Service to Country, Community, and Children

alphabet class conceptual cube
Photo by Pixabay on



I’m a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and a former Air Force pilot (I flew C-141s, now-mothballed, but in its day amongst the most durable of cargo aircraft). Not a day goes by when I don’t feel immense pride in serving my country. My good friends who gave their lives, or who now live as disabled veterans, are likewise constantly on my mind. One thing’s for sure: I gained as much from serving alongside the finest women and men in the world in the US Air Force as my country gained from my service.


Nearly every time an education colleague learns of my prior military service I’m asked the same question: “How did you go from flying in the Air Force to teaching, to being a principal, to serving at the district office? That seems like a strange transition to make.”


I understand the question, but the answer is quite simple.


I feel called to serve, whether that service is to country, community, or children.


Education is the most important endeavor in the world. The impacts of increases in learning are profound. Improvements in knowledge and problem solving skills can empower children growing up in difficult situations to break the cycles of poverty. Improvements in literacies can empower nations to take reclaim their destinies.


So what’s the purpose of this post?


Simply this: I beg you to consider that while service to country is the most noble of commitments, service to community and to children is equally noble.


Teaching, and the education profession, is a commitment. The preparation, the discipline, and the sacrifices involved in service to country in the military have parallels in service to students. And the need is as great. Change the trajectories of children’s lives and we will change the world. It will be a safer world, a healthier world, and a happier world.


Honor teachers, and if you are a teacher, feel honored that your service is amongst the most valued and valuable in any society.


8 common sense approaches to evolving schools

building ceiling classroom daylight
Photo by Pixabay on\


We have been lucky to be teachers, senior district-level administrators, and most rewardingly, principals of schools serving vulnerable students – schools that had worked very hard but that had not yet experienced successes with historically underserved students and communities. For example, we led an incredible school in southern California, Richard Henry Dana Elementary. The school had made virtually no student achievement gains, as measured by state assessments, in four years. Less than twenty percent of students were scoring proficient and advanced on these assessments and the gap between the highest and lowest achievers was vast. Three years later (with no additional monies and the same staff, students, or curricular resources), nearly four times as many students were scoring proficient and advanced and the school had been named a Title 1 Achieving School, a California Distinguished School, and a National Blue Ribbon School. No students were scoring in the lowest achievement band, proficient students were increasingly scoring advanced, and the gap between the highest and lowest achieving students was cut by a factor of four.



Let us help evolve your district. Check out Mr. Elmer at 

Our approach was simple:

  1. We screened students frequently – not to label them or justify their underperformance, but to identify students who needed immediate, intensive, and targeted interventions in addition to (not instead of) core instruction.
  2. We provided these interventions and students responded – their deficits in foundational skills were ameliorated and their mastery of grade level priorities improved.
  3. We had frequent and multiple measures to validate this effectiveness, and as noted, end-of-the-year, high-stakes assessments confirmed these gains.
  4. We embraced the “teach less, learn more” approach to core instruction. We focused on depth, not breadth; on mastery, not coverage.
  5. We acknowledged that not all students would master core priorities at the same rate or in response to the same first, best instruction, and so we proactively and regularly provided more time and alternative supports for all students to reach greater levels of mastery.
  6. We vigilantly checked to ensure students were responding to core instruction and targeted interventions, and when they weren’t, we made timely and focused adjustments.
  7. We supported teachers by providing high quality professional learning in differentiated instruction, learning models, high leverage strategies, and collaborative practices.
  8. Most importantly, we expected – we firmly believed – that learning for ALL was inevitable; we just needed to determine the right approach. We supported students based on their needs, not a label (English learner, specific learning disability); staff supported students based on the staff members’ availabilities and expertise, not their job title or funding source. We have replicated these successes across large school districts; hundreds of our colleagues around the world have had similar successes.

We have written over a dozen books, chapters, and articles describing these experiences and have collaborated with thousands of fellow educators, face-to-face and virtually, in our ongoing commitment to improve teaching and learning. Success at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School, and at the dozens of other schools and districts in which we have served, was the result of organized systems of supports, in addition, of cultures of belief and high expectations. These systems can be scaled and replicated; they have been.

Collaborative systems of support cannot be and should not be solely defined by bell schedules, programs, interventionists, assessments, cut-points, or tiers. Instead, our version and vision of collaborative systems of support is defined by attitudes of excellence, collaborative problem-solving, and the requisite, collective actions on behalf of students. Systems are not rigid. As we have written previously, a system is not a noun, it’s a verb. It might be hard, understandably hard, to capture these “verb” variables in a research study, but the processes and practices they represent have been validated by research (Hattie, 2009; 2012).

One of the keys to improving schools is to ensure teachers know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria for all their students, and know where to go next in light of the gap between students’ current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria; this can be maximized in a safe and collaborative environment where teacher talk to each other about teaching.

