Before becoming a professional development consultant with Branching Minds, I spent 34 years in the roles of teacher, interventionist, and instructional specialist; and I’m currently supporting a school district as they continue to improve their MTSS system. My roles allow me to spend time with teachers and administrators from all over the country. And while fall has everyone drinking, eating, and smelling all things pumpkin...for those in education, this season also ushers in a time of data and stress.
With the arrival of fall comes the arrival of student scores from the Beginning of Year administration of Universal Screeners. Universal Screeners are the assessment tool for targeting students who struggle to learn when provided a scientific, evidence-based general education core curriculum (Jenkins, Hudson, & Johnson, 2007). Typically these assessments are administered three times per year during the beginning, middle, and end of year to all students.
After administering the universal screener to students, we as educators would expect/hope to see 80% of students in Tier 1, indicating that students are meeting grade-level expectations; 10% to 15% in Tier 2, indicating student performance below grade-level expectations; and 5% to 10% of students in Tier 3, indicating students are well below grade level expectations.
As I collaborate with schools In this 2021-2022 school year, I am seeing and hearing from educators that their MTSS Tier level triangle does not look like the graphic above. In many districts across the country, those perfectly distributed groups are a thing of the past.
In this post-COVID era, we are likely to see up to 50% or more of students falling into the Tier 3 category, along with less than 50% of students assessed performing at grade level in Tier 1. This leaves teachers and administrators alike scrambling to make plans to assist and accelerate student learning to close gaps while maintaining a quality core curriculum.
What to do When You Have a Flipped MTSS Triangle
After listening to Dr. David Steiner, Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Professor of Education at Johns Hopkins University and reading through the Delaware Department of Education Strategy to Accelerate Learning, I was directed to four core actions that school systems can utilize to shift the distribution of students within a tiered system of supports and close student learning gaps.
In the scrambling to rectify this data discrepancy, your first instinct may be to pull out all these students from the core classroom setting and begin remediating their instruction. Wait! Read through the following recommendations before rushing into any plan of action.
The DDOE (Delaware Department of Education), along with Dr. David Steiner from Johns Hopkins University, recommends these four core actions:
- High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM)
- Ongoing professional development and learning for Tier 1 instruction
- Balanced assessments and data leveraged to diagnose learning needs
- Create support structures to accelerate student learning
These are foundational key understandings that we shouldn’t “assume” all educators know and understand. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
1. High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM)
Dr. Steiner points to the fact that many times our first reaction regarding instructional materials to address a large number of students performing “below” grade-level expectations is to “dumb down” materials we feel are “too rigorous.” All students should have access to grade-level material, a rigorous curriculum. All students should be held accountable to high standards.
The curriculum should be vetted through sources to cite evidence of effectiveness to maintain those standards. Sites such as What Works Clearinghouse, and Evidence for ESSA are good places for you to determine whether your curriculum meets quality standards. Students must maintain where they are while filling in learning gaps.
➡️ Related Resource: Understanding Tier Patterns and Movement in MTSS
2. Ongoing Professional Development and Learning for Tier 1 Instruction
Any curriculum is only as effective as the instructor. Teachers are juggling a plethora of new initiatives and learning. To expect any teacher to know and effectively deliver an HQIM curriculum with one day of professional development is to set both the teacher and student up for failure.
By investing in programs with evidence-based professional development, we can remove another barrier that could keep our underperforming students from success within our HQIM curriculum. Invest the time and resources needed to support teacher excellence with any curriculum/programs delivered on campuses. Your students and teachers deserve every opportunity to excel and succeed.
3. Balanced Assessments and Leverage Data to Diagnose Learning Needs
Having the right data and knowledge to diagnose learning needs is crucial to shifting the distribution of students with learning tier levels. Through balanced assessments, leaders and teachers can be more aware of large and small learning trends. These assessments also lead to asking tough questions: Do teachers know where students are on key skills?
➡️ Learn more: Universal Screener Assessments vs Summative Assessments vs Progress Monitoring Assessments
The Tier Level Report on Branching Minds can help you evaluate your school’s academic and behavioral health.
The Branching Minds Tier Movement Report shows students’ movement within the Tier framework from one assessment window to the next. You can quickly see in dynamic real-time reports if progress is being made toward a more acceptable distribution of students and gauge whether Tier 1 instruction is meeting the needs of students.
This cohort report shows how students respond to instruction both relative to each other and as a whole. It also helps teachers identify students with shared needs and allows them to quickly put them into groups and create group plans, send family communications or generate intervention reports, and more.
➡️ Learn more: How to use progress monitoring data to guide decision making in an MTSS practice
4. Create Structures to Accelerate Learning
Imagine you’re at the airport. You decide to take the moving sidewalk to get to your next flight gate and just leisurely stand while the conveyor moves you along. Next to you is another traveler who, in addition to being on the conveyor, supplements this wonderful means of transportation by walking as usual.
Who will reach the goal destination first? You guessed it—the traveler who utilizes the provided means of transportation while adding additional support to move more quickly to the next destination.
In terms of learning acceleration, this means in addition to an HQIM curriculum; schools are supplementing with: high impact tutoring; acceleration academies; summer learning programs; students are on the Tier 1 instructional conveyor AND in addition, they are “walking” to “supplement” their progress. Makes sense...right?
➡️ Learn more: Recharging Core Instruction and MTSS
What Does This Mean for You?
We, as educators, cannot afford to continue with outdated approaches in response to the overwhelming needs of our students who are performing below expectations. Let’s make a plan of action:
- Analyze your curriculum and make sure you are delivering high-quality, rigorous, standards-based instruction.
- Seek out professional development, whether by requesting this from a company, watching a webinar series, or reading blog articles. Be proactive in your learning.
- Make sure you utilize the assessments available to find trends, gaps, and needs for your students.
- Supplement your core curriculum with acceleration and get your students on a quicker path to achieve grade-level success.
Let’s take some time to be strategic and make the hard, but important educational decisions to shift our Tiers right-side-up!
Interested in Learning About Branching Minds?
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 effectively. Branching Minds connects data, systems, interventions, and stakeholders so that educators, administrators, and families can work better together to support students' holistic needs.
Accelerated Learning Presentation by Dr. David Steiner for the Delaware Department of Education
Jenkins, J. R., Hudson, R. F., & Johnson, E. S. (2007). Screening for at-risk readers in a response to intervention framework. School Psychology Review, 36, 582–600.