Long before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered our nation’s schools in mid-March 2020, many districts across the country had been working to transition to MTSS (Multi-Tiered Student Support System). Schools were “ditching” their more traditional models to evaluate students for special education and instead began moving towards a more holistic approach to consider the needs of all students. Many chose to transition to MTSS as it uses a multi-tiered support foundation that wraps around a school’s entire student body and uses data-driven problem-solving to address academic and non-academic (attendance, social-emotional, etc.) needs. Schools and districts making this shift found that they improved education for all students, gained efficiencies, and prevented students from “slipping through the cracks.”
As a lifelong educator, I have worked for decades with teachers and teacher candidates in pre-k through high school classrooms in both public and private schools. One constant for my teachers across the board regardless of subject matter/specialty or grades taught--all consistently have experienced the “educational pendulum” swinging throughout their careers, and some may have even experienced the pendulum swing with multiple initiatives, new policies, etc. in a single year. In just this past year alone, teachers have experienced the shift from remote instruction to hybrid learning, and then back to in-person learning. It is no surprise that experiencing many shifts in the classroom can lead to fatigue, burnout, skepticism and a feeling that whatever the change is, “it won’t last.” Research has found that teachers make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons, and this can obviously be exhausting, especially when trying to keep up with new school initiatives (Watson, 2017). Unfortunately, due to this exhaustion, I believe that some vital processes such as MTSS/RTI run the risk of becoming miscategorized and put on the “just something else to do” list; rather than recognized as a best practice for all students, and a model for all schools.
Student goal setting is a topic that is often covered during teacher professional development and in-service days. Educators have naturally been setting goals for students since the beginning of teaching, and goal setting today has become a critical element of an effective MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) framework. MTSS meets all student’s needs with three levels of support for each school's entire student body. Within MTSS, Tier I (also known as whole class core instruction), the core curriculum should be meeting the needs of at least 80% of all students. Tier II includes whole class core instruction with the addition of targeted instruction for students needing support, often provided in small groups. Tier III is whole class core instruction, additional targeted instruction, and explicit intensive intervention. Support activities provided to students receiving Tier II and Tier III instruction should be robust, research-driven and align to student’s specific needs.
I often find myself taking a walk down memory lane and thinking back to when I was in graduate school completing my clinical hours for my M.A.T. in special education. I will never forget my excitement for learning about teaching and for understanding how to comprehensively meet all students' needs. Today, as a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) consultant, I am still experiencing that excitement daily, and I often like to take a few moments to think about how significantly processes have changed over the years to ensure all students can succeed, and why those changes are more critical now than ever.
The impact of remote instruction on students has been discussed a great deal during the past ten months, while our nation’s teachers grapple with the complexities of implementing distance learning. As teachers and students engage daily in e-learning, with some schools pivoting back and forth between a hybrid model of remote and in-person schooling, the topic of what it actually means for students to be at “grade level” has been trending. Prior to COVID-19, students were considered to be on “grade level” if they had mastered the skills and concepts at their expected level of difficulty as measured by formal assessments and district/state standards.
I often think about an afternoon many years ago when I took my daughter to our local coffee shop to treat ourselves to a special dessert. She was around four or five years old, and as she stood in front of the enormous display of pies, cakes and puddings, she became overwhelmed and said, “What to choose? There is too much of much!” Too much of much... I found such meaning in those unexpected words and as a result, the phrase has stayed with me throughout the years.
As a former special education teacher/case manager and now a special education university supervisor, I have spent many an hour discussing MTSS (Multi-Tier System of Supports). My university students and I have reviewed the countless interventions and supports they are exposed to during their required observations, practicums, and culminating student teaching experiences. After conducting an informal poll with my most recent cohort, I found that many students felt that MTSS has a confusing reputation in the field. Further, I noticed that some students were using the term MTSS interchangeably with terms such as RTI, PBIS, and even pre-referral screening. As a result, I decided to take a moment to clear up what MTSS is, and what it is not.