Hattie, 2009, p. 239

Structures and systems are critical, and for the record, we’re geeks about them. Collaborative systems work when they become the foundation of a school’s culture. These systems include:

  • Teaching and learning to mastery and depth of behavioral and academic priorities for all (often known as Tier 1)
  • Timely and targeted supports for greater levels student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities…so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind) and so students can reach greater depths of understanding (often known as Tier 2)
  • Highly individualized supports to meet students’ at, and nudge them from, their zones of proximal development – intensive supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills AND opportunities for students to dive deep into a passion (often known as Tier 3)

Collaborative systems of support and the related sets of principle and practices that they subsume (e.g., Response to Intervention, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, Professional Learning Communities, Universal Design for Learning) work and are amongst the most research-based practices ever studied, in the history of education (Hattie, 2009, 2012).

In order to raise student achievement, schools must use diagnostic assessments to measure student’ knowledge and skills at the beginning of each curriculum unit, on-the-spot assessment to check for understanding during instruction, and end-of-unit assessments and interim assessments to see how well student learned. All of these enable teacher to make mid-course corrections and to get students into intervention earlier.

Odden, 2009, p. 23

Let’s make collaborative systems of support the initiative, or one of the key initiatives, to which we dedicate ourselves.

Innovation and collaborative systems of support are necessarily complementary processes – a collaborative system of supports is action research in practice – in others words, we make adjustments to evidence regarding the extent to which students are responding to instruction and intervention. We must continue to push for innovation in our approach to collaborative systems of support instead of settling for dogmatic compliance to rigid protocols. Innovation requires us to consistently ask why, how, what, and when, and relentlessly elicit feedback to push us forward. If we are to create collaborative systems of support that transform, systems that will create the most optimal learning conditions, we must nurture positive and collaborative spaces that inspire dialogue and feedback.

Intensive Interventions, Progress Monitoring and Self-Assessment

We acknowledge that, for students with significant deficits in foundational skills, the personalized nature of these intensive, highly-specific Tier 3 supports may feel enforced. These vulnerable students may feel as they though have neither the ability to exercise agency nor voice and choice in regard to these interventions that are targeting a specific need within their zone of proximal development.


We understand and we have been there. Several orientations and strategies have proven to successfully persuade students and parents to partner with us in this crucial endeavor: 


1. This is the right thing to do – If a significant deficit exists within the foundational skills of literacy, numeracy, or behavior, the chances of happiness and success in school and life are limited. We believe that advocating for these supports is a moral imperative.


2. Transparency – We feel that honesty about current levels of readiness and necessary levels of mastery vis-à-vis foundational skills with students and parents is a must. We don’t blame, we’re objective, and we establish…


3. Positive relationships – we often hear that vulnerable students with deficits in foundational skills often already don’t like school. Singling them out for intensive supports will only exacerbate that antipathy toward learning. We contend that there are two other possible explanations for students lack of engagement in, and enjoyment with, school: they may not have a positive relationship with an adult on campus and they more than likely do not feel successful in most academic classes. We can influence both issues. 


4. Get students involved – While we will argue that all students deserve a personalized learning plan, this is particularly true for vulnerable students. We involve students in self-assessing their needs, their progress, and in establishing goals.


5. Agency, voice, and choice – We are committed to partnering with the student to close gaps that may exist; how we do so can be varied. Therefore, we strive to provide options and involve the student in their learning.


6. Five days a week of intensive supports for our most vulnerable students in better than four; however, a few schools set aside one day a week for the type of enrichment opportunities that we will describe below for all students.


We view progress monitoring as a logical task with which to meaningfully involve students. In other words, progress monitoring can help motivate the intervention process. Progress-monitoring assessments measure the extent to which students are responding to supplemental interventions. Progress monitoring is feedback:


7. Feedback for educators: How well have we matched the support to the diagnosed need?


8. Feedback for students: How much growth am I making? Where are my strengths and where do I still have needs? What are my next goals? What can I do? What support do I need?


They also ensure that the right interventions have been chosen for a student or a group of students. Assessments used to measure student mastery of core essentials and progress-monitoring assessments share quite a few attributes. While assessments used to measure student mastery of core essentials determine all students’ responses to core instruction, and in alternative forms, students’ responses to more interventions, progress-monitoring assessments determine the responses of at-risk students to the most intensive interventions. Teachers collect student performance data from progress monitoring on a regular basis, and plot results over time. Drawing a line of best fit through student scores provides an indication of the rate of improvement, or lack of improvement, that the student is making toward achieving mastery of specific skills.


Progress monitoring is an essential tool within a well-defined collaborative system of support. It assesses the adequacy of school supports as well as students’ responses to these supports. Information can lead a team to conclude that a student needs a more intense level of support or decide that a student has responded to interventions and may be successful with a less intensive level of support. Fuchs and Fuchs (2008) summarized the need for progress monitoring within RTI:


9. To determine whether primary prevention (i.e., the core instructional program) is working for a given student. 


10. To distinguish adequate from inadequate response to intervention and thereby identify students likely to have a disability. 


11. To inductively inform individualized instruction programs, by determining what does not work as well as to optimize learning for students likely to have learning disabilities. 


12. To determine when the student’s response to intervention indicates that a return to less intensive supports is possible. 


