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Thompson News Brief Logo

By Travis Hicks
Posted Monday, January 14, 2008

Using Title 1 Funds for RTI Will Be a Challenge

Fiscal Constraint Pose Special Problems in Targeted Assistance Schools

Washington, Jan. 14 — The lack of a shared vocabulary is making it difficult to integrate Title I and “response to intervention,” a federally endorsed instructional technique to help struggling students and avoid over-identification of children as learning-disabled. As a result, state and local officials hoping for specific examples of how Title I can support this technique left a recent conference still unsure of exactly what is allowed under the law.

Response to intervention, or RTI, got a major boost in 2004 when Congress amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to allow school districts to use up to 15 percent of their IDEA grants for the new approach. Officials from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) have promoted the use of RTI in Title I as well, either in conjunction with IDEA funds or by itself.

But an ED-sponsored Summit on Response to Intervention held in Alexandria, Va., on Dec. 6 and 7 raised more questions than answers.

No Guidance

“We really want to make Title I fit into RTI, but we also have to keep in mind some of the constraints that we have under Title I,” Kay Rigling, an attorney in ED’s Office of General Counsel, said at the summit.

Unfortunately, there won’t be any regulations or written guidance from the department to shed light on the muddled picture. ED program officers stressed that the lack of standardized definitions and differences in state and local laws make it impossible to create a national model; instead, the department will have to evaluate how targeted assistance schools spend Title I dollars for RTI programs on a case-by-case basis.

BJ Granbery, the Title I director in Montana, said she was “a little surprised” that ED officials were unable to offer “any innovative ways” for making RTI more workable. “They pretty much said the same things we’ve already known,” she said.

Typically initiated in the early elementary grades, RTI is a multi-tiered approach that focuses on children identified as “at-risk” through a screening process. It begins with the core instructional program and offers gradually more intense interventions focused on a child’s particular areas of difficulty, with the student’s progress monitored throughout.

States generally use RTI to determine if a student just needs some extra instructional help in certain areas or has a learning disability that requires special education services under IDEA. However, it can be used for decisions about general and compensatory education as well, and ED is promoting its adoption for these broader purposes

Supplement Not Supplant

Although there are some stumbling blocks to adopting RTI in Title I schools operating a schoolwide program, the hurdles are more daunting for targeted assistance schools.

The concerns are primarily fiscal. Chief among them is the “supplement not supplant” requirement attached to Title I grants to local school districts. This provision requires that funds supplement — not supplant — state or local funds that would otherwise be available to grantees if the program did not exist. Hence, Title I dollars may not be spent on any programs or mandates required for all students.

Schoolwide programs, by their very nature, make it easier to avoid supplanting issues because they are designed to serve all children. To avoid supplanting in a school operating a schoolwide program, all a district needs to do is ensure that Title I funds add to, and don’t substitute for, the total state and local resources the school is supposed to receive.

Targeted assistance schools, on the other hand, delineate between eligible and non-eligible students, and the specific Title I services provided to an eligible student must be above and beyond those the student would otherwise receive. Not all students identified for an RTI program would necessarily be eligible under Title I, thereby complicating the provision of services. Currently, 38.5 percent of schools receiving Title I funds operate targeted assistance programs.

Officials in targeted assistance schools would not be able to use Title I funds to pay for the core instructional program, commonly considered “Tier 1,” because the program serves all students and, as such, would have to be funded by state and local dollars. “It wouldn’t be appropriate to have a Title I teacher teaching the lowest achieving kids ... while the regular teacher teaches the middle group and the highest achieving group,” said Rigling. “That would be supplanting because the Title I kids would be getting nothing from the regular teacher regarding core reading instruction.”

The department expects that Title I funds can be used in most subsequent “tiers,” with Title I students receiving individual interventions from a Title I teacher. ED generally believes that Title I funds could fund time when students are not receiving direct instruction from the regular teacher, or other times when students are working to reinforce skills that have been taught as part of the core program.

Exclusion

Title I’s “exclusion” provision, which, according to Rigling allows a “sort of legalized supplanting,” may provide schools some flexibility, however. The exclusion provision can kick in when a school is using local or state dollars to pay for a Title I-like program.

For example, if a school operating an RTI program has identified more students for “Tier 2” intervention than Title I money can serve, the school could possibly use a reading teacher funded with local dollars to work in conjunction with a Title I teacher to offer intervention services at the same time, provided the Title I teacher does not instruct non-Title I students.

“That might be a very appropriate example of where the exclusion could fit in,” Rigling said. “When the reading teacher is providing essentially the same services to the children who are at risk of failing ... [and] the services are supplemental.”

