School leaders and teachers have a tendency to rush to implement behavior or academic interventions plans for struggling students, without first taking the time to problem solve why students are struggling in the first place. I witnessed this firsthand in my nearly ten years as a high school assistant principal.
As a first-year high school teacher, it was almost instinctual to pull a struggling learner (often an English Language Learner or a student well below grade level) out of the classroom and work with them individually. Wasn’t this one-on-one attention precisely what this student needed? Wasn’t I helping them by teaching them at their level? They didn’t have to sit through a lesson feeling lost and frustrated, and I didn’t have to worry about them feeling lost in this environment. Instead, I could work with them individually and get them caught up.
While I intended to help, I did not realize I was causing more harm than good, which was evident by my student’s lack of progress by the end of the year. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of a strong, frequently revised Tier 1 curriculum, differentiated for all learners, and the importance of using interventions as supplemental instruction for struggling learners.
What is Tier 1 Differentiated Instruction?
Tier 1 instruction is the core instruction for all students, which should be standards-based and differentiated. Differentiated is not just a buzzword here; it describes and stresses the need for instruction planning and delivery to match all students’ learning styles and needs. In order to understand these learning styles and needs, teachers should frequently collect and analyze formative and summative assessment data, learning style surveys, and qualitative data from other teachers.
Quality differentiated Tier 1 instruction won’t always meet the needs of all students. Once supplemental Tier 2 (frequently targeted support for small groups) or Tier 3 (high-intensity, individual support) is needed, it’s crucial to remember that students should never be pulled away from Tier 1 instruction. Pulling students out of the classroom will only help ensure the student is falling further behind by missing out on grade-level instruction.
As I shared before, I know firsthand how tempting it is to do this, and I’ve worked in many schools that frequently pulled students out. But I can tell you that the most successful school team I worked with avoided ever pulling students out of Tier 1 instruction. And by successful here, I mean helping students make the most progress on their state assessments, which is of course not the only measure of success.
How Can You Tell When Tier 1 Instruction Needs Revision and Improvement?
In my work at Branching Minds, I meet with districts eager to implement a strong intervention program. One of the first questions I ask is how they are ensuring that their core instruction meets their students' needs and what systems they have in place to problem solve when it’s not.
District leaders often follow state standards and spend little time strengthening their core instruction; instead, they focus on numerous interventions. Without spending this time revising, clarifying, improving, and strengthening our Tier 1 instruction, we fail to leverage our greatest tool to help students.
One of the most significant signs that Tier 1 instruction needs revision is when we see a high percentage of students needing Tier 2 or Tier 3 support. Ideally, 100% of our students should perform at grade level, as measured by nationally normed assessments. When we find this number dropping significantly, we know something is going on in our classrooms that needs to be addressed.
One crucial factor to remember here is that we live in a very different time and deal with unique challenges during this pandemic. Nationally normed assessments were not normed in a pandemic year, so we can expect our Tier 2 and Tier 3 numbers to inflate this year after the learning loss that many students experienced last year.
What Are the Main Components of a Strong Core Curriculum?
In Best Practices at Tier 1: Daily Differentiation for Effective Instruction, Secondary, Gregory, Kaufeldt, and Mattos describe the five main components of a strong core curriculum. These core components can be used to review your Tier 1 core curriculum when your data starts showing you a disproportionate percentage of students needing Tier 2 or Tier 3 support.
Essential Standards - rather than following all state standards (which are often vague and numerous), instructional teams must take the time to identify the essential standards that must be taught and how these will be introduced.
Success Criteria for Mastery - once the essential standards are identified, instructional teams must agree on what criteria will be used to determine student mastery of skills.
21st Century Skills - in addition to content knowledge, students need to navigate the world using these skills, which include communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity/innovation.
Meaningful, Relevant, and Student-Centered Instruction - Progressive, rather than traditional, instructional practices must be adopted by all teachers.
Evidence-Based Best Practices - let’s uncover some of these best practices next.
What Are Some Best Practices That Can Be Used for Tier 1 Instruction at the Secondary Level?
As we have already discussed, Tier 1 instruction must meet the needs of all. As such, it needsto be frequently revised with data and differentiated or accommodated for all students. The following best practices help teachers accomplish this:
Teacher collaboration - the power of teacher collaboration cannot be overstated. Teacher teams should collaborate while analyzing formative and summative student data to problem solve when particular elements of a robust core curriculum need to be revised.
Student-friendly objectives communicated - it is imperative to communicate essential standards rewritten as student-friendly objectives every day to secondary students.
Consistent use of differentiated instruction:
Learning centers are not just for elementary students; rotations are a powerful tool and can be used in all subject areas in high school to ensure content is delivered to match all learning styles.
Accommodations are crucial for students with learning or language needs to access the core curriculum at Tier 1.
Flexible grouping allows students to learn in different ways and settings, rather than always working with the same group.
Ongoing assessments are critical to designing a lesson that meets your students where they are.
Supporting our students in their learning involves using these best practices in the classroom while ensuring that students in need of more targeted Tier 2 or Tier 3 support receive this support supplementally. Denying students the opportunity to receive their core instruction along with their peers can have terrible long-term effects, and I wish I had understood this in my first year of teaching!
Branching Minds is an MTSS/RTI system-level education platform that brings together innovative, easy-to-use technology with the latest insights from the learning sciences to help drive student and school success while making teachers and administrators work easier and more effective. Branching Minds connects data, systems, interventions, and stakeholders so that educators, administrators, and families can work better together to support students' holistic needs.
Ms. Diaz Henderson is the Director of Customer Success at Branching Minds, where she works diligently to develop strong relationships with district partners to ensure they meet their MTSS goals. Before joining Branching Minds, Ms. Henderson had an extensive career working in education, first as an ESL and English teacher, then as an Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction, and finally as an Operations Manager. While working as an instructional leader, Katya worked closely with classroom teachers, helping them grow professionally and supporting them personally. As an operations leader, she developed experience in managing all campus operations, notably increasing her campus attendance rates and meeting campus recruitment goals. She holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin and a M. Ed. from Lamar University.