Every teacher, site leader, and district administrator has a question in common: Is what we are doing working?
We all became educators because we want to make a difference for students. For many of us today, a large portion of those efforts are focused on response to intervention (RtI) and/or multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) implementations.
But experience from my own practice and from training and consulting with districts is that not all of us are sure that RtI/MTSS is working.
Data on the efficacy of RtI/MTSS is limited, and some of the research points to RtI/MTSS being nothing more than an exercise in futility. One example is a 2015 study published by the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, in which researchers found that “first graders who received reading interventions actually did worse than virtually identical peers who did not get the more targeted assistance.”
RtI and MTSS implementations, like many other system-wide initiatives, can be an enormous undertaking. This type of system-wide change alters our mindsets, staffing, professional learning, processes, systems, and our investment priorities. The question we’re left with is: Is all of that work working?
What Does the Data Say?
Personal experience has taught me to follow the data. While the research is limited and some studies cite examples of a zero or negative effect size when implementing response to intervention, there are cases where we see evidence of RtI/MTSS efforts working.
Figure 1 displays data collected from a Wisconsin public school district over a period of time. Implementing RtI/MTSS decreased overall disability rates, decreased rates of Specific Learning Disability (SLD), and increased graduation rates.
The third column demonstrates the impact of implementing a systematic approach plus a district-wide data system in partnership with Illuminate Education, on top of their existing MTSS implementation efforts. Here, we can see more than one type of ROI: while graduation rates continue to increase and SLD rates continue to decrease, enrollment in the district increases.
A second example comes from personal experience serving as a school psychologist at an Intermediate School District in Michigan. As an early county-wide adopter of MTSS practices, we utilized a comprehensive balanced approach to assessment, provided interventions for academics and behavior, used data to inform our actions, and collaborated to drive student performance. However, for a variety of reasons (some discussed below), we weren’t able to sustain those efforts at a county-wide level. Since then, we’ve seen state test scores slowly decline.
So what can we make of this? How can RtI/MTSS seem to work in some districts and not in others? How can one district have gotten so far down the line only to fail in the end?
The answer lies in implementation.
Understanding What We’re Seeing
Let’s examine the same 2015 NCEE study we discussed earlier, in which interventions were found to have a negative impact on student learning. In that study, the authors posited the following hypotheses for why negative results were seen:
(1) False or incorrect identification of students for intervention
(2) Mismatch between reading intervention and the instructional needs of students near the cut point
(3) Poor alignment between reading intervention and core reading instruction
Similarly, Knoff, Reeves & Balow (2018) identified seven flaws in federal MTSS/RtI efforts, all of which were implementation and process related. These include: not linking assessment to intervention, missing the interdependency between academics and behavior, and establishing rigid rules on students’ access to more intensive services.
Additional ROI on MTSS/RtI
For most educators, an important measure of our own success is our students’ success–academically, behaviorally, and social-emotionally. If student outcomes improve, we see and feel success.
An effective MTSS implementation returns visibility into our processes and system-level needs, in order to help us grow and scale achieving an even higher rate of return on our collective investments. Effective MTSS implementations help us:
- Ensure effective universal supports are in place
- Administer interventions in a targeted way based on need
- Eliminate expensive programs that don’t improve student outcomes
- Discover gaps in learning and intervene
- Understand professional learning needs
- Deliver with precision
How Can I Get Started?
There’s no magic formula for making MTSS work, and even districts with years of MTSS/RtI implementation struggle with some aspects. Our experience points to two main areas to focus on to get on the right track for a successful MTSS implementation.
First, start where you are. While MTSS is, admittedly, another framework in a long line of frameworks, in many ways it’s really not so new. MTSS brings cohesion to the good work we are already doing and builds infrastructure around it. There is no wrong place to start. Document your process and scale up to the next area of focus.
Second, support your team with sustainable tools and high-impact, targeted professional learning. MTSS isn’t about “fixing kids.” MTSS is about adjusting our adult actions to better support students. This means adults making those adjustments need resources to be successful.
Just like MTSS isn’t about fixing kids, it’s also not about assigning blame or fault to our colleagues. We need the right tools, training, and support for this important work. It’s as simple as that.
What Can We Do to Make MTSS More Successful?
Our ability to monitor, support, and enhance MTSS/RtI depends on our ability to operate more efficiently and get answers when we need them at the student, school, and district levels. Here are three questions every district needs to be able to answer:
The 3 Most Important Questions for Keeping MTSS/RtI On Track
- What does each student need? There should be a one-stop shop to see everything about a student–academics, behavior, attendance, interventions, social emotional learning, student plans, and more. This should be holistic and inclusive of historic data. Correct intervention alignment requires both visibility into the whole child data core and the ability to interact with the data at a deep level.
- Are we implementing interventions with fidelity? In other words, are we doing what we say we’re doing? Are students going to their intervention when they come to school? What kind of progress are students making? How easy is it to track and communicate this information?
- Is what we are doing working? Is our Tier 1 instruction effective? Are our dollars going toward impactful interventions? Where does our staff need support?
Failing to answer these questions may lead to an unsuccessful implementation of MTSS. This, in turn, could contribute to lower state test scores, lower rates of teacher retention, an increase in social-emotional/behavioral issues, a negative impact on both student outcomes and already fragile district budgets.
Illuminate Education supports districts nationwide in their MTSS implementations. Illuminate provides interactive whole child data visualization, collaboration tools, intervention tracking, comprehensive/balanced assessment suites for academics and behavior (i.e., progress monitoring, universal screening, computer adaptive testing, formative assessment, online testing etc.) and reports specifically designed to answer these questions. Reach out today to learn more.
Balow, C. (2018, May 3). ESSA & the Pathway to Successful Implementation of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.illuminateed.com/blog/2018/05/essa-the-pathway-to-successful-implementation-of-multi-tiered-systems-of-support/
Balu, R., Zhu, P., Doolittle, F., Schiller, E., Jenkins, J., Gersten, R. (2015). Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading: United States, 2015. Retrieved from the National Center of Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance website: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20164000/
Sparks, S. D. (2015, November 6). Study: RTI Practice Falls Short of Promise. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/11/11/study-rti-practice-falls-short-of-promise.html?cmp=eml-enl-cco-mostpop&M=58681951&U=2552437&UUID=ad5575498394cf421151aa79443a2566
Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.
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