Equity often seems like a lofty idea, and complicated to achieve. How do we make sure that schools are set up to meet every student where they are and provide the support they need to succeed? When it comes to actually addressing equity, the application is the hardest part. This is where a Multi-Tiered System of Supports comes in. The MTSS framework makes it possible to meet the needs of students and practically, intentionally close those learning gaps.
Donna Cross, the MTSS administrator in Evanston Skokie School District, says, “MTSS is equity with its work boots on.” Donna was kind enough to be the first guest on Branching Minds’ Podcast and shared how she sees educational inequities addressed by using MTSS within a school and district.
MTSS Is Everything
In this episode, Donna shared how the MTSS model applies to all aspects of education, especially when it comes to solving problems.
“If you come at everything from a lens of looking at information, looking at data, identifying and diagnosing a problem, trying something out, with the cycle of inquiry, and the problem-solving cycle, you can literally solve any problem with the same process.”
Equity in education means that the field has been leveled, and every student receives appropriate access to learning. We know that not every student is the same, bringing the same skills or prior knowledge to the classroom, but we can make sure that barriers are removed, and that they can access the support they need to be successful. MTSS makes equity possible within a school.
One Teacher Is Not Enough
An essential aspect of MTSS is the collective work that a team does in solving a problem. When taking stock of the available resources, it is not about factoring time and money but also the skills and time of those on your team. Like many new educators, Donna was overwhelmed by her students' needs, but she worked hard to help provide the help that her students needed.
“That collectivist approach is definitely the most important. I stood in the classroom, no matter how many years I've been teaching, I realized I'm not enough. I'm actually can't do this by myself. I, I can't reach the needs of all of my students completely by myself.”
It’s challenging to accomplish growth for students when there is no structure or system at the school level or no collaborative system to help. MTSS offers a transformative system that builds collaborative teams to support students and meet their needs. This also helps teachers feel supported in their work and can help with the teacher burnout that plagues education.
The Impact of Early Intervention
In Donna’s teaching career, she spent a period of time teaching in a men’s prison, working with those wanting to pursue higher education. She taught College Algebra and Composition to a group of men of all ages and levels. Many of her students had struggled in school or dropped out. Unable to use technology or specialized programs, she had to lean into the core of MTSS and really work to identify how her students learned best and meet them where they were at their level, creating relevancy for them in their learning.
“I had one student stay behind for a few minutes and say, “Listen, honestly, like no one's ever explained this to me. No one's ever really taught me in this way. And I feel like, if I would've had this when I was growing up, I probably wouldn't ended up here.”
A core aspect of supporting students through MTSS is using data to understand student needs and making a plan for helping those students. Technology has made that easier in many ways, but with a system-level approach, early intervention and identification of student needs will provide teachers with insight into how to support them. For some students, early intervention prevents future problems. The work of MTSS can save lives — providing a brighter future and helping students learn how to self-advocate and understand their strengths and weaknesses.
Impact of MTSS
Even though the work of MTSS begins at a higher level with changing systems and structures, the impact at the student level matters the most. When students are supported and reach their goals, their futures change. Stories like Donna’s are a reminder that the heavy lifting of systems-level organization and change makes a difference in students' lives, in the classroom, and beyond.
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Larissa Napolitan is the Digital Content Creator for Branching Minds and the host of Branching Minds' podcast "Schoolin' Around." As a former middle school English teacher and instructional coach, she has over 13 years of experience building systems for improvement, training and coaching teachers in new technology and instructional methods, and leading efforts to build curriculum and literacy initiatives. She holds Masters's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and Education Administration from Emporia State University. Not only is she passionate about using her experience and academic knowledge, but loves to use her writing and voice to make a broader impact on education, teachers, and students.