Progress monitoring ensures that students receive the intensity of supports that they need to succeed. It also provides the evidence to justify removing supports when progress indicates that skill deficits have been ameliorated, so that students receive supports in the least restrictive levels of support.


Students with significant deficits in foundational skills need support desperately and they need it now. They can be successful; they can catch up. They will. They must.


The Function of Schools

red building on a school campus
Photo by Matthis Volquardsen on

It may seem unnecessary to begin with a question as basic and as fundamental as, “Why are we here?” However, at least two factors motivate this introductory thought. First, students and the world for which we are preparing them have changed. We will describe these changes in more detail during this and other chapters. Given these changes, reflections on the functions, the purpose, the desired outcomes of education seems entirely appropriate, even necessary. Second, educators and schools are suffering from initiative fatigue – each year, we attempt to implement a new good idea. Our fear is that these initiatives or solutions are not sufficiently connected to thoughtfully-identified and well-defined challenges. By revisiting the function of education, we hope to gain greater clarity on the needs and our goals so that our solutions, good ideas, and initiatives-to-implement match a school’s raison d’etre.

Given that the curriculum is already crowded, a major political challenge is articulating what to deemphasize in the curriculum – and why – in order to make room for students to deeply master core 21st century skills.

Dede, 2009, p. 3

The skills required for success in life, from one reliable source, are listed below. It’s reasonable to assume that these skills represent the capacities and attributes for which schools are preparing students from pre-Kindergarten early education through Grade 12 (Conley, 2014):

  • Think
    • Beyond retaining and applying information, students process, manipulate, assemble, reassemble, examine, question, look for patterns, organize, and present.
    • Students develop and employ strategies for problem solving when they encounter a challenge. Five key strategies are:
      • Problem formulation
      • Research
      • Interpretation
      • Communication
      • Precision and accuracy
    • Know
      • Students possess foundational knowledge in core academic subjects and an understanding of:
        • Connections and structures between and within subjects
        • The necessity for, and implications of, effort and a growth mindset
        • Organizing content
        • Identifying key ideas
        • The inherent value of learning
      • Act
        • Students employ skills and techniques to enable them to exercise agency and ownership as they successfully manage their learning.
        • Students gain expertise through the regular and integrated application and practice of key learning skills and techniques. Student agency rests upon the following:
          • Goal setting
          • Persistence
          • Self-awareness
          • Motivation
          • Self-advocacy
          • Progress monitoring
          • Self-efficacy
        • Students develop habits that allow them to succeed in demanding situations:
          • Time management
          • Study skills
          • Test taking
          • Note taking
          • Memorization
          • Strategic reading
          • Collaborative learning
          • Technological proficiencies
        • Go
          • Students preparing for a career or additional education develop skills to navigate potential challenges, including:
            • Contexts: Their motivations and options for educational programs after high school.
            • Procedures: The logistic of admissions and application processes.
            • Finances: The costs of further education and financial aid options.
            • Cultures: Differences between cultural norms in school and the workplace or postsecondary settings.
            • Interpersonal: Advocating for oneself in complex environments.

We propose that the function of education is to teach, model, and nurture these skills with and within students so that they are happy, successful, and productive citizens of the world.




How do you make sure to tell each student’s WHOLE story?

Let Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass guide you along the way.

The Economist’s Intelligence Unit (Tabary, 2015), in collaboration with Google, surveyed business executives, teachers, and students, to assess the skills most needed in today’s workplaces. The skills identified most were (the percentage of respondents who selected each skill is reported in parenthesis):

  1. Problem-solving (50%)
  2. Team-working (35%)
  3. Communication (32%)
  4. Critical thinking (27%)
  5. Creativity (21%)
  6. Leadership (18%)
  7. Literacy (17%)
  8. Digital literacy (16%)
  9. Foreign language (15%)
  10. Emotional intelligence (12%)

The function of education and schools, then, is not necessarily limited to core academic content. The function of education is to motivate, nurture, and prepare for success in life.

Proficiency in 21st skills is the new civil right of our times…The new social contract is different: Only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed.

Kay, 2009

Based on the preponderance of achievement results, evidence suggests that schools have not been entirely successful in fulfilling the objectives represented by this function of education. This is particularly true for our most vulnerable students. We will report on a sampling of this evidence later in this chapter.

We fear, and research supports, that low expectations for students’ ability to grow and learn at high levels (again, particularly our most vulnerable students) – in combination with a overly broad curriculum that too often addresses only traditional academic areas – is a major contributing factor in students’ underperformance:

The normal curve is not sacred. It describes the outcome of a random process. Since education is a purposeful activity in which we seek to have students learn what we teach, the achievement distribution should be very different from the normal curve if our instruction is effective. In fact, our educational efforts may be said to be unsuccessful to the extent that student achievement is normally distributed

Bloom, 1971, p. 49

We are convinced that we can do better – that we possess the people, the skills, and the resources necessary. We must start by examining the function of education and our beliefs in students. The paradigms of grades, percentages, and fixed timeframes for learning are inconsistent and incompatible with high levels of learning for all – particularly when the demands of society and the workplace are evolving. While much of the focus of this book will necessarily be on systems, we believe that culture, as much or more then structures, is the key to education’s success.

