Five Reasons Why Collaboration is Essential – Part 3




Collaboration amongst staff is the foundation and the prerequisite for any and all continuous improvement amongst educators and on behalf of students. The expectations placed upon schools and students are too great and the challenges too complex to continue to act autonomously and reject collective responsibilities – All staff for all students. It will take time; it’s worth it, so let’s dedicate ourselves to embedding authentic, systematic collaboration into our professional days and our professional practice.


In addition to the questions presented in Part 2 of this Blog Series, collaborative teams of administrators, specialists, and teachers work within an organized system to address the following questions and complete the following tasks – all for the purpose of improving teaching practices and student learning, particularly our most vulnerable students:

  1. About which students do we have concerns?
  2. In which areas do we have concerns?
  3. What are we currently doing to support the student and meet the student’s needs? What supports will we be providing in the future?
  4. Has the student responded to the instruction and interventions we have been providing? (Hierck & Weber, 2014)

In other words,

  1. We can predict that we will serve students who are vulnerable. Knowing who these students are as quickly and efficiently as possible will allow us to begin preparing for the differentiated supports and intensive interventions that they need to be successful.
  2. The best differentiation is targeted differentiation; the best intervention is targeted intervention. We must diagnose the causes and antecedents of student difficulty to specifically target needs.
  3. The only wrong differentiation and intervention is the complete absence of differentiation and intervention. We must do our best to target supports based on our diagnoses and make adjustments as necessary, based on…
  4. …our frequent, efficient, and specific checks for student response to differentiated supports and intervention.

Excellence in education requires that teachers work in collaborative teams to clarify the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, gather evidence of student learning, and discuss the effectiveness of their teaching based on that evidence. Teachers…share evidence about their teaching with their colleagues; in fact, the key question is whether teaching can shift from an immature to mature profession, from opinions to evidence. The education profession will not mature as a profession until professional dialogue focuses on evidence of student learning rather than opinions.

Hattie, 2009, p 252 & 259


A commitment to working interdependently is the right thing to do, and as noted here, it’s research-based. It may also be uncomfortable. It will represent a different way of doing our jobs. We will need to make compromises to our own preferences because collective decisions are better for kids. Our colleagues will know what we’re doing, and not doing, and how those actions or inactions are impacting student outcomes. And that’s ok. That’s the professional thing to do. An important note: Trust and transparency are absolutely critical. Any sincere efforts at collaboration on behalf of kids that are tainted by draconian evaluative techniques will fail. Teams of educators engaged in authentic efforts to continuously improve their practices on behalf of students will be undermined if evidence is gathered for judging, and not for discovery. The goal is learning from one another so that student learning improves.


In the final analysis, only collaborative systems of support will allow us to provide personal learning pathways for all students and will ensure that they make the progress necessary to succeed as citizens and adults. It will also transform the role of educator – our experiences, and our colleagues’ experiences, working within collaborative systems of support inevitably result in the same conclusion: “I’ll never work in a school or in a situation in which there is not the time, the expectation, and the benefits of working in a highly collective manner with my fellow teachers and administrators on behalf of every single student.”


Five Reasons Why Collaboration is Essential – Part 2


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Collaboration amongst staff is the foundation and the prerequisite for any and all continuous improvement amongst educators and on behalf of students. The expectations placed upon schools and students are too great and the challenges too complex to continue to act autonomously and reject collective responsibilities – All staff for all students. It will take time; it’s worth it, so let’s dedicate ourselves to embedding authentic, systematic collaboration into our professional days and our professional practice.


Reason #2

What does collaboration look like and sound like? Collaborative teams of teachers work within an organized system to address the following questions and complete the following tasks – all for the purpose of improving teaching practices and student learning:

  1. What is it we expect students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when students don’t learn?
  4. How will we respond when students already know it? (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many, 2012)

