." If we conceptualize RtI as a framework for organizing the best of what we know about for overall school reform, "tier 1" practices embrace backward design, differentiated instruction, formative assessment, and 21st century creativity and problem solving. If we "find out what the child is thinking and intervene accordingly" (Dr. Lillian Katz, former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children), I do believe we can meet the needs of all our students without labeling them. We can embrace the entire spectrum of human learning without boxing our students into categories. Julie Benay, Principal, Swanton Elementary School, Swanton VT

I am a special education educator and have been for 12 yrs. at the middle and high school level in the state of Kentucky. Our ECE dept. has always made the pitch for education of our students at a higher level by suggesting that for every special education instructor that we have, that we should also have a ratio of 2-1 gifted and talented educators. If your school has 4 special education teachers then that school should have 2 gifted and talented teachers. Our school district has 1 high school, 1 middle school, 3 elementary schools and 1 gifted and talented teacher for the entire district. Educators have a high degree of desire for all students to be successful, not just the ones we work with.

As a special educator, with bright kids of my own, I have had this thought. Thanks for putting this into words.

Thank you so much for posting this. We referenced your diamond diagram in a presentation to our local school board concerning the way that the needs of gifted children ALSO need to be addressed with RtI, and one of them was totally taken aback and intrigued by the diamond.

Thank you!!!

Tamara, I have a follow-up question on the topic of RTI applied to gifted/advanced students. At least, I think it arises from application of RTI to gifted ed. In my child's school, they have decided to use the RTI scheduling to provide some targeted instruction to kids who are ahead. As far as I can tell, the specialists (math, reading) are being used to provide this instruction. However, the specialists more typically spend their time on remedial ed.

It looks to me a bit like the "advanced" group my son is in for math is being taught like a remedial group for 2 grades up. This makes sense, since it what the specialist spends most of her time doing. But - I think the approach isn't quite right - the gifted kids need to be taught differently.

Of course, I'm glad they're doing anything. I also am not sure exactly what it is that seems off to me or how it should be different - but both my husband and I came away from discussions with this impression. Have you come across anything which addresses this concern/idea?

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