How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of all children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever & wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

Edmonds, 1979, p. 23

Why haven’t we been more successful? This sensitive question will serve as a subtext throughout this book. In addition to the critical importance of culture, beliefs, and expectations, we believe that educators and schools must:

  • Work more collaboratively
  • Organize more systematically
  • Serve students in more differentiated and personalized ways

Designing and implementing collaborative systems of support that directly address these three “musts” will be the topic of the remainder of this book.

Before we go any further, we’d like to establish some universal concepts that we hold true and that provide a foundation for our work within schools. Each of these universal concepts represents a fundamental principle of a collaborative system of support. For example, collaboration and the collaborative practices of professional learning communities are not simply gimmicks to employ when we have the opportunity or inclination; collaboration is a mandatory and integral component of systems of support and of our success in serving students.

These universal concepts are not optional; they must be present in schools that adequately serve all students and all student needs. Moreover, these universal concepts must be organized logically, interdependently, and systematically into a cohesive whole – a collaborative system of support.

Culture and RTI



In the absence of a culture that takes the success of every student personally, collaborative systems of support will not be successful. When the attitude of schools is that high levels of learning is an inevitability, nothing is impossible. In the absence of these cultures, we do not recommend that you bother expending the psychological and fiscal energies to develop the principles and practices described.

Culture and ownership are inextricably linked. When staffs, students, and all other stakeholders feel intimately connected to this most important work, we will succeed. When these stakeholders have an authentic voice, cultures of commitment and collective responsibility will prevail.

In our practice, we have implemented both sustaining and disruptive innovations (Christensen, 2003). We accept that we must have revolutionary goals, also known Big Hairy Audacious Goals (Collins, 2001), that are introduced and implemented in a more evolutionary manner. But we will be patiently persistent, challenging the status quo, always striving to improve.

One of the most significant obstacles to progress is the idea of seat time and the ways in which time is allocated within traditional daily schedules. If we continue to view whole group instruction, and not smaller group and more targeted supports, as the only time during which legitimate teaching (and hopefully, learning) is taking place, we will not fulfill the promise of core, more, and highly-specific supports.

As in most states, in the state of California in the US, home of 1 in 8 US students, students in grades 9-12 are required to sit in classes for specific amounts of time (64,800 minutes a year or 360 minutes a day). These time constraints can inhibit schools’ abilities to customize learning experiences for students within a collaborative system of supports. Other US states, such as Michigan and New Hampshire, are loosening these constraints, in the interest of better preparing students for college and career.

The amount of yearly time devoted to core instruction within secondary schools is 64,800 minutes within an 180 day school year; however, only half of the those minutes are dedicated to core support, with the other half dedicated to more and highly-specific supports. In the past, policy officials have indicated that more and highly-specific supports do not count as seat-time, and yet they are most definitely connected to both curricular priorities and readiness for careers. Until we break through the status quo regarding topics such as seat time, our abilities to truly transform teaching and learning and students’ educational experiences will be greatly constrained.

We often hear educators express concerns about the amount of time it will take to manage students’ personalized learning plans, both for vulnerable students receiving specific supports that address deficits in foundational skills and for students engaged in highly-specific supports that allow them to pursue their passions. While we can and must do a better job of formatively assessing, and providing feedback to students, regarding progress, educators need not be the only stakeholder who assumes this responsibility, and the practice need not be extremely time-intensive.

Student self-assessment is an effective practice in which schools can engage (Hattie, 2009, 2012). We will be wise to increasingly involve students in reflecting upon and developing improvement plans for their learning. Students’ peers should also be partners in the continuous improvement process. Lastly, we must re-examine educators’ roles in grading; we don’t need to have all the answers; instead, we should partner with students to ask the right questions that promote both learning and increased student ownership.

A critical element of school culture, and a common concern we hear expressed by our colleagues, is how our most vulnerable students and their parents will feel when we “single them out” with intensive interventions. Our antidotes to these legitimate concerns are:

  • Be honest with students about their current status and their chances for success in careers and to be future ready in the absence of targeted supports.
  • Involve students in their learning path; we need not and should not dictate terms to students; we must insist on the supports that will best serve students, with their authentic input.
  • Prioritize relationships. Students who feel successful in schools are almost always connected to a course and staff member, at least in part because they have experienced success in that staff member’s course. Illiteracy, innumeracy, and a lack of pro-social and pro-functional skills will condemn a student to a frustrating adult life, so we must advocate fiercely for the supports that will ameliorate these deficits. When we demonstrate repeatedly and powerfully that we believe in them and will partner with them to ensure progress, connectivity to school will increase. Relationships matter and are a research-based “intervention” (Brophy, 1985; Crosnoe, Johnson, & Elder, 2004; Hamre, & Pianta, 2001; Lynch, & Cicchetti, 1997; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1989; Hattie, 2009).


