As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, our country’s education system is facing one of the most significant opportunities for learning loss that we have encountered in nearly a century. As educators work to address this reality, they are also tasked with managing a variety of learning contexts from fully remote/virtual classrooms to in-person learning and hybrid models. Many administrators are looking for ways to reduce teachers’ workload to mitigate the stress and burnout that has come along with teaching during a pandemic. Some districts have made the decision to “pause” differentiated instruction or “lighten up” on the best practices of the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). Unfortunately, this decision will likely have a detrimental effect on student outcomes and create even more work for educators down the road.
As Executive Director of Professional Services at Branching Minds, I lead a team of education coaches (former school administrators themselves) who help districts achieve high fidelity MTSS. I have seen first hand the extraordinary impact of high-quality, well-implemented MTSS frameworks and would hate to see districts be penny wise and pound foolish when the stakes for teachers and students are so high. Working with thousands of school and district administrators supporting hundreds of schools, I have seen the most success among districts leveraging the following six pillars. These approaches have been shown to accelerate student growth and reduce equity gaps while saving teachers time and effort.
Clarify the Expectations:
Make sure you have crosswalked your pre-COVID MTSS practice to your new reality. Clearly describing and assigning the roles and responsibilities needed for a Tiered System of Support could not be more important. All staff should be aware of the district’s core values for students and teachers, for both on-site and virtual learning. Teachers should also know who is responsible for monitoring data, creating small groups for intervention, creating the small group intervention plan, and delivering the support activities. School leaders and interventionists should clearly define who will evaluate the quality of intervention implementation and determine if goals are being met. All educators should have a common understanding and picture of what the MTSS process t is expected to look like (e.g., how they provide and/or get assistance for students) and understand the expectations of each tiered level of support.
Prioritize and Simplify Through Groups:
Identifying small groups of students with shared needs and aligning intervention supports to directly address those skills is critical. Educators should be familiar with the hierarchy of Key Academic Skills (KAS) at each grade level and have the tools and resources to identify each student’s level of mastery or need. Understanding the skills, attitudes, and executive functioning a student needs to access learning the KAS may require step by step guidance, especially for students learning remotely/virtually.
Schedule Common Intervention Times and Staff Check-Ins:
Now is the time to find the educator who loves puzzles and logistics--or even someone in the community who is an expert in getting the trains in on time--to schedule common intervention time, whether virtual or onsite for those intervention groups. We do this routinely for music, athletics, debate, etc., and those very same “master scheduling skills” can be tapped to creatively schedule the time students need for extra instruction, practice, and feedback. It is also increasingly important to schedule frequent check-ins and consistently give specific feedback to staff. Sharing as much data as possible that shows the impact that each person’s effort/dedication will go a long way in improving the system and inspiring the work!
This is always stressful, but may be necessary to provide facilitation of the various student intervention groups identified through screening. Staff who worked in programs/areas of high student concentration may need to be assigned to facilitate intervention groups or take over for a teacher who is required to provide assessment or remediation. “All hands on deck!” is the motto for this season and may prove the impetus for new thinking around how we staff a highly “needs-based” schedule. This is also the best time to up the recruitment for volunteers! Tapping into groups that are experiencing more flexible schedules (older students, college students learning from home, community agencies, and faith-based groups, etc.), can increase the time available to provide the support students need to accelerate their learning and get back on track. Frequent “check-ins” are critical for all, but especially for any staff member or volunteer who has taken on a new role.
Communicate Consistently (and When Possible Concisely):
Communication is the hardest thing we do in just about every area of life! Put together a calendar for communicating with various stakeholders. This can help ensure that it actually happens. Concise updates are a great way to continue to hold the vision of this work at the forefront of everyone’s minds and make adjustments, as needed. Well-planned communication acknowledges that this work is foundational to the success of the school, district, and community, and comes from our core values. Frequent, brief communication lets everyone know they are part of the team, “in the know,” and aware of how the work relates to our community values. Communication improves transparency, honesty, and empathy (which is very different from sympathy) and is key to the next concept!
Build Relationships and Believe in Each Other:
Building, growing, and sustaining meaningful relationships is the only engine for this work. It only takes a short while to realize that this cannot be done by a few with all the decisions and ideas coming from the principal. Rather, this work of relationship belongs to everyone. It ebbs and flows and requires everyone to get involved. Most principals appreciate sharing responsibility for finding solutions, for initiating conversations and for pointing out problems--the potential ones as well as the inevitable ones. Most teachers can shoulder a lot; they generally want to know more than they might need to know and in doing so, become an unbelievable source of energy, expertise, and hope. During these extraordinary times, believing in one another, believing in our students and families means bringing them in; embracing (figuratively these days) each one as a true and vital partner – all of us supporting community learning.
Implemented MTSS/RTI, and curious about how you're doing? At Branching Minds, we have developed the Roots Report, an MTSS/RTI fidelity survey that gauges the health of a schools' and districts' intervention systems. It helps school and/or district leaders track their implementation progress and narrow their focus for future investments of time and resources to create the right infrastructure upon which to build an effective MTSS.
Karen is Executive Director of Professional Learning at Branching Minds, where she leads a team of education consultants to provide guidance and support to schools and districts, as they implement Branching Minds and improve their MTSS practice. Prior to Branching Minds, Karen spent 12 years building a national professional development program for Amplify Education, a leading company in the education technology space. Prior to her work in the edtech space, Karen served as curriculum director, principal, and teacher for several school districts in the North Texas area for 23 years. Karen holds an M.Ed. from the University of North Texas and a Superintendent’s Certification from the University of Texas at Arlington.