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    Equity MTSS Practice

    As we round the corner to almost two years of school disruption due to COVID-19, we continue to see the growing impact on our school-wide population; staff, students, and communities. The far-reaching consequences have yet to be seen; inequities in access to resources, quality instructional materials, and current technology have been magnified. 

    It’s no secret that these are challenging times for all educators and our students. Our most vulnerable populations have fallen the furthest behind due to school disruptions (NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps, n.d.). We have an opportunity to make a difference right NOW in all of our students' lives by addressing and resolving disproportionality within our systems, becoming stewards of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. 

    My co-author and I are both former school leaders and Branching Minds consultants. We support system-wide equity initiatives and tackle challenges related to disproportionality and disparities within our schools. We work hard to help schools support the mantra that ALL truly means ALL students receive support through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). So, let’s begin—grab your data and get ready to bring disproportionality to the light of day. We’ll provide critical examples of leveraging your MTSS problem-solving to address disproportionality and create equity.

    What Is Disproportionality in Education or Within a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)?

    Disproportionality within your schoolwide data exists when membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific ability category (NASP). Legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) 2015 have defined disproportionality and increased the necessity for schools to create responsive systems to ensure student learning. 

    Our perseverance to improve our instruction and intervention systems has allowed our students to experience improved normed and standardized test scores. Graduation rates continue to rise, drop-out rates are decreasing, and we watch more and more students enter college than ever before. But, a spotlight is cast on the lack of representation of students from vulnerable and historically disinvested communities experiencing these successes.

    Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)A Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is a comprehensive systematic problem-solving approach for providing early and targeted support to students in academic and non-academic areas at increasing intensity or tiers of instruction. Through MTSS we can utilize data-based decision-making to ensure we are providing equitable access and opportunities to all students.

    MTSS GUIDE: Everything you need to know about the Multi-Tiered System of Supports and how to implement it successfully


    How Do We Bring Disproportionality to the Light of Day?

    In other words, how do we identify disproportionate data? With more data at our fingertips than ever before, it can be confusing to delve into the treasure trove of data within MTSS. So we’ve narrowed it down to the most critical disproportional look-fors or red flags. 

    1. Overrepresentation in Special Education Programs

    Historically, students from specific racial, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic groups have higher representation in special education programs. MTSS and Special Education are not synonymous and have, unfortunately, been loosely conflated over time. Because of this misconception, we must monitor that our MTSS practice is not becoming a pathway to special education; rather a proactive and responsive system to students’ needs. 

    To identify overrepresentation in special education within your MTSS processes, be sure to calculate the number of students referred to special education regularly, monitor their tier movement, and response to instruction and intervention. During your school-level MTSS meetings, you can carefully observe how often students who receive tiered intervention are placed in special education programs. You can complete a deeper dive into the root cause for referral to special education and problem-solve to create or revise support plans. 


    2. Underrepresentation in the Creation of Support Plans 

    Disproportionate data isn’t always a result of overrepresentation. Disproportionalities can also be due to the under-representation of student groups having equitable access to supplemental resources such as tiered support. This may occur due to scheduling, grouping, or setting lower expectations for specific student groups. By screening your student needs and identifying students that indicate a need for a support plan based on universal screener data regularly, you can ensure that all students receive targeted or intensive support as the needs arise.

    Ensure you ask yourself and your teams, “Where and how do we provide equitable support access for all students?” It’s essential to assess the students’ progress after receiving Tier 2 interventions and assess any patterns that may need to be addressed through Tier 1 or Tier 2 instruction and intervention changes.