    The goals and focus of collaborative teams should be universal and clear – to ensure that all students gain deeper mastery of the outcomes that the teachers, school, and communities most value. The specific pathways may change, but the goals and focus must not. Let’s not allow perfection to be the enemy of progress as we establish cultures of innovation and provide exceptional service to students in our schools.

    We close with a quote:

    How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of all children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that basic pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background. We can, whenever & wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.

    Edmonds, 1979, p. 23

    We can and must transform our schools and we know what to do; we must commit, once and for all, to closing the knowing-doing gap.

    School teams are ready but are too often frustrated by a lack a clarity on desired outcomes and a lack of direction on the processes and resources that must guide the work. We hope we have provided clarity, processes, and resources, but more importantly, we hope we have clarified the outcomes for which teams must strive: We must commit to making intentional changes to our practices so that all students develop the skills to succeed in careers and life.

    We firmly believe, and research validates, that collaborative systems of support offer the most promising whole-school, comprehensive approach for educators and students to reach their full potential. We firmly believe that a system of core, more, and highly-specialized supports for all students is the most promising and practical manner in which to proceed.

    We acknowledge that this represents a fairly ambitious model of personalized teaching and learning within a traditional environment. And yet, you need not begin with highly-specialized supports for all; start with these supports for our most vulnerable students.

    We want to contribute to a revolution in teaching and learning, and know that students need and deserve a transformed and transformative educational experience. We also appreciate and recognize that we need to proceed in an evolutionary manner.


Visit to see how we can help you deliver that “transformed and transformative educational experience.”

Top Ten Most Telling Trademarks of Response to Intervention



We’ve been living, breathing, studying, practicing, and coaching on Response to Intervention for well over a decade.


We passionately believe that RTI is the most systematic, effective, and proven (Hattie, 2012) set of beliefs and practices with which we can engage to ensure that all students grow. How do we know if RTI is effectively being implemented in our learning environments?



Chris1elmerlogoVisit to learn more. 

In no particular order, here are the Top Ten Most Telling Trademarks of RTI:


  1. Altruistic Assessments. Assessments, and the power the data holds, are the engine that drive improvement – embrace it…own it!
  • Not testing…evidence-gathering.
  • Don’t get caught up in formal versus informal assessments.
  • Focus on assessments that enhance learning and are humanistic, not formal or robotic.
  • Embrace the following BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): All assessments that we administer will be formative; we commit to always using evidence gathered through these assessments to inform future teaching and learning.


  1. Action supersedes theory.
  • We must know if students are RTI’ing – RTI is a verb.
  • There are lots of triangles and diagrams out there, but they only are only as effective as they result in high levels of learning for every single student.


  1. Documentation isn’t deity. Don’t let documentation and meetings inhibit or delay supports for students (or destroy your will to live).
  • Flipped meetings: Leverage face-to-face time for collaboration, co-learning, and high value connections…not information distribution. Leverage asynchronous forms of communication (e.g., Google docs) to share information and strategies.
  • Teacher observations count as documentation.
  • Don’t let a lack of “appropriate” documentation or a sufficient quantity of “in-class interventions” prevent a student from receiving supports!


  1. Preponderance of evidence.
  • Universal screening (e.g., the student scores in the 6th percentile) is enough to “qualify” a student for Tier 3.
  • Use multiple data points and be smart about what is valid data and what is not.


  1. Behavioral skills are as critical as academic skills – Tiers 1, 2, and 3
  • We too often, and inappropriately, view behavioral struggles differently than academic struggles, and it is this very dichotomy that we believe requires our full attention.
  • Behavior and academics are inextricably linked and the teaching, learning, assessing, and differentiated support of behavioral skills and academics skills must be processed identically.


  1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. (…Peter Drucker)
  • If you don’t believe that all students can learn at all levels, don’t bother with RTI.
  • Belief in ourselves, our colleagues, our families, and in all students is a prerequisite for success.
  • Tier 3 interventions, for example, should simply be the actionable evidence of our expectations that all students can and will learn.


  1. Forget Me Not: Tier II
  • Bloom states that even though students have a wide variety of learning modalities, if teachers could provide the necessary time and appropriate learning structures, all students could reach learning goals.
  • Tier II is purposefully planned and possesses a distinctly different purpose and function than Tier 3.
  • There are predictable consequences due to insufficient Tier 2 instruction. Students struggling with some skills may develop larger gaps as the complexity of learning tasks increases. Gaps may become chasms (or significant deficits in foundational skills). Motivation and confidence will crumble.


  1. The cart is after the horse. Tier 1 instruction is where it all begins. Tier 1 provides the foundation for successful RTI overall, rich with formative assessments, differentiated instruction, and successful feedback loops.
  • Carol Ann Tomlinson is the jedi master of differentiation. Her thinking and guidance will help transform instruction.
  • With all desired learning outcomes for students, including next-generation standards, depth is more important than breadth, mastery more important than coverage, quality of learning more important the quantity of content that is taught.
  • The 80-15-5 Pyramid is a blessing and a curse (“what if 80% of our students are not responding to Tier 1 instruction??????”…then modify the quantity of content so that there is time for pre-requisite skills and time to meet the other needs of students); if students at a given school are highly vulnerable and lacking in pre-requisite skills, it makes no sense to pretend that the same quantity of content can be “covered” as compared to a school with less vulnerable students. To ignore the needs of our most vulnerable students (socio-emotional, self-regulation, prerequisite skills) and simply push on will leave students even further behind. Teach less content, achieve greater levels of mastery. Focus on critical thinking and problem-solving and give up the mile-wide, inch-deep curse…this too is research-based (Marzano, 2003)
  • Student self-assessment is motivating and research-based (Hattie, 2012) – assessment as learning…not a “gotcha.”


