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ESSA & the Pathway to Successful Implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

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May 3rd, 2018

The Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA) was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015. In the two years since passage, state departments of education and school districts are in the process of gearing up for implementation.

The new law includes a number of specific provisions to help ensure success for all students and schools. The law allows districts discretion for developing, implementing, and evaluating effective school and schooling processes. In this article, we will explore the impact of law with regards to multi-tiered system of supports (mtss) and the steps that school districts can take to ensure successful implementation.

The Requirements of ESSA

Particularly germane to our current discussion are several requirements in the ESSA legislation that will require districts to engage in a variety of best practices. Specifically, districts must:

  • Provide: “for a multi-tier system of supports for literacy services.” As well as for specific groups of students such as at at-risk, disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, underperforming, or consistently unsuccessful students”
  • Provide: “a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making”
  • Institute: “Positive behavioral support systems”
  • Provide: “Services, programs, strategies, and interventions to ensure that students with disabilities, with developmental delays, who are English learners, and who are struggling with literacy can meet the challenging State academic standards”

Relative to multi-tiered systems of support, it is significant that the term “response-to-intervention” (or RtI) or any of its derivatives never appears in the new ESSA bill (Knoff, Reeves & Balow 2018). Additionally, “multi-tiered system of supports”—which appears just a few times in the law, is always listed in lowercase letters rather than capital letters (i.e., MTSS). This clearly indicates that the MTSS framework advocated by OSEP is not mandated by federal law which allows states and districts to implement their own models of multi-tiered systems of support.

Robust multi-tiered services also should include social, emotional, and behavioral performance. The use of “positive behavioral intervention and supports” is mentioned three times in the law but is not defined. Like multi-tiered systems of supports, Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS in capital letters) never appears in the law and clearly indicates districts are not required to implement the OSEP PBIS framework.

The Flaws of Federal MTSS & RtI Efforts

A number of federal reports have demonstrated that the federal RtI and MTSS frameworks have not been successful (e.g., Balu, Zhu, Doolittle, Schiller, Jenkins, & Gersten, 2015). The question is why have well-meaning efforts not resulted in improved student outcomes? Knoff,, (2018) outlined seven flaws in these federal MTSS/RtI efforts. They are listed below. (For a detailed review of the underlying aspects of these flaws you can access this article in its’ entirety):

  • Flaw 1: Missing the Interdependency between Academics and Behavior
  • Flaw 2: Missing the Continuum of Instruction
  • Flaw 3: Avoiding Diagnostic or Functional Assessment until it is Too Late
  • Flaw 4: Not Linking Assessment to Intervention
  • Flaw 5: Focusing on Progress Monitoring rather than on Strategic Instruction or Intervention Approaches
  • Flaw 6: Establishing Rigid Rules on Student’s Access to More Intensive Services
  • Flaw 7: Setting a “Price” on Access to Multidisciplinary Consultation

These seven flaws from the national and state perspective have been exacerbated by one very important weakness in local school districts…inadequate multiple organizational and foundational systems to deliver on the promise of multi-tiered systems of support. Specifically, these inadequate systems fall under these 3 general categories:

1. Lack of a “comprehensive balanced assessment system.” Most districts are using some type of assessment approach to support universal screening of academic performance on an annual basis but a high percentage do not have in place the other critical components that comprise a robust assessment program.

A comprehensive balanced assessment program will include valid and reliable tools that are applied strategically in five assessment domains: universal screening (computer-adaptive and/or curriculum-based measurements), progress monitoring, standards-based interim assessments and diagnostic assessments. The specific tools will necessarily vary by grade level and should be delivered in literacy and math.

Districts typically have arrived at a place where they have continued to add multiple assessment programs without regard to data quality and proper application of the “right tool for right job.” For example, some school districts are using Lexile scores as a metric for literacy growth, which is not a valid use of this measure. Additionally, there are often clear gaps where no data is available on student attainment with early numeracy and math skills of our K-2 students being the most glaring example.

