Why Grade-Level Learning Is Essential for Strong RTI Models and Addressing Unfinished Learning

By: | 04/29/2022
Categories: Data Culture, Instruction

A strong response to intervention (RTI) model is the answer for teachers to meet the needs of all their students. In this post, three tips are given for teachers to employ as they leverage the strength of RTI in today’s classrooms.

Educators are some of the most dedicated and hardest-working folks when it comes to serving their students, especially those who have fallen further behind due to unfinished learning during the pandemic. Throughout my years as a Grades K–8 teacher, I've tried many approaches to intervention. But with the growing range of students’ levels in today’s classrooms and a mindset shift in how we address intervention, I wanted to offer some ideas from working with educators across the country in hopes that it can guide others.

According to the RTI Action Network, RTI is “a multi-tier approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs.”

The Importance of Grade-Level Instruction

Trying to teach students everything they’ve missed or haven’t yet mastered is not the answer. There’s not enough time in one academic year to teach two grade levels' worth, or maybe more, of standards. Denying students their current grade-level instruction to teach what was missed creates a never-ending cycle of below-grade level instruction.

The Opportunity Myth, a groundbreaking study by The New Teacher Project, reported that many students spend up to six months per year on work that is “far below grade level,” in an effort to “catch up.” This not only robs students of the opportunity to learn the standards they need to succeed, but they also get a false sense of security around their education. Specifically, while students succeeded in 71 percent of their class assignments, they were only meeting grade-level standards on 17 percent of those same assignments. That disconnect won’t help these students down the road, even with the best intentions.

To put students on a path to proficiency, here are three things you can do to support their academic growth and build their confidence.

1. Provide Grade-Level Instruction to Your Entire Class

When content is “too difficult” for students, teachers tend to lean very heavily, sometimes singularly, on remediation. But if those students don’t have opportunities to grapple with grade-level work, they are unknowingly being relegated to prolonged slippage. Research has shown that when students are not challenged, their progress flatlines, and learning gaps only deepen. Scaffolding grade-level instruction for those who need access brings them up to the current grade-level standards instead of subjecting them to below-grade level learning.

2. Prioritize What’s Critical

As you plan your intervention efforts, reach back only as far as your students need to go. Many well-intentioned teachers reteach too many skills from earlier grades that are unnecessary for grade-level mastery of priority standards. To avoid this trap, focus on priority reading standards and key mathematics prerequisite skills—those critical concepts students need to master before building on them. Consider preteaching essential prerequisite skills to connect students with what’s coming in grade-level instruction. Then, by folding in instructional scaffolds, you can put all students on a path to grade-level performance.

Imagine students standing on one side of a rushing river. The side they are standing on is below-grade level instruction and across the river is grade-level instruction. It would take way too long for a teacher to build a bridge with every single skill and concept those students need. But if you prioritize and place a few stepping stones out for your students, they can make key jumps and get across the river to access grade-level instruction more quickly.

3. Assess Less, Teach More

With the availability of adaptive assessments, educators can get better data with less frequent testing. Today, some assessments provide instructional assets to challenge students as they grow. It’s no longer necessary to test weekly the way we used to, which can cause test fatigue and rob students of critical instruction time. Instead, you can use that time for focused instruction to help accelerate student growth. When you do assess, collect data that demonstrates students’ strengths so you can build on those assets.

The Future Is Bright

I know how challenging it can be to put your heart and soul into making a difference every day for your students and not having enough energy left for all the logistics. My hope is these strategies can help you narrow learning gaps quickly, for today and tomorrow.


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