    ➡️ Related resource: How to Create an Equitable Tier 1 in MTSS Through Accelerated Core Instruction

    3. Overrepresentation in Tiering Patterns of Students Demonstrating a Need for Tier 2 or Tier 3 Interventions and Supports 

    MTSS pyramid

    Within MTSS, our goal is to ensure that 100% of our students are provided with Tier 1 quality core instruction, understanding that about 15-20% of our students will need additional support to master their benchmark; this is known as the 80-15-5 triangle. Previously, Dr. Essie Sutton, Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds, described tiering patterns that you should assess. According to Dr. Sutton, here are the best places to start when digging for disproportionality in your data:

    • Flipped Pyramid
      Ask yourself: “Do I have a large percentage of students identified as needing Tier 2 and Tier 3 support; greater than 15% to 20% of my population?” If you drew a representation to match your data, would it look like your triangle was flipped so that it was heaviest at Tier 3 needs or more students demonstrating Tier 2 needs? When this happens, it highlights that our core instruction is not supporting our students and our vulnerable populations become more at risk. This may occur because your core instruction is not meeting the needs of your population.

      Core instruction should be designed and differentiated to support your students’ needs based on screener data; this means core instructional practices, strategies, and curriculum may vary from school to school, district to district. It’s crucial to identify this trend, saving time and resources.

      ➡️ Related resource: How to Respond to an Upside Down MTSS Tiered Triangle

    • Students Moving up in Tier Level
      Interventions and support plans should move students toward independence and success. Monitor your data for all patterns of tier movement. Look at the number of students with higher levels of needs after receiving interventions; this may mean that the quality or fidelity of interventions is lacking. Within tier movement, assess that your interventions support vulnerable groups at the same rate as their peers.

      If you find that vulnerable populations respond less to Tier 2 interventions and consistently need intensified support, address these trends by revising your support plans, intervention selections, group size, or dosage of the intervention, or even consider implementation fidelity.
    • Demographic Differences Under the Surface Disproportionalities
      Your data may represent the 80-15-5 model or something close to this. However, it’s crucial to interrogate your triangle within your tiers for vulnerable populations regardless of meeting the criteria for 80-15-5. It’s vital to be sure that your core instruction supports ALL students; and that all students receive responsive support and interventions.

      ➡️ Related resource: A Quick Review of MTSS Supports, Interventions, and Accommodations

    IDEA provides a calculation to monitor disproportionality within schools and districts (Office of Special Education Programs, 2017). Let’s take a look at a simple example of calculating disproportionality.

    Establish the specific group you want to monitor. In this case, we ask: Are Black or African American students more likely to receive a logged behavior incident than other populations?

    There are 30 Black or African American Students who have a logged behavior incident in a school system out of a total of 100 Black or African American students in the school system.

    30 / 100 = 0.3

    This represents the likelihood that a Black or African American student will receive a logged behavior incident.

    Establish how often all other groups receive a logged behavior incident to create your comparison group.

    There are 100 non-Black or African American Students who have a logged behavior incident in a school system out of 1000 non-Black or African American students in the school system.

    100 / 1000 = 0.1

    This represents the likelihood that a non-Black or African American student will receive a logged behavior incident.


    In this particular school system, Black or African American students are 3.0 times more likely to receive a logged behavior incident than all other student groups.

    0.3 / 0.1 = 3

    This compares the relative risk of an event among one group with the risk among all other groups within the school system.

    **This calculation is derived from IDEA Part B methodology considering disproportionality in special education identification and has been furthered in Indicators 4a. And 4b.; disproportionality and over-representation of out-of-school suspensions for Students with Disabilities.

    Disproportionate data is a red flag, a warning indicator, that our practices or system is not supporting all of our students. When we uncover this red flag, dig deeper to identify the root cause and ensure we make adjustments to our practice.

    How Do We Make a Difference When We are Faced with Disproportionate Data?      

    Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)Identifying disproportionate data is an excellent start in ensuring your MTSS practice is equitably serving your students. So what do we do when we identify disproportionate data? Our goal is to identify the root cause and take action. With the students at the center of our decision-making, we must ensure a complete support system that wraps around our students. We’ve organized the best practices for addressing disproportionate data into three essential categories in making long-term changes to your MTSS. 

