Educators are painfully familiar with having their work and priorities shifted at the will of new legislation and policies. State board educations establish state standards, federal and state policies guide requirements, and local district leadership establishes procedures for what and how teachers are required to teach. It's up to principals and campus instructional leaders to be a bridge for the teachers in understanding the purpose and rationale behind these policies and how they align with or influence your school goals.
When I think of the word "culture," I equate it with traditions and success that live on forever through generations, celebrated, embodied, embraced, and most definitely something to be proud of. A standard definition of "cultured" is to be characterized by refined taste, manners, and good education.
Throughout my work as a teacher and then for years in educational technology, eventually, as the Vice President of Customer Success in the education division for a Fortune 500 education company, I lived and breathed education pilots and implementations for many years. I would find myself debriefing with my colleagues daily, discussing how we could improve pilots and implementations around the country. During these years, I trained my team, primarily comprised of former classroom teachers, to look deeply at each district’s and school’s protocols utilized during implementation.
As administrators and educational leaders, our intention is always to create and carry out well-developed goals for the upcoming year. We don’t just want to provide opportunities for our staff; we want to engage them, support them, and challenge them while still focusing on equity and accountability.
The internet is full of digital tools, software, and programs specifically designed to support student learning. A quick Google search for a reading program will supply hundreds of links to programs promising “fast results” and “academic success.”
Teaching during the pandemic has been hard. I italicized that because hard doesn’t fully capture the extent of difficulty and challenge our educators have faced in these past two years. Even before the pandemic, teaching was hard. It’s a profession guaranteeing long hours, draining days, traditionally low pay, and the constant questioning of “Am I helping my students?”
A robust and continuous MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) program has been proven to lead to more positive school environments, more robust core instruction, and effective interventions. However, getting the cart rolling and everyone on board is not an easy task.
To many, hearing the words “MTSS implementation” sounds like a lot of paperwork and meetings—with a high probability of failure. As most veteran teachers can validate, new education initiatives come and go, often not lasting any longer than the time it took to put them in place.
This doesn’t have to be the case. By carefully planning for the change of instituting MTSS, districts and schools can ensure that this initiative doesn’t meet the short and sad fate of many before it.
Change methods, or change models, are evidence-based approaches to instituting change at an organizational level. When used with fidelity they provide a clear guide that allows organizations to walk through a change process while remaining equitable and cognizant of the needs of their stakeholders and staff. Change methods also enable organizations to look at instituting MTSS through systems-level processes, stepping back from individual roles to evaluate and plan for a change at an entire school or district level.
While many of these methods exist, one of the most predominant and well-researched is Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change (Kotter 1996). When placed into an education framework, Kotter’s method lays out a clear outline and plan for the district’s implementing MTSS.
Below, we’ve outlined each step of Kotter’s process as it would align with an MTSS adoption.
Starting a new initiative at the district or school level can be incredibly difficult. In Kotter’s extensive study of organizations and new initiatives, he determined that over 50% of organizations fail at this implementation stage (Kotter 1996). Organizations that lacked a clear vision and failed to demonstrate the need for a new system were unable to maintain motivation for the trajectory of their adopted system. How leadership handles the adoption of MTSS sets the tone for the rest of the entire implementation process.
When introducing MTSS, it’s imperative that leadership sets a tone of urgency. Why is MTSS necessary? What problems are schools currently facing that MTSS can help with? How is the current system failing to address the "red flags" of the education process? These questions need to be clearly communicated for all stakeholders at the very start of instituting MTSS.
By connecting MTSS to the school or district's vision and mission, there is immediate buy-in for the necessity of a new initiative. In this early stage, it’s also helpful to access resources that clearly show the value of MTSS and why adoption is essential.
➡️ Learn More: Leadership and the System-Level Work in MTSS
Once a district or school has decided to institute MTSS, the next step is to create a team to guide the adoption process. This is the MTSS team, and it should include individuals from various positions, tenure, and skillsets.
The goal of this team is to pre-address problems that might arise during the adoption of MTSS. They are the leaders of the adoption phase, tasked with preparing data, communicating with staff, and analyzing options pertinent to MTSS adoption (such as selecting an MTSS Software).
This team can also begin to handle more specific questions that will need to be addressed during implementation. They will need to communicate with district IT departments to answer data-related questions when selecting an MTSS software.
This team will also organize information on staffing requirements, necessary budget adjustments, and an implementation timeline. Remember, this team is the MTSS leaders, and each member should have a specific role and expertise in the process. An excellent resource for this team is our article on Leadership During Change and for Continuous Improvement.
From the blueprint set forth by the MTSS team, districts and school leaders can then begin to form a strategic vision that clarifies the goals and expectations of instituting MTSS. Under Kotter’s Method, this vision should be communicable, desirable, have a clear verbal picture, be flexible, feasible, imaginable, and simple.
This vision should clearly communicate how MTSS will lead to a different future than the current reality within the education sphere. Leaders can pull from the research and evidence utilized in the first stage when the rationale for MTSS adoption was created.
➡️ Related Resource: Infrastructural Alignment for MTSS
The MTSS team will begin to identify clear initiatives of targeted and coordinated activities that will make the vision a reality from the vision stage. These initiatives are pulled from the strategies and questions analyzed in the previous step, such as specific software adoption or budgeting considerations.