  1. No skimping on professional learning
  • Professional learning focused on RTI – particularly its integration into schools’ realities – helps teachers identify common misconceptions and pitfalls, refocuses teacher teams on best practices, supports data-based decision making, and provides opportunities to evaluate and monitor student learning and RTI processes.


  1. Teachers have a voice.
  • School leadership must be committed to RTI as a vital component of effective teaching and learning. A student-centered vision isn’t a top down decree, but a shared vision that is collaboratively developed by all stakeholders. Teachers voice must be expressed through vision creation and should be evident through strategic RTI actions and goals.

These ten trademarks are visible characteristics of successful RTI environments. These characteristics don’t develop overnight and don’t represent variables inside of a magic formula. Just as we must build a sense of community in our classrooms, we must build a collaborative culture amongst educators. We cannot be successful in building a comprehensive and impactful RTI system without trust and belief in one another. In a culture of high takes testing, accountability measures, and data disaggregation, there must exist an even more heightened focus on creating deeper connections and genuine relationships with our students and our fellow colleagues. The power of these relationships will always transcend any intervention strategy or pull out program. The more that tangible metrics become a part of our educational and society reality, the more we must purposefully seek those intangibles, such as care, community, and connection, that increase collaborative capacity.





Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Three Sides of a Three-Sided Coin: Differentiation, Special Education, and RTI

two girls writing on paper
Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah on


Differentiation, special education, and response to intervention (RTI) are interrelated and interdependent; or, they should be. In our experiences in schools, we can more successfully implement these critical, research-based initiatives. They represent principles and practices essential to meeting all students’ needs and to ensuring that students graduate future ready. Comprehensive approaches to differentiation, special education, and RTI are more necessary than ever if schools will reach the goal of high levels of learning for all students. We recommend that schools strategically and purposefully blend differentiation, special education, and RTI within Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning that optimize the complex and critical processes under a singularly-designed set of structures. This first in a series of three posts describes how we must leverage differentiation within a System of Supports:


A Comprehensive Approach to Differentiation within an RTI-Inspired System of Supports for Rigorous Learning


My Post

Check out how Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass will make your life easier. Let us streamline your supports by visiting

Effective core supports are built on providing students what they need; educators call this differentiation. What follows are the elements of differentiated supports for each and every student:

  • We survey our students to learn about their interests, passions, and drives; we then incorporate this information in small and large ways throughout the school year.
  • We screen to ensure we have identified students at high-risk of experiencing failure in the absence of a scaffolded set of Core Supports and immediate, intensive, and targeted Specialized Supports. These students will need our very best in terms of scaffolded and differentiated supports to achieve successes within the core.
  • Our increased successes in differentiating teaching and learning directly improve student engagement and motivation.
  • We build relationships with students early and often, so that the learning environment is positive and productive and so that a growth mindset prevails.
  • We plan for:
    • What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.
    • A prioritized scope of sequence of concepts and skills, based on state and local priorities and student needs.
    • How students will access information and content?
    • How we will differentiate during whole group instruction?
    • How we will differentiate during small group instruction?
    • How students will interact with the content?
    • With whom students will learn?
    • Tasks that provide students with choice and opportunities to exercise agency.
    • When students will learn?
    • Where students will learn?
    • How students will show us what they know and what they can do?
    • The materials we will need to provide differentiated supports.
    • Pedagogies that that will scaffold students to success, such as those based on a gradual release of responsibility model. This does not mean teacher-only lecture, but a sound lesson design that includes rich student discourse and interaction supported by a teacher’s metacognitive modeling. There is a reason that direct instruction has twice the effect size of inquiry-based approaches (although we are huge fans of inquiry too…the genius of AND)
    • Questioning techniques that meet students at the leading edge of their zones of proximal development and engage them in productive struggle.
    • Practices and strategies based on interests, modalities, styles – not because any are superior or because students necessarily posses a predisposition to learn best from one more than another, but because multiple approaches contribute to a greater likelihood that learning will occur; because interacting with concepts from multiple perspectives and directions strengthens understanding.
    • Assessments that ensure that we can accurately measure what students know in relation to the very first element for which we planned: “What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.”


Whether differentiation serves as the umbrella under which RTI and Collaborative Systems of Support work, or Collaborative Systems of Support and RTI assist schools in organizing and systematizing differentiated practices is unimportant. Both sets of principles must be present.


In the second post in the series, we describe the elements of early intervention (pre-referral services) within a System of Supports.