In other words,

  1. We know that we cannot teach all content within governmental sets of standards to mastery. We know that we cannot teach all content and skills within publisher’s textbooks to mastery. And, that is not our objective. We favor depth to breadth; mastery to coverage; quality to quantity; critical thinking and problem solving to shallow levels of understanding. We know that not all standards are created equally; some are simply more critical to students’ successes in school and life and we should prioritize them; they represent “must know” learning outcomes. We value of horizontal and vertical articulation of learning outcomes and consistency of content. Regarding horizontal articulation, we recognize that our abilities to collaborate are severely compromised if do not have a clear understanding, amongst our colleagues who teach the same grade level and/or content area, of which prioritized outcomes will be addressed within a given time frame, e.g., a four week unit. (We do not believe it is productive or practical to dictate what outcomes are taught on a daily basis). Regarding vertical articulation, we recognize that gaps or redundancies may occur if we do not clearly identify which prioritized outcomes teachers will ensure that students master from grade-to-grade, or from course-to-course.
  2. Similarly, our abilities to collaborate with colleagues within an organized system is severely compromised if we do not have a consistent understanding of what mastery of learning outcomes looks and sounds like. Moreover, we will have quite a difficult time teaching students if we do have a clear understanding of the target that we are preparing them to meet. The collaborative preparation of instruction designed to help students reach targets will be tricky at best if we do not have common expectations. Perhaps most importantly students will have a difficult time reaching targets (and may not see the relevance of instruction) when targets are not clearly defined for them.

Students can hit any target that they can see and that holds still for them.

Rick Stiggins & Jan Chappuis, 2012, p. 3

  1. We can predict that some students will learn in a different way or in response to different pedagogies, practices, or strategies. This may occur to due gaps in prerequisite knowledge, less-than-optimal proficiency with the language of instruction, or differences in preferred learning styles or modalities. If we can predict it, we can prepare for it and avoid surprises or frustrations, from teachers and students.
  2. We can predict that some students will already possess mastery of prioritized outcomes, or that they will attain mastery relatively quickly. Let’s be ready with tasks of greater depth and complexity.

These four questions represent essential practices of teacher teams; however, within a collaborative system of support, they are incomplete. We advocate for the inclusion of questions 2b and 2c:

  • 2b – What pedagogies, strategies, and practices will constitute the first, best instruction with which teachers and students will engage and which directly relate to questions 1 and 2?
  • 2c – Through what feedback cycles and opportunities for self-assessment will students participate in the teaching-learning cycle?


The Importance of Collaboration-Part 1

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Collaboration amongst staff is the foundation and the prerequisite for any and all continuous improvement amongst educators and on behalf of students. The expectations placed upon schools and students are too great and the challenges too complex to continue to act autonomously and reject collective responsibilities – All staff for all students. It will take time; it’s worth it, so let’s dedicate ourselves to embedding authentic, systematic collaboration into our professional days and our professional practice.

Quality teaching is not an individual accomplishment; it is the result of a collaborative culture that empowers teachers to team up to improve student learning beyond what any of them can achieve alone.

Carroll, 2009, p. 13


Five observations about Collaboration follow:


  1. Countries in which the highest levels of learning occur, and in which the highest levels of professional practices exist (Stevenson & , Stigler, 1992; Stigler & Hiebert, 1999; Sahlberg, 2010), spend more time collaboratively with peers, even if that means less time talking to large groups of students (which some may refer to as “teaching.”)

Powerful, proven structures for improved results are at hand. It starts when groups of teachers meet regularly as a team to identify essential and valued student learning, develop common formative assessments, analyze current levels of achievement, set achievement goals, and then share and create lessons and strategies to improve upon those levels.

Schmoker, 2004, p. 48

Collaborative learning organizations have a decades long history and research-base, a topic into which we delve more deeply in the next chapter. The powerful and positive influence of collaboration on an organization’s outcomes was first noted by W. Edwards Deming (Walton, 1986) Deming’s research, and the practical implications of his research, validated the impacts of collaborative systems of continuous improvement in the late 1940s, primarily in Japan. Peter Senge solidified and further popularized the inherently superior results achieved when collaborative teams serve together within a system that was organized on foundations of mutual support and action research in the late 1980s (Senge, 1990). Michael Fullan studied the positive examples of collaborative learning organizations within governmental entities in the early 1990s (Fullan, 1993) and Richard DuFour and colleagues completed this translation into schools in the late 1990s, presenting a practical and compelling case for the benefits to students and staff of professional learning communities (DuFour &Eaker, 1998). Collaboration is touted as of the four critical skills of the 21st century, along with communication, creativity, and critical thinking. While collaboration may be an essential skill for citizens and employees in the 21st century, the necessity of collective and coherent practices have been proven for well over half a century. We are increasingly committed to ensuring that our students possess the skills of collaboration; let’s ensure that as the adults who primarily shape and influence students, that we model collaborative practices. Collaboration amongst professional in schools has grown in popularity from decade to decade. In this book, we are redefining the concept and rededicating ourselves to its practice. Collaboration is not something with which we dabble if we are so inclined. It can assist, for example, in improving teacher practices, although as is the case with so many other benefits of professional collaboration, improving teacher practice is a means to the end. The end – the sole function of collaborative systems of support – is to ensure high levels of academic and behavioral outcomes for each and every student. We propose that professional learning communities be re-imagined and re-conceptualized as part of a more systematic approach to organizing schools and staffs on behalf of students.

