Over the past decade, rapid changes have occurred in general educational practice to increase the focus on early identification of and intervention for students considered at risk. The aptly named response-to-intervention (RTI) model of service delivery is generally described as a multi-tiered model whereby students receive interventions of increasing intensity, with movement from one level to another based on demonstrated performance and rate of progress (Gresham, 2007). This sizable paradigm shift has been influenced in part by recent special education legislation, which allows the practice of RTI as an alternative to the traditional "IQ- achievement discrepancy" model of learning disability identification and allows 15% of federal special education funding to be allocated toward early intervening services (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004). Moreover, RTI has gained favor in light of mounting evidence suggesting that intensive intervention during the primary grades is effective for remediating academic difficulties (Wanzek & Vaughn, 2010). Practitioners may also intuitively gravitate toward an RTI model of practice, which has more ideological appeal than traditional models in the sense that it emphasizes identifying and solving problems as soon as possible rather than waiting for students to fall far behind their peers before providing additional services (Vaughn & Fuchs, 2006).
Currently, much of the published literature on full-scale RTI implementation is focused on conceptual and logistical issues related to RTI. Furthermore, a majority of the empirical studies relevant to RTI is focused either on case studies of RTI implementation in particular schools or on intensive intervention with students in the early elementary grades. Dozens of studies have documented the effectiveness of specific interventions for remediating skill deficits in reading (Vaughn et al., 2008) and math (e.g., Mong & Mong, 2010). Additionally, a growing body of research is devoted to establishing the technical adequacy of screening and progress-monitoring assessments to support the RTI process and the identification of students with learning disabilities (Burns, Scholin, Kosciolek, & Livingston, 2010). Despite mounting empirical evidence and widespread ideological support, however, educators are far from united in support of this initiative, with one of the most hotly debated issues being the use of progress-monitoring data to make valid and reliable decisions about special education eligibility (Reynolds & Shaywitz, 2009). It should not be surprising, therefore, that the debate about RTI intensifies with discussion of extending the model beyond elementary settings.
Whereas RTI within the early elementary grades has garnered more support and substantial research attention over the past several years, a comparative dearth of empirical literature has been published regarding RTI implementation in either preschool or secondary settings. Although supporters continue to promote expansion of the model beyond elementary school, most would agree that there remain substantial implementation issues that need to be addressed. Among the most frequently cited barriers to the extension of RTI service delivery are systems and organizational barriers (e.g., scheduling, personnel), insufficient measurement tools, and a lack of evidence-based intervention strategies that can be implemented on a large scale beyond the elementary setting (Vaughn et al., 2010).
Unfortunately, most of the extant literature at all levels appears to take one "side" or the other, either supporting or opposing RTI implementation, thus perpetuating the ideological debate and overlooking the possibility that sufficient knowledge exists to implement some -- but not all -- elements of RTI. It appears, however, that there is substantial middle ground in this debate. By identifying and critically examining current strengths and weaknesses, it will be possible to recommend steps toward evidence-based practice, capacity building, and sustainability in preschool settings, without overstepping the bounds of current empirical support. Ultimately, a long-term approach to organizational development, with adoption of an RTI model representing an aspirational (rather than a practical short-term) goal for service delivery is favored.
Overview of RTI
Response to Intervention has been described as an alternative approach to identifying and providing instruction to students who do not make progress in the regular education curriculum. Instead of waiting until there is a measurable discrepancy that would qualify a student for specialized services, a teacher can intervene with effective, targeted instruction as soon as a child shows signs of difficulty. Although there are common basic principles that apply to all the models of RTI, many embody a three-tier plan (Johnston, 2011). Tier 1 involves all students who receive classroom instruction. In an initial screening process the teacher determines the achievement levels of all the students and identifies a group of children who may be at risk for a reading disability (RD).The students who fall below a "cut point" or a set score move to Tier II for small group instruction of targeted skills, where progress is monitored twice monthly. The decision to move a student back to Tier I or on to Tier III for more intensive instruction is based on the data collected during the monitoring process. Students who make acceptable progress move back to Tier 1, whole class instruction, and students who fail to make progress move on to Tier III. This Tier provides more intensive, individual instruction, or in some cases results in a referral for special education evaluation (Davis, Lindo, & Compton, 2007).
RTI represents a more proactive way to identify children who may be at risk for a learning disability because students can receive interventions as soon as screenings show they are not benefiting from instruction (Fuchs & Young, 2006). RTI may be of benefit to English Language Learners (ELLs) because unlike the discrepancy model, which requires a delay until English skills develop before they receive intervention in reading, in the RTI plan, support can be provided as soon as there is evidence that students are not meeting grade-level benchmarks (Mcintosh, Graves, & Gersten, 2007). Clearly, RTI has the potential to be an improvement over the "wait to fail" model that requires students to be significantly delayed before intervention is provided. Since intervention can begin earlier, students' reading abilities can improve before they fall too far behind. Researchers have found that many students who received Tier II services, defined as small group instruction twice a week for thirty minutes, went on to be successful in the general curriculum (Vellutino, Scanlon, Small, & Fanuele, 2006). As the use of RTI increases in schools, it becomes important for educators to think deeply about the implications of the model and how using RTI will affect the students in their classrooms.
RTI in Preschools and its Efficacy
Examining alternatives for a downward extension of RTI from the elementary to preschool settings has great intuitive appeal. It seems logical that, if early identification and intervention is a desirable goal, efforts directed toward obtaining earlier identification and intervention would also be desirable. Various models have been proposed recently for incorporating the major tenets of RTI within preschool settings (VanDerHeyden & Snyder, 2006 for a review of preschool-based tiered models). For example, Coleman, Buysse, & Neitzel (2006) have proposed and evaluated a "recognition and response" model, which closely resembles RTI in its emphasis on evidence-based instruction and data-based decision making, with somewhat more flexibility permitted in the method of identifying children at risk for difficulty. Others (Jackson, Pretti-Frontczak, Harjusola-Webb, Grisham-Brown, & Romani, 2009) have recommended a comprehensive curriculum framework, which is more focused on addressing Tier I needs. There has also been discussion about the need to integrate academic and behavioral models within preschool settings (Barnett et al., 2007).
Limited research is available addressing the effectiveness of these models, although a few studies have documented greater learning gains in RTI classrooms compared with control classrooms (Gettinger & Stoiber, 2007). There are three primary concerns regarding the implementation of RTI. Firstly, the current evidence base and logistical barriers argue against the establishment of a valid and reliable system of progress monitoring to guide databased decision making (a core component of RTI). Secondly, preschools with a high proportion of at-risk children likely have insufficient resources to implement a full three-tiered model of intervention in even one subject area (i.e., early literacy), and integrated models are likely too complex and costly to be achieved without substantial grant funding or sustained university partnerships, or both. Finally, a more sustainable system can be established by adopting a long-term development perspective that focuses on preparing teachers and establishing high-quality classroom instruction while allowing the empirical support for other RTI elements to more fully develop.
The RTI Model: Where to Begin
Fortunately, most early childhood professionals agree that addressing learning difficulties as soon as possible is preferable to adopting a more traditional view of kindergarten-through- 12th-grade (K-12) service delivery, whereby students must fall far behind their same-aged peers before receiving extra support. In fact, service delivery models consistent with RTI are not uncommon in preschool environments (Jackson et al., 2009), and there is evidence supporting the effectiveness of tiered intervention models for remediating early learning deficits (Coleman et al., 2006).
Early childhood educators also share relatively similar views regarding the appropriate skills to be addressed within the preschool classroom. For example, learning to follow classroom rules…