“The most promising strategy for sustained, substantive, school improvement is building the capacity of school personnel to function as a school community.” - Milbrey McLaughlin
I spent 10 years as a principal and Chief Academic Officer for a K-12 school network. Over that time, I implemented dozens of new initiatives for my schools, all aimed at improving the outcomes for our students.
Of course, with each new initiative I rolled out, my goal was to improve my schools. However, at first, I often spent a lot of time planning to start a given initiative without spending too much time thinking through all of the details of how I would keep the initiative going and continue to support all members of my team to meet the outcomes of that initiative. At times this leads to staff feeling burned out and frustrated.
No school leader, including me, intends their staff to feel this way about a new initiative. Yet so often, we end up in this place. If Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) processes work the way we intend, they can positively impact the entire student body.
MTSS Is Designed To Support All Students
At its core, MTSS is a system designed to support all students in your building and ensure they get the support they need. This article will help you think about how to approach implementing MTSS in a way that builds trust with your team vs. ending up with “yet another initiative that loses steam before it even begins…”
With effective implementation, you can build additional capacity in your team even with the challenges of limited professional development time and staff shortages so many schools now face.
What Are the Components of MTSS?
There are several critical components to an effective MTSS system:
Differentiated, data-driven core instruction
Differentiated, data-driven core instruction is provided to all students. Suppose the core instruction is not meeting the needs of 15% (or more) of the population. In that case, we need to ask:
Are we using Tier 1 curriculum with fidelity?
Are we tailoring Tier 1 curriculum to meet students’ learning strengths?
Are we effectively using whole group, small group, and individualized instruction?
Evaluate the Current State of Your MTSS Implementation and Make a Plan
Once you have kicked off MTSS in your building it can be tempting to move on to other things. After all, there is no shortage of important priorities and fires to put out in every school and district. However, like all systems, MTSS won’t run on autopilot without time and attention. If your MTSS system is not something you consistently come back to and evaluate the places where it’s getting the intended outcomes and the places where it’s not, you run the risk of MTSS becoming yet another initiative that comes and goes.
Set your priorities
If you are new to implementing many of these structures, this may mean only prioritizing one or two things at a time. If you have many new initiatives and programs happening on your campus, you might also need to limit how much you try to take on at one time.
Set goals for the end of the year and
Determine what success implementing MTSS would look like at the end of the year.
Determine how you will know you’re making progress during the year by establishing benchmarks.
Establish a training and support calendar
Based on your priorities, determine the training and support your team will need to implement.
Plan out a yearly calendar that identifies when the professional learning will happen.
Ensure that there’s support for the MTSS team, teachers, and leaders. This support could be additional support, observation, or one on one coaching.
Determine how you will gather feedback on this plan from the team. This could look many different ways, including
Sending your plan out and hosting optional times for team members to come to share feedback if they have any
Sending out the plan and providing a staff survey
Establish a cadence of communication with all stakeholders about your MTSS plan. This should include both initial communication and how you will communicate ongoing progress.
Establish Accountability for Team Members
Often, there can be a negative connotation associated with the word “accountability.” Many people think you hold someone accountable when they’ve done something wrong. In this context, what we mean by accountability is helping someone meet the mutually agreed-upon commitments.
This is why it’s so important to set clear expectations. Accountability is challenging if everyone is not on the same page about expectations from the start.
Once you know your plan and have collected feedback on the plan, the next step is thinking through what that means in terms of expectations for various team members. For example, let's say your first priority is around creating student support plans.
Here are two different expectations you could communicate:
Example A: Create Reading support plans for students who need them.
Example B: Create Reading support plans for all students in need of Tier 2 support. Plans need to have:
A SMART goal
A research-based intervention
Progress Monitoring tool
Plans should be updated every six weeks and logged in X system
You could imagine the outcome if you shared only Example A. Teachers would likely do all sorts of things, leading to frustration and confusion for the whole team. If Example B was communicated, there is more clarity for the group regarding:
What needs to happen
Who needs to do it
Where they need to do it
Once you have created and communicated clear expectations, it’s essential to invest the team. Specifically, this means asking your team to meet these expectations and buy into them. The trick is genuinely being open to them saying no or raising real concerns. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you would change the expectation, but it would let you know where there is resistance and how to troubleshoot with your team.
After you have communicated your expectations and invested in the team, it’s critical to figure out how to support them so that they have the knowledge and skills to meet the expectations. This means determining:
What new knowledge or skills will team members need to be taught, and when will that happen?
What will ongoing support look like for this knowledge and skills?
Given the challenges of limited professional development time and staff shortages so many now face, how can you build additional capacity?
In Conclusion: All Leaders Begin With a Goal to Improve
“...the longer teachers and leaders have been working in their school, the more they have seen initiatives come and go and begin to lose faith in the process, so the initiative, whether it’s good or bad, loses steam before it even begins." (source)
All leaders begin school initiatives with the goal of improving their school. We also know that oftentimes initiatives can fall by the wayside due to any number of factors. By thinking critically about what your school needs, seeking your team's input, establishing true clarity at the start, and adjusting along the way, you can ensure your MTSS implementation leads to real change for your students and families.
Branching Minds offers a variety of professional learning opportunities for states, districts, and schools to ensure instructional leaders, specialists, coaches, and teachers are able to implement RTI/MTSS as well as the BRM platform with fidelity and maximizes educators’ efforts to accelerate learning for all students.
Lindsay has over 18 years of experience in education and school leadership. She was the founding middle school principal of Coney Island Prep in Brooklyn, NY. She became the Chief Academic Officer and Chief of Schools of Coney Island Prep, overseeing the launch and support of a network of three schools serving over 1,000 students. Before her work at Coney Island Prep, Lindsay was Managing Director of Institute for Teach for America in the New York/Philadelphia region, overseeing the training for 600 new teachers, and she served as a TFA corps member in Newark Public Schools. Lindsay has a B.A. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin and M.A. in School Leadership from Montclair State University.