Reaching a Positive ‘RTI Tipping Point’: Tips for Schools

Districts implementing Response to Intervention are discovering that the RTI model is complex and contains a large number of interlinked components.


In the RTI-ready school, for example, ‘evidence-based’ interventions for struggling students are arranged in a multi-tier continuum; students are matched to intervention services based on profile of need; the integrity of interventions are routinely measured to ensure that they are carried out correctly; data are collected on each intervention to assess baseline levels, set goals for expected improvement, and measure actual student progress; and the school’s RTI model is designed to be attainable using existing resources and to be scalable and sustainable over time (Glover & DiPerna, 2007).  


In fact, full implementation of the RTI represents nothing short of comprehensive schoolwide reform. Yet educators in any building or district charged with rolling out RTI can become so caught up in the thicket of details required to implement the model that they may lose sight of whether they are in fact accomplishing their global objective: to reengineer the school culture and teacher attitudes and realign resources to better support struggling learners. A concept from the social sciences that prove helpful to schools as they push system-wide change through RTI is the ‘tipping point’
In a social system, a tipping point is reached when an attitude or practice that was previously rare in a social system becomes much more widespread—often within a very short period of time (Tipping Point, 2010). A popular recent work on the subject states that “the tipping point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." (Gladwell, 2000; p. 12).  
It is important to note that a tipping point can send a school attempting to implement RTI in either a positive or negative direction.  A positive tipping point can be defined as the moment when the majority of school staff –including administration, teachers, and support personnel—are knowledgeable about the RTI model, understand the specific role that they will play in supporting that model, and believe that RTI can help them to address chronic and stubborn problems such as raising student academic achievement levels and increasing graduation rates.  When this positive tipping point occurs, the school may still have much work to do to implement RTI but can count on staff to work together to overcome all obstacles. Progress toward RTI moves much more quickly after the positive tipping point has been reached than before.  
 However, a negative RTI tipping point is also a possible outcome--one that schools should strive at all costs to avoid. Examples of schools at risk of experiencing a negative RTI tipping point are those that do not regularly share RTI information with teachers or seek their input in shaping RTI, continually postpone implementing the most challenging elements of the RTI model, or are run by administrators who show little RTI leadership.  When a school reaches a negative tipping point, it may suddenly discover that staff has responded to the vacuum of information, leadership, or meaningful progress toward RTI by withdrawing their support. In buildings where attitudes have crystallized in rejection of RTI, schools have a much, much more difficult task to undo the damage and to enlist staff to take responsibility for student interventions and problem-solving.
Below are five suggestions to nudge the school culture toward a positive RTI tipping point:
  1. Identify a collection of non-negotiable RTI ‘axioms’. When schools define a set of core values to support RTI, those values provide a shared reference point for all staff to guide their day-to-day professional conduct. The RTI core values can be thought of as self-evident statements, or RTI axioms (Axiom, 2010). Here are several examples of axioms that schools may want to adopt to promote acceptance of RTI:

    Students who begin to struggle in general education are ‘typical’. When general education students show emerging problems in academic skills or behavior, educators should respond as if these students are typical learners, accepting responsibility to find the instructional or behavior management strategies to unlock these students’ potential.  When general-education teachers see struggling students as teachable, they are more willing to explore various intervention strategies—thus increasing the probability of achieving a good student outcome. They also avoid falling into the trap of believing that common learning problems are evidence of a special education condition and thus are beyond the ability of the general-education teacher to address (Martens, 1993).

    Interventions target factors that are ‘alterable’.  When engaged in RTI problem-solving, schools can easily become distracted by factors that cannot be changed— such as a student’s presumed cognitive ability—that can actually cause well-meaning educators to assume that classroom interventions will not be effective (Howell, Hosp, & Kurns, 2008). A central axiom of RTI is that educators should instead focus their intervention efforts on those factors that can be changed in a school setting, such as instructional materials, elements and pacing of instruction, and student motivation (Burns, VanDerHeyden, & Boice, 2008).

    Teacher intervention efforts provide crucial ‘protective factors’ for at-risk learners.  It is easy for teachers to be discouraged by the many ‘risk factors’ (e.g., difficult family situation, poverty) that may confront at-risk learners outside of school. Educators should keep in mind, however, that risk factors are only that—factors that can heighten the possibility of student failure but do not guarantee it. An important RTI axiom is that the efforts that teachers make in school to remediate academic or behavioral deficits represent ‘protective factors’ (Hosp, 2008) that can counterbalance a student’s risk factors. In other words, RTI expects that educators with significant concerns about the potential negative factors that a student faces outside of school are willing to apply correspondingly intensive intervention efforts on behalf of the student during the school day.

