5 Strategies for Implementing MTSS at the Secondary Level

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March 5th, 2020

As we’ve noted in previous blogs, MTSS is a framework with a tiered infrastructure that uses data to help match academic, social-emotional, and behavioral assessment and instructional resources to each and every student’s needs. But despite the passion and dedication of educators, the work of supporting each and every student’s needs presents an indisputable logistical challenge. And those challenges are even greater for those working at the secondary level.

In secondary settings, educators are teaching hundreds of students each day, often in 6 back-to-back classes. They’re doing course placement gymnastics to enable credit attainment while honoring student voice and choice. They’re also supporting students with a heightened number of possible social-emotional, behavioral, and academic struggles.

As a district-wide MTSS coordinator and secondary math teacher, I felt these challenges deeply. And the trouble with having so many demands regarding schedules—credit attainment, college-readiness, graduation eligibility, etc.—is that we sometimes start to think of course placement as our MTSS system for secondary students.

In this blog, we’ll unpack why course placement really can’t take the place of a MTSS system—even for secondary students—and provide 5 strategies for making MTSS work at the secondary level.

Why can’t course placement “be” MTSS?

If a student enters 9th grade without mastering 8th grade math standards, we might place that student in a remedial math class. While this might be an appropriate instructional decision in some cases, doing so in and of itself does not constitute implementing MTSS. Why is that?

It pertains to the difference between standards and skills. Standards are the specific, hierarchical learning goals expected of all learners in a given grade, grade range, or area of study. Think of standards as the road students are driving along. Skills are the abilities needed in order to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. Think of skills as the foundation under the road that allows for smooth travel; with too many missing skills (holes in the foundation), it’s hard to navigate the road smoothly. 

Standards are provided by high-quality standards-based curriculum and instruction; skills can be “filled in” by providing targeted interventions. Grade-level standards are due to each and every student. Interventions are due to students who struggle with the skills needed to master those standards or need additional challenge

At secondary, just as in primary, each student needs to receive instruction based on their grade-level standards. While putting a student in a remedial math class might be needed in some situations, it also poses two issues:

  • First, it sometimes takes students out of the classes that are providing the grade-level standards they should be receiving
  • Second, it doesn’t allow room for them to get any actual intervention (addressing a missing underlying skill), due to the fact that their schedules are now filled up with courses. 

Many, many of the challenges we face in implementing MTSS at the secondary comes down to this very struggle: we have students with a variety of needs, but we also have complexities, obligations, and limitations due to schedules, time, and resources. So, what can we do?

Here are a few strategies we used in my district that you might be able to adapt or adopt in your own district.

Strategies for Implementing MTSS at Secondary

1) Build flexible time into the master schedule (Tier 2 and Tier 3).

While moving kids in and out of courses isn’t itself an intervention (e.g., it doesn’t help build a missing skill), our schedules can indeed help us unlock time we can dedicate to an intervention.

One strategy is to build a flexible period into student schedules to allow for an intervention to take place. Some districts refer to this as “WIN Time,” or “What I Need Time.” Here, students aren’t assigned to a classroom teacher—they’re assigned to a certain intervention. You might have a teacher focusing on the skill of factoring. Students who currently struggle with factoring would go to that teacher during WIN Time until they’ve mastered that skill, at which point they can move to another skill, if needed.  Students who do not need remedial intervention for skills are assigned to an enrichment program during their WIN Time block.

By secondary school, the number of skills that students may be missing can be very high. This can make it extremely confusing to know where to start. There might be two approaches:

  • Isolate the skills missing by the largest number of students.
  • Isolate the skills that underlie the priority standards–even just the top five priority standards. If you aren’t sure which those should be, try asking the teachers in the following grade level which five standards would be most impactful for students’ success in the coming year.

2) Combine formative assessment and differentiated, standards-based instruction in the core classes (Tier 1).

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this, but here is what we did in my district. We started by isolating a class for which our Tier 1 efforts were showing to be ineffective—in our case, Algebra 2. Literally hundreds of students were failing the course. We knew something had to be done at the universal level to ensure the vast majority of students could succeed in Algebra 2.

