When I was a teacher, I would sometimes compare teaching to hosting a dinner party. And as the host, I always want to cook the easiest meal so that when my guests are at my home, I can engage with them.
About six years into my career as a special educator, I attended a child’s study meeting. In this meeting, my 9th-grade student's mother encouraged the team to focus on the student's executive functioning.
Executive functioning? I remember thinking. What is that? I didn’t even know if we taught executive functioning, let alone how to begin supporting it.
The three-tiered support structure of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) provides efficient and effective support for all students. This support begins at the core level, also known as Tier 1. At Tier 1, all students receive differentiated instruction that is scaffolded with research-based learning supports, tailored to meet the needs of all students.
I have spent the better part of the last decade providing targeted support to schools, educators, and students requesting advice on improving engagement at their Tier 1 level. Through this experience, I have re-engaged students who are re-entering school after hiatus, coached teachers who faced chronic absenteeism, and helped schools develop infrastructures to support better staff, community, and student engagement.
As lifelong educators, my co-author and I have experienced a combined 50, yes 50 years in education! Spring semesters, planning, reviewing middle-of-year data, and targeting support before the final bell rings for summer. No matter what role we have held, including teacher, administrator, instructional coach, our instinctual goal was to ensure at least one year’s growth for every student.
With COVID-19 and all of its impacts still looming, we again find ourselves faced with an end-of-year deadline and, as always, evaluating student growth. Longstanding academic inequities continue to creep into our schools and classrooms as many students fall further and further behind meeting grade-level standards.
And who’s most at-risk for falling behind? Recent data suggests that our underperforming students are racially and ethnically diverse, are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and have individualized education programs (IEPs) (Methodology Studies - Achievement Gaps | NAEP). With the best intentions, after a thorough middle-of-year data review, our initial instinct is to group students to focus on remediating foundational skills only to risk excluding them from grade-level content instruction.
➡️ Related Resource: Best Practices on Interpreting Student Assessment Data in MTSS
What if, instead of focusing on growth for every student (which potentially may be grade levels below), we focus on grade-level proficiency or bust for every student? Instead of focusing on identifying the gaps and moving backward to fill them, we accelerate our core instruction by strategically curating the grade-level standards-based instruction. That way, the student can spend time and attention on identified targeted skills to prepare for upcoming learning. Student outcomes change when accelerated instruction replaces traditional remediation strategies alone.
With traditional remediation, students identified as needing additional support typically receive intervention for skill gaps that may have little or nothing to do with the current, on-grade level material and/or instruction.
While it is certainly important to "backfill" for learning gaps, when that remediation is not closely aligned to what the student needs right now to be successful with current grade-level material, the student will only slip further behind. In contrast, acceleration provides immediate access to end-of-year expectations by strategically identifying prior years’ learning and learning gaps, AND providing just-in-time support along the way.
➡️ Related Resource: Selecting the Right Interventions to Boost Accelerated Learning
Considering our classrooms’ significant and diverse needs in 2022 and beyond, we can layer the strategies and principles of accelerated instruction as an equitable multi-tiered systems solution that ensures our Tier 1 core instruction is fluid, dynamic, responsive, and matches our diverse students’ needs. But, before we can jump into how to accelerate, let’s answer the first question that comes to mind…what exactly is differentiated core Tier 1 instruction, and what is acceleration?
School leaders and teachers have a tendency to rush to implement behavior or academic interventions plans for struggling students, without first taking the time to problem solve why students are struggling in the first place. I witnessed this firsthand in my nearly ten years as a high school assistant principal.
As a first-year high school teacher, it was almost instinctual to pull a struggling learner (often an English Language Learner or a student well below grade level) out of the classroom and work with them individually. Wasn’t this one-on-one attention precisely what this student needed? Wasn’t I helping them by teaching them at their level? They didn’t have to sit through a lesson feeling lost and frustrated, and I didn’t have to worry about them feeling lost in this environment. Instead, I could work with them individually and get them caught up.
While I intended to help, I did not realize I was causing more harm than good, which was evident by my student’s lack of progress by the end of the year. At the time, I didn’t understand the importance of a strong, frequently revised Tier 1 curriculum, differentiated for all learners, and the importance of using interventions as supplemental instruction for struggling learners.
In these stressful times of seeing more struggling students in need of Tier 2 and Tier 3 support, it's easy to glance over Tier 1 needs by thinking they are sufficient. Often times an overview of the data will lead us to believe this common thought, however skimming over Tier 1 data is causing us to miss key red flags that push our numbers of Tier 2 and Tier 3 even higher.
We can address this concern with some “Best Practices” and procedures built into how we meet the needs of all our students. Utilizing data and applying differentiated practices are two critical components to success with all of our students.
Students who are meeting or exceeding standards may require enrichment beyond the core to demonstrate academic growth. It is the school’s responsibility to ensure that all students make academic progress regardless of their entry-level. The Branching Minds Support Library contains learning activities that may be used as early as Tier 1, as teachers design differentiated instruction for individual or small groups of students. Below are some examples from the Branching Minds Support Library:
As we move into the final stretch of one of the most challenging school years in our history, teachers and students might be noticing a decline in stamina. No matter the learning context (remote, in-person, or hybrid) keeping students engaged in learning at this point in the year is a common challenge. Although numerous teaching obstacles remain, there are several small but significant things that schools and teachers can do to boost and maintain student engagement.
Below we take a deeper dive into what student engagement really is and why it is so important. Then we discuss some practical approaches for keeping students interested and involved in lessons, activities, and discussions.
When it comes to improving students’ understanding of math skills and concepts, it is essential for them to feel a sense of efficacy, motivation, and engagement with the material. One way to ensure this is by implementing methods that not only help students solve the problem in front of them but also develop cognitive skills to solve more difficult and complex problems independently.