“Teaching” Globalization


sky earth galaxy universe
Photo by Pixabay on

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) began assessing global skills in 2018. PISA is the assessment sponsored by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that assess student knowledge and application of skills and concepts at a deeper level than typical pre-PARCC and pre-Smarter Balanced tests. Students in the US score in the middle of the pack amongst the 40-odd nations, relatively better on reading, worse in science, and worse still in mathematics (OECD, 2007; 2009).


PISA’s plan raises several questions: What are global skills? How do we teach global skills? How can global skills be integrated into existing curricular and instructional successes? How can we formatively assess student learning of global skills?


I have intentionally left out the question, why focus on global skills, assuming (hoping) that question is unnecessary.


The workplace and world is increasingly diverse and an awareness of different cultures and beliefs is fundamental for success, and even happiness. Globalization is a powerful economic, political, and cultural force.


So, let’s start with, what are global competences? The question is emotional and contextual.


Globalization means innovation and higher living standards for some, and social division and economic inequality for others. Automation and a digital economy represent opportunities for entrepreneurism for some, or weakened job security for others. The desire to cross borders represents diversified and expanded product and service positioning for some, and escaping from poverty and war for others.



providing supports to students in any tier is hard, it doesn' have to be. (2)Let Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass Streamline your

RTI/MTSS/PBIS processes.  

Get started today at

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has defined next-generation skills in areas related to globalization. They define social and cross-cultural skills as interacting effectively with others:

  • Knowing when it is appropriate to listen and when to speak
  • Conducting oneself in a respectable, professional manner
  • Working effectively in diverse teams
  • Respecting cultural differences and working effectively with people from a range of social and cultural backgrounds
  • Responding open-mindedly to different ideas and values
  • Leveraging social and cultural differences to create new ideas and increase both innovation and quality of work

They define global awareness skills as:

  • Using 21st century skills to understand and address global issues
  • Learning from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts
  • Understandingother nations and cultures, including the use of non-English languages


Other countries have made these competencies part of their curricula. In the US, schools are increasingly (and appropriately, I think) focusing on the 4Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. We should begin to begin to focus globally as well.


For the record, PISA defines global competence as “the capacity to analyze global and intercultural issues critically and from multiple perspectives, to understand how differences affect perceptions, judgments, and ideas of self and others, and to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with others from different backgrounds on the basis of a shared respect for human dignity”.


PISA aims to assess students’ knowledge and understanding of global issues and interactions with other cultures; their ability to communicate appropriately and effectively with people from other cultures or countries; comprehend other people’s thoughts, beliefs and feelings, and see the world from their perspectives; metacognitively revise thoughts, feelings or behaviors to fit new contexts and situations; analyze, think critically, and scrutinize information; demonstrate openness towards people from other cultures; and behave sensitively toward, curiosity about, and a willingness to engage with other people and other perspectives on the world.


Global competences, according to the OECD, are shaped by three principles: Equity, cohesion and sustainability.

  • Equity: Income, education, opportunity inequalities make the equity and inclusivity of growth a pressing global topic. The digital economy raises the bar on the skills that people must acquire to be employable. This can represent liberation or a traumatic change in what it means to work.
  • Cohesion: We are witnessing an unprecedented movement of people in the world. Positive integration and isolated extremism are the polar possibilities.
  • Sustainability: We must meet the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, in the face of environmental degradation, climate change, overconsumption, and population growth.


I hope that US schools interpret the challenge represented by PISA’s plans to assess globalization as an exciting opportunity to continue to progress in creating more contemporary and engaging environments within which students become future ready. It will certainly be a challenge.

3 Reasons why we must Provide Highly Specialized Supports for Vulnerable Students?



This question may seem unnecessary. Do we really need to justify providing immediate, targeted, and intensive supports for students who, through no fault of their own, are functionally illiterate and innumerate and lacking the foundational behavioral skills so important to access opportunities? One would think and hope not, but we remain surprised how infrequently these supports are in fact provided, for any and all students, regardless of label.

We commit to supporting vulnerable students’ most immediate area of need proactively, immediately, and with intensity. We will strive to target the antecedent or causal factors that are most contributing to difficulties and vulnerabilities and that lead to significant deficits in foundational skills. All students will learn at high levels, but when a significant deficit in a foundational skill is present, the frustrations and challenges highly compromised learning. While the significant deficit exists, or until we have identified and empowered the student to employ sustainable coping mechanisms, the student’s chances of success in school, career, and life are significantly at risk. We will not defer or delay in providing these supports.

The most critical, customized, highly specific support for a vulnerable student will undoubtedly involve addressing foundational skills. Foundational skills represent the most basic elements required for success in any subject area, at any grade, for the mastery of any skill. Without these foundational skills, meaningful experiences with, and mastery of, the 4 Cs and other 21st century skills will be compromised. These skills are foundational to motivation, self-efficacy, and access.