For 2021-2022, Branching Minds has created our MTSS Mobilization Framework for 2021-2022 to help in facilitating and identifying these initiatives. This step-by-step, year-by-year guide is an excellent resource in creating a clear vision, shared language, and aligned initiatives throughout the MTSS implementation process. Schools and districts can also access our MTSS Buy-in and Mobilization Guide to provide further information and guidance.
Once a district or school has created a clear vision and framework in instituting MTSS, the next step is to bring on an army of volunteers to move the initiative forward. Kotter’s Method shows that change can only occur when a substantial portion of an organization is brought in to facilitate the process of change adoption. Kotter’s model argues that between 15-50% of a district or school will need to be included at this stage to continue the momentum with positive acceptance (Kotter 1996).
This larger group of individuals should include teachers, counselors, administrators, school psychologists, MTSS coordinators, and special education professionals. The role of this group is to combat the initiative fatigue of the education staff by actively communicating action steps and the rationale for MTSS adoption.
By including many stakeholders in the MTSS adoption, school and district leadership allow for consistent and open feedback. This is essential when instituting MTSS, as all staff members will be important in facilitating an MTSS program. At this stage, it’s also important to clearly communicate how MTSS will benefit the school, community, and staff members. This is not just another addition to the already full plate of a teacher.
If adopting an MTSS software to aid in instituting MTSS, proper training and professional development for your volunteer army will need to occur. Branching Minds offer a variety of professional development training for our partner schools to help in this process.
As MTSS adoption moves forward, it’s vital that leadership takes a moment to identify potential barriers that could be met in the final stages. This includes analyzing how past initiatives have failed and receiving feedback from current staff about the current implementation process. It may be helpful to incorporate an anonymous survey for school staff members, so the MTSS leaders can target issues before they derail the process.
When considering how past initiatives have failed, it’s important to complete a root cause analysis. What is the problem? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Our Guide to Solving the Top Four MTSS Challenges can be a valuable resource in identifying these potential barriers and creating proactive steps to utilize during the change process. If the school or district utilizes an MTSS Software, such as Branching Minds, it’s also important to consider which data rostering method will support the MTSS practice.
As MTSS implementation moves forward, collecting, categorizing, and communicating wins with all stakeholders is essential. The Kotter Method defines wins as relevant, meaningful, tangible, and replicable.
At this stage, more staff will need to be brought into the process and trained in MTSS. This maintains momentum and includes more stakeholders, which validates the continuous feedback process, which is vital to implementation success. Small wins to celebrate may include hitting particular milestones in staff onboarding or in reaching a certain percentage of satisfaction ratings in staff feedback forms.
➡️ Related Resource: Benefits of and Strategies for Teacher Collaboration In & Outside of MTSS
When moving forward, schools and districts will need to maintain momentum as they fully onboard all staff members in MTSS, including professional development training necessary in mastering an MTSS software.
During these final stages, it’s imperative communication and feedback remain consistent. As more staff members are brought on board, there may be more friction and resistance to instituting MTSS. Maintaining and communicating a clear vision can help ease resistance and frustration that is naturally present during change.
By focusing on the positives gained from MTSS adoption, staff members may be more receptive to the additional workload required during initial implementation. Communication should stress that MTSS is not just something extra being added to an already hectic year—but an avenue to efficiency and fidelity in delivering the best instructional and intervention practices to all of our students.
➡️ Related Resource: MTSS Requires Capacity Building
At the final stage of the Kotter Method, a school or district will take the last steps to institute MTSS fully. School teams should be given specific goals and schedules to maintain trajectory and track goals as the rollout begins. These teams include the local MTSS teams at each school level and department and content teams tracking individual student progress.
The focus should be on bringing MTSS fully into the culture of a school, where it does not exist as an external part but as an integrated path to student success and instructional fidelity. A plan should be developed to address training of new staff hires and ongoing professional development opportunities, so MTSS continues to be naturally integrated in the years to come.
When considering the Kotter Method as an avenue for instituting MTSS, it's important to remember that each stage is important. While it may be tempting to skip over a step or combine steps, Kotter’s research on accelerating change shows that skipping over steps is a primary driver which leads to initiatives failing (Kotter 2012).
At the start, schools and districts can utilize the staff and resources they already have in place to help evaluate their current system and organize the change necessary to address problems plaguing their process.
By taking the time to carefully consider each step of Kotter’s Method and accounting for an open feedback system throughout this process, educational leaders can ensure successful MTSS implementation—leading to a stronger school environment that benefits staff, students, and our communities.
Principals across the nation work hard to provide the best education and leadership possible. “Effective principals work relentlessly to improve achievement by focusing on the quality of instruction. They help define and promote high expectations; they tackle teacher isolation and fragmented effort; and they connect directly with teachers and the classroom.”*
As busy educators, it’s hard to find time to read, let alone sift through the thousands of different resources available, to get the most out of the reading time we do have. At Branching Minds, we try to stay as current as possible with the literature and best practices in the field, so you don’t have to. We compiled a list of what we believe to be the most useful books for your MTSS practice. What’s even better: all of these books are relatively quick to read, include many case studies or real-life examples, and are easily broken down by chapter. If you can’t read a whole book at once, narrowing it down to one component can be easily done with these resources. We love these books and hope you find one in the list below that will be helpful to you.
For reference to key MTSS terms, check out this blog: Demystifying the MTSS Mystery.
“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. ”
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.