  2. Build teacher understanding and support for RTI.  For RTI to be a success, teachers must understand and support the model. It is surprising, however, that schools often seem to treat the task of presenting RTI information to teachers as an afterthought. In fact, communication with teachers about RTI should be a carefully plotted, ongoing campaign (McDougal, Graney, Wright & Ardoin, 2009). The school first defines the essential RTI information that faculty need to know, including specifics about how the general-education teacher’s role will change under RTI. The school then creates a plan to communicate with teachers about RTI at several points across the school year in both large- and small-group settings to allow participants ample opportunity to ask questions and offer their views and suggestions.
  3. Inventory existing district and school RTI resources.  A central fact about RTI for most school districts is that it must be implemented using existing resources. To establish positive RTI momentum, all resources available to support RTI should be inventoried at the district level and within each school.  (Examples of potential RTI resources include published instructional and intervention materials; personnel with flexible schedules who can be tapped to assist with intervention planning or data collection; time during professional development days to provide RTI training, etc.) When an RTI resource list is developed, the RTI Leadership Team can consult it to better resource the RTI rollout and to develop an RTI plan that conforms to the strengths and constraints of the district’s current educational resources.
  4. Ensure administrative buy-in.  Perhaps the strongest predictor of whether a district will successfully reach a positive RTI tipping point is the presence or absence of administrative support. When a district’s leadership supports RTI across all schools, every obstacle can be overcome. When leadership is divided about or does not truly support RTI, the smallest challenge is enough to derail it. Building administrators demonstrate understanding and support for RTI in highly visible ways, such as presenting knowledgeably about RTI to faculty, using job performance reviews as an opportunity to help teachers to expand their classroom RTI skill set, and preventing referrals to special education that have not yet gone through all of the expected levels of general-education problem-solving.  District administrators show that they are behind RTI by establishing and serving on an < RTI Leadership Team < that speaks with one voice in designing an RTI model for district schools, holding principals accountable for the success of RTI in their respective buildings, and channeling to schools any available district resources such as professional development time or funds for intervention materials. 
  5. Create a comprehensive district RTI plan.  Because RTI requires comprehensive change in educational practice at all tiers, there is a risk either that schools may continually delay implementation as they ponder which elements to put into place first or that they will hastily implement elements of the RTI model piece-meal in a confused and uncoordinated manner.  Either of these possible responses is likely to result in poor outcomes and erosion of staff confidence. To ensure a well-choreographed RTI roll-out, it is recommended that districts draft a multi-year RTI plan—one that maps out an RTI roadmap over 3-5 years and is updated yearly (McDougal, Graney, Wright & Ardoin, 2009). The RTI Plan identifies essential RTI components (e.g., adoption of a schoolwide screening plan; creation of a menu of evidence-based interventions for the use of classroom teachers.) and affixes them to a timeline. The RTI Plan encourages districts and schools to be realistic in their rollout efforts and to move forward at a sustainable pace (Glover & DiPerna, 2007) that is ambitious but also works within the constraints of the district’s actual resources. The multi-year RTI Plan can also provide at least some assurance to teachers that the district is serious about RTI and that this initiative will have a shelf life beyond a single year. 
In the rush to develop and field their own version of the RTI model, school leaders should not forget that staff understanding and support are paramount to the success of RTI. As a complex social system, a school district or building embarking on an RTI initiative can suddenly ‘tip’ – with staff deciding either to support or resist the significant changes that RTI requires.  However, districts can tilt their odds in favor of reaching a positive tipping point if they adopt a core set of RTI principles or axioms to guide staff intervention and assessment practices, build teacher understanding and support for RTI, inventory available resources that can be committed to the RTI rollout, promote strong RTI administrative leadership, and develop a multi-year implementation plan that introduces RTI at an ambitious but sustainable pace.


  • Axiom. (2010, June 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 13, 2010, from
  • Burns, M. K., VanDerHeyden, A. M., & Boice, C. H. (2008). Best practices in intensive academic interventions. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.1151-1162). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Gladwell,  M. (2000). The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Glover, T. A., & DiPerna, J. C. (2007). Service delivery for response to intervention: Core components and directions for future research. School Psychology Review, 36, 526-540.
  • Hosp, J. L. (2008). Best practices in aligning academic assessment with instruction. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.363-376). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Howell, K. W., Hosp, J. L., & Kurns, S. (2008). Best practices in curriculum-based evaluation. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.), Best practices in school psychology V (pp.349-362). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Martens, B. K. (1993). A case against magical thinking in school-based intervention. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 4(2), 185-189.
  • McDougal, J. L., Graney, S. B., Wright, J. A., & Ardoin, S. P. (2009). RTI in practice: A practical guide to implementing effective evidence-based interventions in your school. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Tipping point (sociology). (2010, May 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:53, June 13, 2010, from