When you ask an educator how to make sure Tier 1 curriculum and instruction are meeting the needs of all learners, their first response may be that they need new curriculum and/or professional development on instructional strategies. But will this really fix the problem?
Sometimes there is a need for new curriculum, but many schools find themselves in a cycle of bringing in something new every couple of years in vain hopes that it will increase student achievement. What if the main problem is not with the Tier 1 curriculum and instruction but instead with the systems and processes we use to deliver that curriculum and instruction?
How an Assistant Principal Used MTSS To Create Targeted Changes at Her School
When I asked Emily Castaneda, a former Assistant Principal of an elementary school in Texas, what made her school improve from a rating of a D to a B in one year and eventually to an A in five years in the middle of COVID, she didn’t refer to a piece of curriculum or a set of instructional strategies that brought about this change. Instead, she referred to a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) framework that guided the processes, which led to targeted changes in their curriculum and instruction based on students' needs.
What was so effective about her school’s MTSS framework that it increased student performance that quickly?
Emily remembers attending a Solution Tree conference about Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) when Mike Mattos was presenting. He clearly articulated what her team had found to be true of the MTSS framework at their school. Her team all turned and looked at each other in agreement. He said something to the effect of, “You can’t do RTI without PLCs, and you can’t do PLCs without RTI.”
The intentional and systematic integration of Response to Intervention (RTI) and PLCs is what made her team’s multi-tiered framework so effective. Her school envisioned MTSS as the interdependent processes of RTI and PLCs working together to support students struggling with academics and/or behavior (see figure below). When these two processes work interdependently to promote grade-level instruction, it becomes possible to meet all students' needs.
Finding the Cracks in Our Tier 1 Curriculum and Instruction Processes
I recently moved to another state and have been house-hunting for the past few months. Have you ever gone to an open house and got super excited because you knew that you finally found the perfect home? It has a beautiful kitchen, gorgeous bathrooms, and an ideal layout. Then you walk outside only to find significant cracks in the foundation from a water leak caused by that fantastic kitchen!
Every house has bright spots and spots that need a little more care and attention, and so does every school. So how do we find those cracks in our foundational curriculum and instruction to prevent them from becoming larger, whole school issues?
Emily suggested three essentials that connected the RTI and PLC processes to reveal and address Tier 1 issues:
Build leadership capacity to ensure collaborative and effective PLCs.
Strengthen trust among educators to take collective responsibility for all students.
Ensure PLCs have time structured into their day to monitor student progress and revise their instruction.
1. How Does School Leadership Build Effective PLCs?
We talk about PLCs monitoring students' progress, but do they ever monitor their own progress? At Emily’s school, they used the Professional Learning Community Organizer (PLCO) at the beginning and end of the year to measure their growth. The PLCO is a rubric that helps teams assess themselves in five dimensions of PLCs, with a rating of initiating, implementing, or sustaining. The five dimensions each team reflected on were:
Shared and Supportive Leadership
Shared Values and Vision
Collective Learning and Application
Shared Personal Practice
Supportive Conditions for Structures and Relationships
This tool can provide a roadmap for each PLC in your school to reflect on the past, present, and future as they support the foundational curriculum and instruction for their students. School leaders are crucial in structuring the culture that provides PLCs with the guidance they need to have critical conversations around the five dimensions of PLCs listed in the PLCO. With guidance from strong building leadership, they can help each PLC create a shared vision that guides teaching and learning to ensure not even one student falls through the cracks.
2. How Do You Build Trust Among Educators To Take Collective Responsibility for Students?
The PLCO is an excellent tool to help shift teachers' mindsets regarding collective responsibility and sharing their practice. However, how do we change the belief that a one-teacher, one-classroom model is the best way to instruct students? The Next Education Workforce proposes three systematic shifts that can change educators' mindsets and how we design our workforce:
Build teams of educators to wrap around an entire roster of students, not just one classroom
Distribute the expertise of educators so they can specialize in the areas they excel.
Develop collective responsibility to foster deeper and personalized learning for all students
The one-classroom one-teacher model sets teachers up as the sole source expected to meet all the needs of students in their classrooms, leading to frustration and burnout. Taking collective responsibility for an entire grade level of students allows teachers to metaphorically (and later, literally) bring down the walls between classrooms and share data and instructional practices with each other.
Changing educators' mindsets from these are MY students to these are OUR students helps educators distribute their expertise to meet ALL students’ needs. Replacing the pronoun MY with OUR is not an easy shift. It takes intentional leadership to guide a team toward collective responsibility where expertise is shared, and practice is distributed.
3. How Do Teams of Educators Modify Instruction Based on Assessment Results?
As the school site leadership team builds PLCs and the educators begin to take collective responsibility for all the learners on their team, it is important to create supportive conditions that ensure the necessary time for collaboration and relationship building.
Structuring time into the master schedule for teachers to review data and make instructional decisions is essential to ensuring Tier 1 instruction is solid. Teachers need time to create common formative assessments, analyze the results of those assessments, and make instructional decisions about how to modify their teaching strategies based on the data. Teachers also need time to meet with each other outside of the classroom to determine a plan to help students with learning challenges.
As educators look across an entire grade level or several grade levels, they start to see patterns that reveal those cracks in the foundational or Tier 1 curriculum. This is why it is essential to have Standing Members of your RTI team who attend all RTI meetings and look for patterns among grade levels where there seem to be too many students in intervention demonstrating the same needs.
For example, Emily was one of the Standing Members of her school’s RTI team. In her first year at the school, the RTI team noticed several kindergarten, 1st-grade, and 2nd-grade students who were all struggling with phonemic awareness. The Standing Members of the RTI team looked deeper into the Tier 1 curriculum for phonemic awareness and the instructional strategies teachers were using. They discovered a deficit in both areas and started researching solutions with the teachers during PLCs.
Leaning on the distributed expertise of their teachers, a previous preschool teacher had a solution that seemed to meet the curriculum and instructional needs. A couple of months later, the school purchased the Heggerty Phonemic Awareness Curriculum, with embedded instructional strategies. After several months with these new strategies and resources, they saw a decline in students who needed Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions for phonemic awareness.
Finding this problem was possible because educators took collective responsibility for their students and could see patterns as they looked at the data of a shared roster of students. Finding the solution to this problem was possible because educators could tap into other educators' distributed expertise and fill in the cracks in their foundational Tier 1 instruction.
Valerie has been in education for 26 years including 6 years as a teacher in elementary and middle school and 5 years as an instructional coach in the areas of Reading, English Language Development, RTI, and MTSS. Dr. Parsons started her journey as an educational administrator 15 years ago as a coordinator at the district office in professional learning, curriculum and instruction, and health education. For the past 8 years, she has served as an Assistant Principal and Principal where she worked in Title I schools and developed systems and structures for an MTSS framework that showed growth in student achievement. Dr. Parsons analyzed data for her dissertation from pre-existing data before and after the implementation of her MTSS framework. The data showed statistically significant results in Reading achievement.
Dr. Parsons is dedicated to helping districts and schools achieve success in student learning by building systems and structures that support an effective MTSS framework. She believes the effective use of data, through Branching Minds’ technology, supports the work of teachers and administrators to make learning equitable for ALL students.