We define foundational skills as:

  1. Literacy – If students cannot access content and participate in learning opportunities (the majority of which are presented in textual form), they will perpetually experience significant difficulties in any course. If students struggle to demonstrate their understanding of content and mastery of skills (the majority of these demonstrations will require written expression), they will perpetually experience significant difficulties in any course.
  2. Numeracy – Skills associated with pre-computational numeracy impact a student’s ability to succeed in all subject areas, not only mathematics. A “sense of number” impacts a student’s ability to identity and interpret part-whole relationships, to sequence, to understand and interpret timelines and graphs, in addition to more obvious connections to mathematics and the sciences.
  3. Behaviors – Respect, responsibility, and safety are completely appropriate behavioral goals to establish for students; and, there are many other critical pro-social and pro-functional skills that are foundational to success. When a student has a significant deficit in behavior due to social, emotional, or cognitive factors (e.g., traumas) that result in a severely angry, withdrawn, inattentive child or young adult with few coping mechanisms, self-regulatory strategies, or executive functioning skills, little learning will take place. More immediately, students with significant deficits in behavioral skills are truly at-risk in their right to be a healthy human.

Students should not fail a class because of a deficit in a foundational skill. Students in an Algebra class who lack fluency with computation must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit (as described in this chapter); they should not, however, fail Algebra; teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master algebraic concepts. We maintain that all students can think critically and problem solve. They’re “smart.” They simply need our support – intensively, immediately, and specifically. Similarly, students who cannot decode text at a grade nine level must receive intensive, highly specialized support to ameliorate this significant deficit; however, they should not fail the grade nine English class; teachers can and must scaffold instruction so that these students can still access and master the comprehension-based concepts that are the likely the priories of the course. A significant deficit in a specific skill area must not limit a student’s ability to access core learning. We must differentiate to ensure success in the core and provide intensive, highly-specialized supports that address the significant need.


Extreme Makeover RTI Edition

art assess communication conceptual
Photo by Pixabay on


Whether it’s “RTI” or “RTII” (Response to Intervention and Instruction), the acronym is more than just a popular buzzword. It is a substantive reality in the districts, schools, and classrooms of today. Some claim to have been “doing RTI” for years now, and others believe it’s an extant concept that we must figure out how to “implement with fidelity.” Historically speaking, RTI was birthed out of a response to special education reform, and it quickly egressed into a general education initiative, as it was evident the entities are really integrated systemically. Today, you will find many models, perspectives, and approaches to RTI. Focusing on the complexities and moving pieces and parts can be downright overwhelming. It’s no wonder there is a struggle to embed the principles and practices of RTI with success, as the lens have already been fogged up with the breath of complex systems, rules, rigid structures, laborious paperwork, and a plethora of intervention solutions. The transition to incorporating RTI into the existing traditional school and classroom routines can result in a floundering amalgamation of the “good ole days” and the future with neither integrating very well.


With a few straightforward “rules of engagement”, we can adapt successful RTI practices while making room for the creativity and flexibility that allows for learning with no limits.


Supporting EVERY student can be hard. It doesn’t have to be.
Let Mr. Elmer make common sense of RTI/MTSS/PBIS, and help you tell each student’s WHOLE story.
Visit to learn about Chris Weber’s favorite student support software.


  1. Break the old rules. We’re not talking about challenging state mandates. This is about being arduous in creating structures for learning. Do we always have to pull students out to receive interventions? Even the reactive response, the push-in approach, has become orthodox. Do we really need to have intervention time at the same time, the same way, each and everyday? If the purpose of RTI is to systematically facilitate differentiated learning experiences for students with differentiated support (differentiation in time and strategies) at high levels, the old rules must be confronted. An example of an innovative structure is the concept of daily student “playlists,” based on a preceding day’s evidence of learning.
  2. Talk about it. Create a rhythm. Teachers already work in a structure that embodies collaboration: weekly PLCs (or team meetings, team planning, data team meetings, etc.). Most importantly, set the expectation of high levels of learning for all, create the attitude that all staff work on behalf of all students, and make a growth mindset for all a habit. Expectations, attitudes, habits – that’s RTI – a new way of thinking and behaving. What a golden opportunity to ostensibly reflect on instructional practices, provide feedback and ideas, and talk about respective interventions that work or don’t work for specific learners. Your team (PLN, tribe, etc.) is your best resource. Optimize each other!
  3. RTIII- Response to Intervention and Instruction Innovatively. Our successful responses to student needs require innovation. Let’s continue to think creatively about RTI strategies that engage and motivate students, being smart with evidence, and identifying the underlying drivers for student learning success, as well as the roots of student difficulties. Innovation will most likely necessitate that we reject the Tyranny of the OR and embrace the Genius of the AND. Entrenched ideological beliefs and practices will never serve all students, or even a single student’s various needs. Ideology inhibits innovation.

Sometimes educators become complacent and choose the status quo because it’s easy to follow the rules in a procedural manner. But we must consider the significant consequences of staying in that rut. Transforming change and innovation is (must be!) synonymous with learning and with every aspect of learning environments. The implications of RTI transcend well beyond structures and compliant driven processes. We must uncover RTI beyond a trivial level and create a reimagined vision of why we are here and how that vision guides our work. Our work must be guided by the vision that together we will ensure all students’ success.