First, we adjusted our scope and sequence for instruction to tightly align to standards, and then aligned our assessments accordingly. Each class period was devoted to a particular standard or part of a standard. Each class had a beginning-, middle-, and end-of-class formative check to quickly determine where students were in relation to mastering that standard. We decided how many questions on that formative check a student had to get correct in order to be ready to move on (we settled on 2 out of 3 questions). After the lesson was taught, students were divided into two groups. The students who got two or three questions correct would move on to an enrichment activity about that same standard (as opposed to moving on to a new standard). The students who got less than two questions correct would work through a remedial exercise as a group.

As a teacher, it meant that I had one standard to focus on per day and only two groups of students that I could move between to offer support to—as opposed to having various groups of students at various places on various standards. Every single student ended the year having received instruction on the necessary set of standards, and every class period allowed for some amount of differentiation.

While it wasn’t a perfect process and required considerable preparation, it also didn’t require additional funding, programming, or much training. More importantly, we saw immediate, significant increases in students’ outcomes.

Students had to pass every standard in order to pass Algebra 2, and with our universal intervention in place, the initial passing rate skyrocketed. Students who didn’t pass came back for summer school to focus on the standards that they hadn’t yet mastered. At the end, only two students failed the course. Proficiency on the state standards assessment increased by over 10% as well.

3) Use your universal data to identify universal issues (Tier 1). 

This strategy was embedded in Strategy #2, but it’s worth noting specifically. Use the data you have to find trends in Tier 1 needs. The example above highlights failure rates. The fact that so many students were failing Algebra 2—at a rate significantly higher than other courses—was a huge red flag that something was just not working for that particular course.

You can also look at your behavior data, social-emotional screeners, attendance data, and school climate surveys to identify areas where a large percentage of students are not responding to our current efforts. This is data-driven decision-making: we are using our data to identify areas of need in our universal efforts. 

4) Use an early warning system (EWS) to monitor whole child data.

As any teacher knows, academic success can be impacted by a multitude of non-academic factors—the number and complexity of which only increases for secondary students.

Collecting social-emotional learning, behavior, and attendance data is important for identifying Tier 1 trends, but it’s also important for early identification of individual student needs. Attendance and behavior data can be excellent early indicators that a student is struggling. The challenge comes in a) being able to monitor those data as they change minute by minute for perhaps thousands of students, and b) having the processes in place to take the right next step at the right time. That’s where an EWS comes in.

Quality EWS’ can be set to look at whole child data—social-emotional, survey, behavior, attendance, intervention—in addition to academics. Just as importantly, they also allow you to build in the next steps. Should a counselor be notified? Should the principal call a parent? Should a student plan be initiated? 

Our data can be so powerful, but we need visibility into them in the moment. An EWS can help secondary schools overcome the challenge of having so much complex data for so many students in order to enable impactful intervention at the time it’s needed.

5) Create a multi-year plan, start with ‘why,’ and support teachers at every step.

Here are some ideas for the logistics of your implementation:

  • Develop your implementation plan. I suggest considering a 2-year plan. In the first year, focus on creating your plan for each course (instructional materials, scope and sequence by standard, evaluating your assessments) and introducing teachers to the flexible intervention blocks, the new scope and sequence, etc. In the second year, begin implementing the changes. In your planning, be sure to determine how you will evaluate your successes at the end of the year in order to continually adjust to better support students.
  • Support the mindset. For some districts, this type of approach can be a big shift in data culture. If there is not a clear connection to how this work supports student success and well-being, it will only compound existing frustrations. Provide PD to teachers about the impact of the approaches you’re taking on student outcomes and the support that teachers will be provided as the team grows together.
  • Create resources. Consider making a bank of instructional resources for teachers to reference on the fly for students who are struggling with a concept (so they can adapt their instruction to the situation at hand). Provide suggested activities for students in the enrichment group as well. 
  • Use high-quality data tools. Use a formative assessment platform that provides immediate results and high-quality distractor rationales. Use an EWS with easy-to-understand reporting and that connects to intervention tracking and student plan forms.
  • Use your PLCs. If possible, bring teachers who teach the same subject into the same PLC, in order to streamline training and materials dissemination as well as provide a forum to share challenges and successful instructional strategies. 

Are you using other strategies to implement MTSS at the secondary level? Leave a comment below to share what’s working—and where you’re facing challenges. 

To learn more about MTSS, download our MTSS Essentials: Data-Informed Decisions to Support Each Student eBook.

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