Because of supplanting concerns, Sheila Sjolseth, a program officer in ED’s Student Achievement and School Accountability Office, said schools hoping to use Title I money for any RTI model must identify key pieces of the model prior to instituting the program. These three necessary steps include 1) identifying the core program, which can include whole group, small group, seat time, etc.; 2) defining what specific intervention will be used in each tier; and 3) plotting the criteria for entering and exiting the tiers.

Additional Title I Concerns

Outside of supplement-not-supplant concerns, ED officials identified other Title I statutory considerations for targeted assistance schools considering an RTI model.

  • Most-at-risk students — No Child Left Behind requires that after a targeted assistance school identifies a pool of students eligible for Title I, it must develop “educationally related objective criteria” for pinpointing the students most at risk of failing to meet the state’s content standards. Susan Wilhelm, an officer in ED’s Title I office, said that a school could use the same criteria for identifying students for interventions in Tier 2 and above and for identifying students for Title I services. Therefore, Title I funds could pay for any student entering the intervention phase of the RTI model because there would be no supplanting issues.
  • Duration of Title I services — Setting up an RTI program that uses the same criteria to identify only the “most at risk students” as needing interventions in Tier 2 also gives schools flexibility in moving students in and out of Title I throughout the year. However, “you’ve got to make sure that you have criteria for coming in, criteria for going out, that everybody knows what they are and that you have some way of measuring so you know when someone moves in and out,” Wilhelm said.
  • Universal screening and progress monitoring — Because of supplanting concerns, Title I cannot pay for universal screening, but it may be able to pay for progress monitoring. “If progress monitoring is part of the core instructional program, depending on how your model is designed, then that needs to be paid for by state and local funds,” said Wilhelm. “However, if there’s additional progress monitoring that you want to do on top of that, ... Title I could pay for that additional progress monitoring. ... It’s going to depend really specifically on how your program is put together.”
  • Professional development — The law mandates that all Title I schools conduct ongoing professional development. In a targeted assistance program, professional development is generally intended for teachers providing Title I services directly to Title I children. However, Title I also includes a provision that allows schools to include other teachers as long as the professional development is intended to help those teachers better meet the needs of Title I children in the general classroom. Although unable to give a specific example, Wilhelm suggested that the law’s “reasonable and necessary” test, which acts as a guide for determining when it’s appropriate to include other teachers, offers flexibility for professional development in an RTI program.


Blending Funds

Blending funds from different federal education programs will be tricky as well, particularly when looking to use money from IDEA and Title III limited English proficient programs. Those programs have supplanting requirements similar to Title I.

Both the Title III and IDEA programs also include legal mandates for which Title I dollars cannot be used because states and localities are required by law to provide them with their own funds. For instance, disabled students are guaranteed a “free and appropriate public education,” or FAPE, as part of their “individualized education programs.” Likewise, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in 1974’s Lau v. Nichols decision, 414 U.S. 563 (1974), that all students, regardless of the native language, are entitled to the same educational opportunities as other students. Title I can only fund services above and beyond those legal requirements.

Similarly, if a state mandates that all its schools implement RTI, a side effect might be that Title I funds could no longer be used for RTI because they would not be supplementary.

No Common Definitions

The main problem in providing general examples for states and local officials is that there is no nationally agreed-upon set of definitions relating to RTI, and Title I issues are “very case specific,” according to Sjolseth. Nonetheless, ED is “very interested in making sure we have a shared vocabulary developed with the field,” she said.

Rich Long, executive director of the National Association of State Title I Directors, added that the differences in how special education and general education teachers understand particular phrases also poses a problem. “If you say to the uninitiated, ‘response to intervention’, what they say is that’s special ed,” he said. “But if you say ‘response to instruction’, that’s what special ed calls regular ed. ... This difference in language really creates a divide in getting people to pay attention and do the work that needs to be done.”

Laurie Matzke, North Dakota’s Title I director, questioned in a phone interview why some educators consider Title I’s requirements to be a “roadblock” in targeted assistance schools. “To me, it’s just a given that a Title I teacher can fit into Tier 2 intervention programs,” said Matzke, who did not attend the conference.

Regardless of the challenges schools face in using Title I dollars for RTI models, the department plans to be a resource for state officials. ED encouraged local Title I directors to talk with their state leaders about how to best design an RTI program that won’t run afoul of Title I’s funding restrictions.

“It’s going to take us some doing ... but I think we’re all committed to make it work ... within the constraints of the law,” Rigling said.

The RTI summit, sponsored by ED and hosted by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, gave multi-member state teams an opportunity to interact with experts in the field. The summit covered myriad issues pertaining to RTI, including sessions hosted by federal and state officials as well as researchers.

— Travis Hicks

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