2. Inadequate assessment of social, emotional and behavioral (SEB) competencies and mental health screening. Districts as a general rule have not approached the assessment SEB as they have academics within an MTSS mindset (e.g., universal screening, intervention systems, progress monitoring), oftentimes askewing early identification procedures.

3. Lack of or inadequate software systems that do not support these critical MTSS infrastructure components:
a. Student performance in an accessible format that supports the work of student intervention teams (SIT or similar team) in terms of early identification screening, early warning and progress monitoring data.
b. Triangulation of data to understand the interdependency of academic, behavioral, social, health and attendance factors.
c. Deeply analyzing student behavior incidents across multiple domains such as locations, times, classrooms and responses to the infractions.
d. Documentation and purpose-driven forms to support a research-based problem-solving approach that underlies root cause analysis and leads more effective intervention design.
e. Analyzing and documenting intervention integrity and fidelity.
f. Creating meeting agendas and task notifications.
g. Analyzing programs to determine efficacy.

Key Practices to Include in MTSS Re-Design

The National Association of School Psychologists has published a position paper outlining several essential practices to help achieve the promise of MTSS and ESSA. We have added other key practices to address these systemic flaws and organizational limitations:

Practice 1 – Effective, coordinated use of data that informs instruction, student and school outcomes, and school accountability. Schools collect, integrate, and interpret relevant data that capture the most important indicators of key outcomes at the student- and system-level.

Practice 2 – Purchase and maintain a formative assessment software system to help deliver on Practice 1. Standards-based formative, interim, summative and diagnostic assessments linked to standards grading and report cards. These systems will drive the work for PLC’s in their on-going instructional decision-making cycle.

Practice 3 – Purchase and maintain a comprehensive data software system to help deliver on Practice 1 and MTSS infrastructure. Data Visualization, problem-solving intervention design system, program evaluation, student learning objectives (SLO’s), behavioral analysis, data walls and meetings management.

Practice 4 – Implement a quality universal screening and progress monitoring assessment software platform. Computer-adaptive assessments with built-in curriculum-based measurement assessment and progress monitoring capabilities to deliver key aspects of a comprehensive balanced assessment system.

Practice 5 – Comprehensive, rigorous curricula provided to ALL students: All students have access to a rigorous, culturally-responsive, high-quality balanced curriculum and high expectations for achievement. Schools also teach and hold students accountable for critical life skills such as social-emotional competency, self-control, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.

Practice 6 – Effective coordination of services across systems and within schools. Schools provide regular opportunities for peer-to-peer consultation focused on problem solving, assessment, and intervention among teachers, principals, and other specialized instructional support personnel. Schools also commit to increasing family engagement and supportive relationships between students and caring adults within the school and the community.

Practice 7 – Provision of evidence-based comprehensive learning supports. Resources, strategies, and practices that provide the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual supports that directly address barriers to learning and teaching, and that re-engage disconnected students.

Practice 8 – Integration of comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services into learning supports. Access to school-based mental health services, particularly when embedded within an MTSS framework, is linked to improved students’ physical and psychological safety and reduces costly negative outcomes such as risky behaviors, disciplinary incidents, delinquency, dropout, substance abuse, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

Practice 9 – Integration of school climate and safety efforts into school improvement efforts. Schools enable teachers’ ability to teach and students’ ability to learn when we ensure that all students: (a) come to school feeling safe, welcomed, and respected; (b) have a trusting relationship with at least one adult in the school; (c) understand clear academic and behavioral expectations; and (d) see their role as positive members of the school community.

Practice 10 – Provision of high-quality, relevant professional development. All school staff have access to continuous job-embedded professional development that improves their capacity to address the unique needs of the school community and its students. Districts should consider engaging experts in mtss to guide a successful implementation. These professional services should be of a long-term nature as all the necessary components will possibly take several years to implement.

ESSA legislation and its mandate to implement a multi-tiered system of supports holds great promise to positively impact student outcomes. Flaws in federal and state mtss systems of the past can be overcome by systematically instituting the 10 essential practices outlined above.

Would you like to read A Multi-Tiered Service & Support Implementation Blueprint for Schools & DistrictsYou can access the full article here.


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