3 Steps to Success With MTSS

Administrators face challenges when it comes to guiding schoolwide processes, including multi-tier systems of support.
By Skip Kumm, et al.
Communicator
March 2019, Volume 42, Issue 7

For more than a decade, schools have been implementing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to provide both schoolwide and targeted academic interventions. At its core, MTSS is a data-based decision-making process that allows teachers to efficiently identify struggling students and modify academic instruction to meet their needs.

Because of its wide use, it is imperative that administrators know what teachers need to make MTSS a successful enterprise. To learn more about teachers’ experiences at their schools with the MTSS process, we interviewed teachers from 18 urban, low-income, K-8 schools in a large metropolitan area in the Midwest. This study revealed common themes across participants. Here’s a deeper look.

1. Clear and Consistent Process

What teachers said. When teachers were asked to identify challenges associated with their school’s MTSS process, they most commonly identified a lack of clarity and consistency, both throughout the year and from one school year to the next. Teachers felt that frequent changes left them confused with the MTSS process and their roles within it.

Specifically, many teachers did not know how the data were used to transition students from one tier to another or who was using the data to make those decisions. Teachers also said that year-to-year changes meant many students had to restart the MTSS process every year, even if they knew targeted interventions had a positive impact the previous year.

Teacher recommendations. To address these challenges, it is important administrators provide clear communication and include teachers in the decision-making process to select and implement evidence-based practices. Although all administrators want to identify problems and try to change practices to meet those perceived problems, giving teachers a chance to continue to work through a system for more than one academic year might help them work through issues.

Teachers will also tend to have more buy-in and support attempting new processes and procedures if their voices are heard and included in decisions. This is especially true for administrators who are new to a school and want to put their spin on such an important school-wide process. In some cases, all that is needed is an adjustment to the current intervention instead of a new intervention.

2. Time and Knowledge

What teachers said. More than ever, school resources and teachers’ time are spread thin. As a result, many teachers indicated they felt their professional development related to MTSS was inadequate. Teachers felt that professional development was general and process-oriented, rather than focusing on learning about specific interventions and services they can use with their students.

For instance, several teachers mentioned not knowing what Tier II interventions were or how they differed from Tier III. Other teachers stated they received only a brief professional development before their school year started and they did not have any additional professional development throughout the year when changes to the MTSS process were made.

Even when teachers said they had adequate training, they often shared they did not have enough time in the day to implement what was expected of them. Due to their insufficient training and busy schedule when the school year begins, teachers often said they felt as if school-wide changes would occur without proper communication and they would have to learn about the changes through casual conversations with their colleagues.

Teacher recommendations. Administrators should take training into consideration and plan for intentional professional development, which addresses students’ needs and teachers’ concerns. There are many systems and processes that can be put in place to provide support without placing a financial strain on a school’s budget. School administrators can work with their school’s MTSS experts to develop teacher-led MTSS professional developments, create data-collection tools specific to their school and share them electronically, and provide a digital or physical space for teachers to access MTSS information, specifically if changes are made.

Literature states that Tier II interventions should be standardized within a school, and it is more effective for a school to have one or two strategies that can deliver with fidelity than to have a multitude of interventions. Most importantly, administrators can provide every teacher with adequate meeting time to work in groups to review data and modify interventions to meet the needs of every student.

3. Intensifying Academic Interventions

What teachers said. Teachers often mentioned the transition process from Tier II to Tier III as the biggest challenge for their school. Teachers described frustration with not receiving training on how to intensify interventions and not having access to more intensive interventions. Many thought Tier II small group instruction was beneficial for students requiring extra assistance, but their school either did not have a transition process in place to determine when a struggling student should be transitioned to Tier III or, due to a lack of knowledge and resources, their school did not have a Tier III at all. However, many teachers thought their school was better prepared to intensify reading interventions but stated that their school did not offer MTSS for math. 

Teacher recommendations. To ensure the transition process is implemented with fidelity, administrators need to have clear communication and expectations with the team and other teachers to develop and clearly lay out a plan. The most important aspects should be a uniform method for collecting data, continuous progress monitoring, and regular decision points for transition.

Administrators need to work with teachers to determine the most efficient allocation of school resources to ensure consistent and effective delivery of intensive interventions. Administrators can regularly check in and support teachers delivering intensive interventions for students with the most severe and persistent needs.           

Next Steps

All of the variables at play in any given district make school-wide initiatives inherently complicated, and MTSS is not immune to those obstacles. As an administrator, it can be frustrating to see a lack of success from what was created as a solidly implemented plan. As teachers are the ones who implement the initiatives, it is crucial to seek their input and incorporate it into the planning process.

To set teachers and students up for success, it is important to address their sources of frustration and incorporate safeguards that maintain teacher buy-in and ensure that what is being asked of them is feasible and straightforward. Providing teachers with training in a clear MTSS model that remains consistent, communicating any changes to that model promptly to all staff, and guaranteeing scheduling that allows for the expectations of interventions will increase the fidelity of MTSS structures.

Skip Kumm, Gina Braun, Christerralyn Brown, Samantha Walte, Marie Tejero Hughes, and Daniel Maggin are faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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