The RTI Trap – Avoid This Common Mistake

The RTI Trap: Avoid This Common Mistake

Response to Intervention & Instruction (RTI) is an educational concept that has captured the imagination of teachers and thought leaders in many schools, districts and jurisdictions. In this blog post, I will discuss a key pitfall to avoid when implementing this approach.

In terms of a model, I really like RTI. It is a common sense tiered framework that clearly outlines how we can best support all of our learners:

  • Tier 1: All students receive high quality, differentiated instruction.
  • Tier 2: Some students need and receive a second learning experience and extra attention.
  • Tier 3: Very few students need and receive an intensive learning experience – in addition to previous learning experiences in Tier 1 & 2.



This makes a lot of sense to me.

However, for some reason, the strategies, programs, and approaches that excite educators, correlate almost entirely with the Tier 2 & 3 rungs on the framework.

This attraction is a problem, and can doom RTI as an approach. The magic of RTI does not happen in Tier 2 or 3, but at Tier 1. It is at Tier 1 that our teaching tactics and techniques must have the most impact. That is where we focus our professional development time, dollars, and collaboration. If we can more effectively teach all of our students, then fewer and fewer will need supports at Tier 2 & 3.

Unfortunately, changing how we teach, in order to increase Tier 1 effectiveness in the classroom, is no easy task. This is evident in the rush to adopt RTI as a “fix all” solution for students with lagging skills. Too many students are categorized as struggling, and then placed in Tier 2 and 3 interventions, divorcing the classroom learning environment from the student and placing the learning elsewhere.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Our system needs to improve Tier 1 instruction through explicit teaching and high quality lesson design. High quality lesson design is not a new concept. Madeline Hunter created an effective approach to lesson design in the 70’s – and educators still reference the tenants of her approach as best practice today. A generally accepted practice used present day follows a Connect, Process, Transform & Reflect sequence. I personally subscribe to:

  • Prepare – Set a purpose, make connections, ask questions
  • Learning Sequence – Break the lesson into progressions, building towards the authentic application/task
  • Authentic Application – The student demonstration of learning
  • New Thinking – Reflection.

The design thinking process (found in ADST curriculum) also reflects high quality Tier 1 lesson design (see graphic below). High quality instruction = engagement.




There is a quick test to figure out whether you fall into the RTI trap.

When a colleague offers to take a group of students out of your classroom to work on missed concepts, what is your response?

  1. “Sounds great! Thank you for the help.”
  2. “This is not a good time. Can you come back when we are doing something else?”
  3. “We can’t afford to have these students miss the learning that is happening in the class. You are welcome to join us during that time and help.”

Of course, “C” is the response that shows that you have passed the test and not fallen into the “trap”.

RTI will truly be successful when teachers, using high quality lesson plan processes, transform student achievement by taking classroom practice and engagement to the next level.


Note: I feel so strongly about lesson design that I co-wrote a book on this with my friend and colleague Kevin Bird. The book is P.L.A.N for Better Learning.


Leave a Comment

  1. Hey, thanks for this article. I’m wondering what your take is on how to do Tier 2 interventions in the gen ed classroom (i.e. per response C in the scenario above)? My first thought in the middle and upper grades is to have an additional class or time where they can recieve the more tier 2 supports, but RTI philosophy pushes to keeping at least the first interventions in the class, but teachers always have to move through content. So I’m curious what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Beckett – You ask a good question. I think that the answer is found in a lesson design that is engaging for students and has multiple access points. I realize that sounds like jargon, but I believe that is the key.

      With effective lesson design, a high percentage of students should be successful. For those few who still need support, then it is a matter of finding time for effective small group or even one on one instruction in class.

      This intervention time can be achieved through formal structures (like a Daily 5 approach or Daily 3 approach) or during planned time in a lesson where most students are working on independent work – freeing up the teacher to work with those students who need more.

      If there is a possibility of an extra adult in the classroom, then the opportunities for small group instruction are even greater.

      Finally, I believe that the content constraints that we put on ourselves as teachers are unnecessary and unhelpful. If our students have not achieved proficiency in the foundational skills required for further learning, then we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice when we move on.

      Thanks again for your question!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for taking the time to give such great ideas in the feedback. I hadn’t heard of the Daily 5, but upon looking into it that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s similar to what I am moving towards now with one teacher and fits into the goal of pyramid planning where we have certain things all students should come away with, and then less students will do more as you go up the pyramid.

        In regards to the content constraints….I wonder if that will ever change. Maybe as we go to more PBLs and inquiry we can focus on the skills we want the students to master, and not how much content you can cover, but we are a ways off I surmise.

        Thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

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