Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Friday, October 22, 2010

RtI in Science

How do you make sure that you are meeting the needs of all students in your class? What do you do when you have students in your class there aren’t progressing as quickly as you would like or as fast as most of your students? Response to intervention (RtI) is an instructional model designed to help all learners in a class succeed.

As RtI gains more acceptance as a model of instruction many teachers are asking what this actually looks like in the classroom. Much of the focus for RtI so far has been in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics. What about other content areas? Especially ones, like science and social studies, where the learning focus is more on concepts and content rather than skills?

The key to RtI is to make sure that the first tier in the RtI pyramid, the universal level, consists of a robust, standards based curriculum (one based on more than just a text book or program) that includes 21st century skills and good research based instructional practices that are intentionally aligned with the outcome that the teacher is looking for. Differentiated instruction is a critical component of universal instruction. All too often in schools, intervention programs have become the rule instead of the exception for instruction, essentially turning the RtI pyramid upside down. And often these intervention programs for reading, writing, and math take students away from core instruction in science, social studies, PE, and the arts.

If your school or district does not have a curriculum that is separate from your textbook or program, you might start asking administrators why and what you can help do about it. A great place to start thinking about how to write a curriculum is with books by Heidi Hayes Jacobs such as Curriculum 21 or Getting Results with Curriculum Maps both published by ASCD. Another source is the book Curriculum Leadership by Glatthorn, Boschee, and Whitehead. CDE is also working on a guide to curriculum that goes with revised standards that should be available winter of 2011.

It is also useful to understand the difference between accommodations and interventions. An accommodation provides a change in how a student accesses information and demonstrates learning. An intervention is usually direct instruction (from a teacher or para) that helps fill gaps in skills, knowledge or understanding.

Once you make sure that the universal level is strong, one can then start to think about accommodations and interventions. The first question about accommodations and interventions is when to start them. In the article Flagged for Success in the October 2010 edition of Educational Leadership, Robyn Jackson talks about how she set up an early warning system to catch kids who were struggling early. This type of early warning system seems essential for keeping students up with their classmates. Red flags might be getting below an 80% or a proficient score on a test or quiz, or an overall grade at or below 75% or partially proficient. Another red flag not to overlook is pre-assessment. Pre-assessments should be designed to let a teacher know if a student has the proper background knowledge to be successful for that unit or for the class. The point that Robyn makes is that your red flags need to be easy and obvious for the teacher so they can start their accommodations and intervention system early, not waiting until report card time, or until parent teacher conferences. Whatever you set as your red flags, when any student hits one, an intervention system should be started. If you find that more than 15-20% of your class requires interventions, however, it is likely time to reevaluate the universal instruction.

Accommodations and Interventions should start with the least intensive and work up from there. Examples of low intensity accommodations include a student check-in, that is before or after class having a one-on-one conversation with the student about what triggered the red flag and asking the student what you can do to help; having students self correct answers they got wrong on a test or quiz; or having them redo a portion of a paper. Another strategy is checking that students actually understand the vocabulary being used in class and in their readings, as Lawrence, White, and Snow point out in the article The Words Students Need (Educational Leadership, Oct. 2010). Just because a student reads the word in an article or book or copied the down the definition doesn’t mean they know the word and can use it.

If those first low intensity accommodations don’t seem to be getting the student up to where you want them to be you then move into more intensive interventions such as having a review packet ready for students to help them understand the material they aren’t getting. This packet needs to be thoughtfully put together though; remember the student didn’t understand it the first time, so giving them just more of the same won’t necessarily help. A review packet needs be different than the initial instruction with more support such as lower level readings on the same concept or more explicit, student friendly definitions of content specific vocabulary along with repeated exposure to that vocabulary; perhaps more pictures and a different way of explaining things. The packet might also help build proper background knowledge, since many students struggle because they don’t have the background in the topic to build on.

Even more intensive interventions might involve remediation sessions that are held during lunch or before or after school, a parent, teacher, student conference, and/or more scaffolded instruction.

RtI in the science classroom should be thought of as a way to give more students access to the richness of science concepts and to help more students be successful in science. This is a chance to have fewer students fail science or come to think that science is only for the smart kids. Done in a thoughtful manner, RtI should enhance primary instruction and not become an overwhelming burden for teachers.

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