I often find myself taking a walk down memory lane and thinking back to when I was in graduate school completing my clinical hours for my M.A.T. in special education. I will never forget my excitement for learning about teaching and for understanding how to comprehensively meet all students' needs. Today, as a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) consultant, I am still experiencing that excitement daily, and I often like to take a few moments to think about how significantly processes have changed over the years to ensure all students can succeed, and why those changes are more critical now than ever.
What Is the Discrepancy Model?
Back in my grad school days, we spent a significant amount of time discussing and implementing the “discrepancy model” in the field. Traditionally, when used in education, the term “discrepancy model” refers to the process of evaluating if there is a mismatch between a child's intellectual ability and his academic achievement; which was then used to determine if a student qualified for special education services. Students would undergo cognitive, achievement testing, meet with a nurse and a social worker, and finally complete vision and hearing testing. Once all data was collected, a multidisciplinary conference was held, and if a student’s academic performance did not match his potential, AND, if vision/hearing/environment were not a factor, a student could potentially qualify for special education.
Not long after I finished graduate school, I became a special education teacher and case manager in Chicago. I worked in a school for students that were turning 15 years old but had not yet graduated 8th grade. As a result, they aged out of their elementary/middle school building and moved to a preparatory high school setting. As I became immersed in my new role, not surprisingly, my team and I encountered countless students that had somehow slipped through the system’s cracks and were still exhibiting significant delays at the age of 15.
My team and I theorized that many of our students had not exhibited significant enough delays in their early years to qualify for an evaluation, or if they had, the discrepancy model had created such log-jams with paperwork and testing, they were often missed. Moreover, since the traditional discrepancy model did not take into account the quality of the core instruction taught, we wondered if the core instruction they received had gaps contributing to significant delays in later years? We often wondered if earlier exposure to intensive intervention would have remediated gaps in their academic performance. It felt as if our students had to hit rock bottom and “academically fail” before they were evaluated to get the help they needed.
Fast forward to today, I work with district partners to implement MTSS processes, and I occasionally encounter educators that cling tightly to the discrepancy model for identifying children challenged with special needs. I am empathetic when I see their desire to keep the old model—I certainly understand that it can be overwhelming to take on new processes in teachers’ over-packed days, especially during this time of hybrid and remote learning. I completely understand that teachers have seen so many initiatives come and go that they may be reluctant to start yet another new process.
I can also understand that educators may not want to switch from current practices due to the massive amounts of paperwork they are currently completing and do not want to add more to their plate. These are all valid concerns. However, I would argue it is more critical to transition to MTSS now than it ever has been before. MTSS is a process backed by evidence-based practices for success, and takes the approach of considering and proactively supporting the whole child and his/her social-emotional well-being, attendance, behavior, community, and of course, academics. As we emerge from a year (or more) of remote or hybrid learning, I believe that considering the whole child is of the utmost importance.
What Is MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports)?
MTSS is a process of multi-tiered support that wraps around the entire student body, and begins with universal screening, in the beginning, middle, and end of year for all students. By screening all students, it easily becomes evident how core instruction is impacting most students. One can immediately see if all students are making progress with the instruction they are receiving, or if there are trends showing concern for the student body as a whole. Universal screening also allows general education students to receive support quickly as knowledge gaps are found early on. After screening students, evidence-based interventions are applied for students that are exhibiting areas of need, their progress while receiving support is frequently monitored, and data-driven decisions are made about the next steps.
Within MTSS, there are increasing levels of targeted support provided for those who are struggling, and most notably, intervention is not limited just to academic needs. As opposed to traditional models, support is applied for academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs. Consequently, before a student is ever evaluated for special education, the continuum of support to get the student “on track” has already been provided, and it has also already been determined if the interventions are working. With MTSS, the days of students slipping through the cracks year over year, should be gone and replaced with a supportive, proactive, comprehensive framework.
As students return to school and in-person (or hybrid learning), it is more important than ever to consider how students, teachers, families and the community have been impacted by the pandemic; shifting to a framework such as MTSS takes such an approach. Schools deciding to make the transition from a traditional model to MTSS understand that it will take time and thoughtful planning.
That said, there are ways to make the shift to MTSS easier and less overwhelming, allowing for all to feel the powerful experience of providing wrap-around support.
Ways to Transition from a Discrepancy Model to MTSS:
- Schools can begin by evaluating the formal and informal meetings they are currently having within their week. Determine if all meetings can instead be streamlined into one of these meeting types, and refrain from scheduling ad hoc meetings. Instead, wait for one of these meetings to cover content:
- (Meeting Type 1) Grade/Content Community Meetings facilitated by grade level/content level teams can be held monthly to create intervention group plans, identify patterns of need within the grade and/or content area, and monitor student progress.
- (Meeting Type 2) Student-Specific Support Team Meetings facilitated by teachers assigned to students with support plans, and the MTSS school leadership can be held either weekly or biweekly (depending upon student’s needs) and used to create and evaluate plans for individual students.
- Finally, (Meeting Type 3) School Leadership Meetings facilitated by leadership can be held three times a year after each benchmark screening period. These meetings should be used to evaluate tier movement, growth, and equity of tiers across the school.
- Schools can invest in universal screeners, to be given in the beginning of the year, middle of the year, and end of the year. Universal screeners also often have accompanying progress monitoring tools to support analyzing if intervention is working (or not).
- Schools can practice fidelity with their new framework, and create success metrics to ensure initiatives are being implemented and followed with consistency. This will help to reduce the learning curve for new policies and ensure a valid and impactful experience.
Transitioning to a wraparound approach such as MTSS is of the utmost importance as students emerge from remote learning to hybrid or in-person learning. Taking the time now to thoughtfully plan the shift to MTSS will help schools focus upon student’s academic, behavior and social/emotional needs as soon as they arise, as well as concentrate on the impact of COVID-19 on their entire student population. As a result of this approach, schools can emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, and confident their students will receive the support they need.