“Our teachers come together to meet about students’ needs regularly, at the individual student level—we just don’t have a way to come together as district leadership and meet about the system needs at the systems level. We don’t have the data or the structures to do that proactive pattern matching so that we could have bigger more positive impacts on improving student outcomes earlier.”
What is the Difference between Systems-Level and Student-Level Work in MTSS?
The insight above was recently shared with me by a district administrator in Florida who was looking to improve their MTSS practice. Similar observations have been shared with me many times before. The most common component of MTSS that schools and districts implement is the student-level problem solving meeting. In almost every school that employs an MTSS model you will find a team of teachers who come together to understand why a student is struggling, what has been done to support the student, and what should be done moving forward. This collaborative problem-solving work at the student-level is critical for student success and effective MTSS, but it is all too often stymied by an absence of systems-level problem-solving that establishes the infrastructure upon which any student-level support can be provided. After all, as the name of the acronym suggests, it is the system that the model is based on and the foundation for student-level problem-solving.
Why Does the Systems-Level Lens Matter Now More than Ever?
The layered and negative impact of COVID-19 on student learning is still being evaluated. However, it is safe to assume that students who have historically struggled from lack of experience or less opportunity for support will have likely suffered further —they will have regressed academically, socially, and behaviorally since last winter, while their support needs have only continued to grow. Before the pandemic, educators struggled to find the time needed to adequately problem-solve for each student in need. With the increased number of students requiring that level of intervention and support, it is even more critical for school and district leaders to adopt a systems-level focus and approach to support students and their educators.
There are simply too many students and too few resources to take a one by one approach and we have to find efficiency and hopefully synergy by building a system that finds common problems and solves the problem with the most efficient effort/expenditure - for all those affected.
How Can Schools and Districts Understand the Health of their MTSS?
Quite often districts and schools are missing a way to assess and improve on their MTSS system-level health. The Branching Minds team works with districts to help institute what we call a “School Leadership Meeting.” This meeting is conducted three times a year following the administration of universal screening assessments. This meeting typically includes the principal, data specialists (e.g., AP or counselor), student service/instructional service representatives, special education representatives/teachers, and grade-level representatives in larger schools or general education teacher representatives in smaller schools.
The goal of this meeting is to understand the health of school-level RTI/MTSS practice by looking at the percent of students who are adequately being served by the core curriculum, the equity of instruction across demographics, grades, and classrooms, and improvement in student outcome measures since the last meeting. These metrics are used to evaluate the quality of practice across tier 1, 2, and 3 levels of support and guide school-level improvement plans.
The School Leadership Meeting is designed to help MTSS leadership teams ask, reflect on, and leverage data to problem-solve the answers to these six system-level questions:
Is the core curriculum supporting 80% of students (i.e., are 80% of students on grade level)? If not, take a deeper dive into the schools, grade levels, content areas, and classrooms to evaluate the quality of the intended curriculum, the resources, and delivery of instruction.
Is the core curriculum supporting students equitably, across demographics, schools, grades, and classrooms? If the answer is no, take a deeper dive into the schools and grade levels to evaluate the cultural responsiveness of the core.
Are students progressing and do we see healthy tier movement? With healthy support at each tier, more students should be moving down in tiered support intensity than up. If not (i.e., there is greater movement up than down), take a closer look into the schools, grades, and tier levels to evaluate the quality of the interventions provided.
Are students progressing equitably? If not, evaluate the demographic breakdown of students being supported at the tier 2 and 3 level as well as the quality of interventions to identify any disproportionality or biases in how students are being supported.
Are evidence-based interventions being delivered with fidelity? If not, drill down to schools, grades, and topic levels to see if there are particular areas of concern, potentially with particular interventions. Determine whether educators need additional support implementing certain programs or practices.
Are efficiencies being found through creating small groups for intervention work? If not, how can we use current assessment data to form specific "skill based" small groups to lessen the number of plans to be written, student support meetings to hold, and more kids served with the same amount of time?
Research and best practice in MTSS points to the importance of problem-solving across multiple levels. Systems-level problem-solving is an essential foundation to any MTSS/RTI model and provides the support for teams of educators to come together to meet the needs of individual students.
How Does Branching Minds Help Schools and Districts to Improve their MTSS Systems-Level Work?
The Branching Minds’ vision is to be the most impactful national K12 school district solution for achieving high-fidelity RTI/MTSS; consistently demonstrating our ability to save teachers time, improve student outcomes, and eliminate the racial achievement gap. Improving system-level infrastructure is a critical first step to enhancing best practices across any school district’s RTI/MTSS practice. We work with districts through our Infrastructure Coaching to provide them with the tools and professional development needed to advance their system to the next level.
The Branching Minds Infrastructure Coaching work starts with a comprehensive, baseline report of the assets and deficits of the intervention system at each school and across the district. We then collaborate with the MTSS district leadership team to create actionable and achievable recommendations for improvement for each area of need. Our team provides professional development and coaching to communicate the value of, and to create the systems for, implementing and continuing an effective RTI/MTSS practice. If needed, we then continue to provide expertise and guidance throughout the creation of an RTI/MTSS Handbook that records the district’s unique structures and protocols.
Branching Minds is a highly respected K-12 services and technology company that leverages the learning sciences and technology to help districts effectively personalize learning through enhancements to their MTSS/RTI practice. Having worked with hundreds of districts across the country, we bring deep expertise in learning sciences, data management and analysis, software design, coaching, and collaboration. Combined with our extensive toolkit of resources, PD, and technology, we provide a system-level solution. We are more than a service or a software provider, we are partners who will deliver sustainable results for educators, and a path to success for every learner.