    • Address Your Master Schedule 
      • It has been said that “[the master schedule] reveals the true beliefs, attitudes, values, and priorities of the school. It is the window to the soul of the school,” (McCart & Miller, 2020). Disproportionalities exist within our systems when students are not provided with the tools or access to succeed. Identify your needs, identify your resources, and ensure your goals align with your schedule. As a leader, understand that your master schedule is not a static structure but a variable that can change in response to students’ needs. 
      • Developing a flexible, student-centered master schedule can be daunting. With an equitable MTSS; engineer your schedule by answering the following questions (McCart & Miller):
        • What do you want for your students?
        • What are your students’ needs?
        • What is your reality, i.e., what monetary, personnel, curricular, etc., resources are available?
        • What are your strengths?
    Then, align your strengths with your students’ needs. 
    You must also be sure to create a physically, socially, and emotionally welcoming environment. Promote a campus climate that supports all students by implementing a Positive Behavior Support System (PBS). PBS is an evidence-based strategy that provides a framework for educators to create effective educational environments that are positive, predictable, and safe. Back to our visual, our role and impact on our students’ lives extend beyond academic instruction. Since our students all have various backgrounds, we must create an environment where every student understands and can actively enjoy and participate in their education.

    Be thoughtful that your structural set-up promotes equitable access; for example, refrain from identifying wings or floors for specific student groups to integrate and encourage high achievement across campus. 

    • Consistently Assess Equity Within Tier Movement and Be Deliberate About Ensuring All Means All Within Your MTSS
      • Remove labels that reinforce lower expectations. Seeds are planted when we identify students as lazy, underperforming, low-achieving, bad, even hyper. We begin to develop perceptions of students with whom we associate these labels; these perceptions spread like wildfire to our colleagues, other students, and the labeled student. 
      • Labeling students with these descriptors prevents us from employing data-based decision-making when problem-solving students’ diverse needs; instead, we focus on our perceptions. Labeling students, formally or informally, place barriers between the student and their learning.
      • Teachers do not communicate high expectations consistently with students who have perceptions of low achievement (Smith et al. 2019). Understand that labels influence our actions as educators and our student’s identity and agency. Though this may be discouraging, use it as a catalyst to break the cycle. Teacher expectations are one of the highest predictors of student achievement; what a testimony of the power and impact of a teacher!
      • The only way to address disproportionality is to bring it to light. Use a non-colorblind approach to monitor student data. This means becoming comfortable addressing and speaking to student groups and their specific data, specifically vulnerable groups like racially and culturally diverse, special education students, and English Learners. Ask yourself, “Do we consider this acceptable performance for ALL students?”

    ➡️ On-Demand Webinar: Improving the Equity in Personalized Learning through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Approach

    Branching Minds - Blog Quotes -  Bringing Disproportionality into the Light of Day to Make a Difference Through MTSS

    Final Thoughts 

    Ultimately, disproportionalities impact our schoolwide equity goals to expand educational opportunity and improve student outcomes ensuring that all students are provided the academic and social tools to reach their potential regardless of social or cultural factors. As leaders, we are gatekeepers to ensure that our most vulnerable students have documented evidence-based interventions and supports, combined with access to high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials and practices. 

    We can support ALL of our students, through MTSS, by using our data to create a solid infrastructure of support redesigned for equity. Our true challenge is identifying disproportionality and providing deliberate support to our students to ensure sustained growth and acceleration.


    Disproportionality in Education. National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity-and-social-justice/disproportionality 

    Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) | U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://www.ed.gov/essa?src=rn 

    McCart, A., & Miller, D. (2020). Leading equity-based Mtss for all students. Corwin. 

    Methodology studies - achievement gaps: NAEP. Methodology Studies - Achievement Gaps | NAEP. (n.d.). Retrieved December 31, 2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/gaps/ 

    NAEP dashboards - achievement gaps. The Nation's Report Card. (n.d.). Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/dashboards/achievement_gaps.aspx 

    Office of Special Education Programs | Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services | U.S. Department of Education. (2017, March). Idea part B regulations significant disproportionality. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/significant-disproportionality-qa-03-08-17-2.pdf  

    Simon, C. (2021, July 19). How Covid taught America about inequity in Education. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved January 29, 2022, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/07/how-covid-taught-america-about-inequity-in-education/

    Smith, D., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Removing Labels, Grades K-12: 40 Techniques to Disrupt Negative Expectations About Students and Schools. Sage Publications.

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