This article was originally published on the Fordham Institute's Wonk-a-Thon 2019
By Laura Slover and Bonnie Hain
In our work with schools at CenterPoint, we often are asked to help design or support the implementation of research-based, high quality curriculum. Almost invariably, discussions with school leaders turn to the connections among and between the core curriculum and the tiered supports for students who are off grade level and struggling to advance. This, of course, is the big, multifaceted, existential question in education: How do schools support learners of all kinds, meet children where they are, and ensure they meet high standards, all without moving the goalposts to water down content or short shift access to learning?
We think about this constantly. As runners, both of us regularly set goals for ourselves: how many miles we want to run, how fast we want to be, and sometimes just how we’ll get out the door on a cold morning. Alas, in the last eighteen months we’ve both had knee surgery, which has gifted us new insights into goal setting. It’s also given us a new way of thinking about tiered supports. Our injuries were different (Bonnie had a meniscus surgery and Laura had an ACL replacement), and our recovery paths and timelines were/are different. But our goal was the same: to get back to running. One of the hardest parts of recovery was having to do all of the regular things we both do (i.e., work, family, etc.) while also finding time for physical therapy. To overstate the analogy: We had to do life’s core curricula even as we sought the extra support we needed to walk right and, in time, get back into running. Our doctors set goals for each of us and prescribed physical therapy tailored to our specific needs. We were each monitored closely by our doctors, who assessed our progress and set new goals. As of this writing, neither of us is at top running performance, but we continue to build towards that goal. The extra support we’ve received—whether physical therapy or extended icing, etc.—has been unique to our situations but designed to get us to the same place. And without them, we’d likely still be hobbling around in pain, far short of our goals and struggling with our lives’ basic curricula.
It’s a short leap to see the parallels between our experiences and the challenges schools face in meeting all learners’ needs. Many students experience setbacks in their learning and need tailored supports to help them reach their goals and transform the learning experience. That’s straightforward enough. The challenge, of course, is that schools often have multiple students who need support and who, like us, have different needs and pathways. This is where Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports (MTSS) are critical.
In essence, a Multi-Tiered System of Supports is “an evidence-based model of schooling” where district and school staff make decisions for intensity and types of support provided to students using a formal, data-driven problem-solving method. Simply put, it’s a way of structuring and organizing a school’s approach to meeting all students’ needs. Tier 1 supports include core instruction with differentiated learning options (delivered to all students). The majority of learners typically make growth with only Tier 1 supports. Tier 2 supports add additional, short-term, and moderate intensity programming for learners above Tier 1 instruction. Tier 3 supports are longer-term and higher intensity programming additions given to meet a learner’s needs. Florida’s MTSS implementation manual sums up the purpose of the method nicely: “With decisions for intensity and types of support driven by data, districts can ensure that resources reach the appropriate students (schools) at the appropriate levels to accelerate the performance of all students to achieve and/or exceed proficiency.” Essentially, MTSS is a systemic approach to providing targeted support for all learners, regardless of where they are in the learning continuum and regardless of the reasons students need those supports.
A critical component of MTSS is assessment, since data are needed to drive decisions about what supports students need and how those supports are working or need to be adjusted. MTSS relies upon a holistic data protocol that asks teachers to collect and analyze a wide range of data on students’ performance. This is followed by a continuous cycle of data monitoring, so that different supports can be evaluated to determine whether they can be wound down, augmented, or abandoned.
MTSS development also requires school teams to establish both a quality core curriculum and supports for students who need additional learning (e.g., interventions, practice of newly acquired knowledge and skills, and/or extensions). It’s time-intensive work but fundamental for schools that want to drive learning for all students. In other words, MTSS is like so many other things in public education: It has significant power for improving educational achievement, but that power requires intentional work from schools.
What are the components of MTSS?
Several components are key to the success of MTSS. Districts may prioritize them differently, but above all, MTSS works best in schools that have the following in place or in process:
- high-quality core curricula that provide all students with an opportunity to learn at least the grade-level content they need to progress on a path to college- and career-readiness;
- reliable and timely data systems that inform educators, parents, and students on students’ strengths and needs;
- a schedule with sufficient flexibility to allow schools to provide tiered instruction;
- quality instructional materials that support, or at least allow for, tiered instruction;
- staff with existing (or developing) expertise in delivering core curricula and specialized, tiered instructional programming, as well as knowledge of how to use data effectively to make decisions on which students need specific tiered instructional supports;
- sufficient staff to allow for delivery of tiered instructional solutions; and
- facilities that support all of the above.
Keep in mind that MTSS is not a one size fits all approach. Schools and districts need to build from the above components to establish their own playbook. For example, while quality curricular programming options (both for core content and tiered supports) exist, they are not interchangeable. It’s also important to remember that any approach will require deep professional capacity-building around supplemental resources, as well as the connections between them and the core curricula. Districts and schools that don’t “connect the dots” may find themselves playing “whack-a-mole reform,” where one fix causes a problem that requires another fix that solves that second problem, but this creates a third problem, and so on. This could limit success in achieving real change in student outcomes for students who have fallen behind. Bottom line: The approach to MTSS should be comprehensive and not piecemeal.
So how can districts, CMOs, and their schools begin to put MTSS into action?
Here are a few steps they can take:
- Commit to understanding students’ needs at a deep level. This requires clear-eyed engagement with individual student performance data.
- Audit current instructional programming, including core curricular resources to check for gaps. This should be driven by student performance data.
- Complete a landscape analysis of currently available research-based Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 offerings and the assessments that provide data needed to inform instructional decisions on tiered programming. The assessments used to check progress on core curriculum may not be sufficient for this purpose. (The What Works Clearinghouse and Louisiana Believes offer insights into instructional materials choices.)
- Determine how to fill programming gaps. For example, a school might identify additional supporting instructional materials or different assessments needed to gather information to inform placement decisions.
- Delve into the evidence-base and the use-case for various supports. Some may be more effective than others for particular students, depending on their needs.
- Purchase any new instructional materials needed or identify open source materials.
- Build staff capacity to deliver new instructional supports and to make connections back to the core curriculum. Include time for staff to learn how to administer and interpret data from any new assessments needed for monitoring student progress.
- Revise the school schedule as necessary. Include time for educators to share data and to co-plan.
- Build feedback loops and regularly check results and retool approach if necessary. MTSS is a process, not a product.
The attached planning sheet can support schools as they strengthen instructional programming in ELA and Mathematics using MTSS as an organizing core structure.
Developing and implementing a system that supports success for all is possible—but it’s intense work that requires data, collaboration time, and a budget sufficient to make the system work. The good news is that we see districts, CMOs, and schools committed to doing this work. They know that all students can achieve but that they don’t all achieve the same way or need the same supports. Just like a pair of runners working their ways back to the trail after injuries, students need a well-crafted plan tailored for them, regular progress checks and targeted supports that provide the practice they need, and time to focus on learning and improving. Those elements—core to MTSS—make sense for all kids, and for seasoned lady runners, too!
MTSS Implementation Components: Ensuring common language and understanding. Retrieved from: http://www.florida-rti.org/educatorresources/mtss_book_implcomp_012612.pdf.
 MTSS, as a process, provides a method for determining academic interventions, but also for academic enrichment and extension and behavioral supports, allowing for growth for all students.