Collaboration and the ability to engage in collaborative action are becoming increasingly important to the survival of the schools. Indeed, without the ability to collaborate with others, the prospect of truly improving schools is not likely.

Schlechty, 2005, p. 22

Within educational environments, collaborative teams can and should serve very practical roles.

Part 5 – Reimagining Differentiation and Special Education within Instruction and Intervention Systems

A Focus on the HOW


In this last part of the series, we dive deeper into how RTI/MTSS can positively support special education and students with special needs.


  • Strategically assess within the finite formal evaluation time frame: There will be students who, despite are best efforts, are not yet adequately responding to tiered interventions. In these instances, we request permission to conduct a formal evaluation to determine eligibility for special education. But we intend that students will respond to special education supports such that they will no longer require them at some point in the future. In fact, we ask ourselves two critical questions when considering this step:


  • What supports will we provide, or would we like to provide, if an eligibility determination is made? In other words, what unique supports would or could students receive within special education that they are not receiving now?
  • What evidence will communicate to staff, the student, and parents that special education supports are no longer necessary? What is the exit plan, because exit from special education (albeit with continued supports as needed) is the goal?


We are committed to taking full advantage and to gaining vital information during the limited amount of time we have to evaluate student needs, make an eligibility determination, and if appropriate, collaboratively craft an Individualized Education Program plan. We must use all the knowledge that we have gained while scaffolding and intervening prior the formal evaluation period to ensure that this occurs.


  • Collaboratively craft the IEP. Again, we intend for special education to be a temporary designation for the vast majority of students who are determined to be eligible. Therefore, IEPs must be strategically written. Students must receive supports within the least restrictive environments possible – inclusive settings with all students, regardless of label. They must continue to access and gain mastery of core academic and behavioral priorities. Significant deficits in foundational skills must be ameliorated. They must be equipped with coping mechanisms and work around strategies so that they will be successful in school, college, career, and life in the absence of special supports.


  • Scaffolded access to core within the least restrictive environments: As noted repeatedly above, all students must successful participate in the core. Otherwise, the risk of failing to catching up will be great and sustaining progress will be compromised. To ensure that fully inclusive environments work for all students, so form of co-planning and co-teaching must be in place. Co-planning and co-teaching will have the following attributes:


  • Co-teachers must have time and support to co-plan
  • A proven model (or better yet, multiple models, dependent on students, student needs, and prioritized concepts and skills) of co-teaching is studied, practiced, implemented, and improved:
    • One teach, one support: One teacher has the primary responsibility for planning and teaching, while the other teacher helps individuals and reteaches and reinforces particular behaviors.
    •  Parallel teaching: Teachers plan jointly but split the classroom in half to teach the same information at the same time.
    • Alternative teaching: One teacher manages most of the class while the other teacher works with a small group inside or outside of the classroom.
    • Station teaching: Teachers co-plan but take with lead with specific concepts and skills for specific units or lessons. Teachers serve students within small groups while other students work by themselves or in collaborative groups.
    • Team teaching: Lessons are planned and taught by both teachers, who actively engage in conversation with one another and encourage discussion among students. Both teachers are actively involved in the management of the lesson and student discourse and behaviors.


  • Access to Tier 2 must continue: We can predict that some students will learn core priorities at different rates and in different ways. This may be particularly true for students with special needs. This is Tier 2: more time, alternative approaches. Ensuring that students with special needs have access to all tiers of supports will greatly increase the likelihood of their success.


  • Intervene in a targeted and intensive manner, in accordance with the IEP: This is critical. IEPs have specific goals and objectives based on areas of need. We must explicitly address and ameliorate these areas of needs. Time periods that serve as study halls and work completion assistance are not the answer. As noted above, we must immediately and intensively focus on diagnosed deficits with targeted interventions, with the goal of eliminating these deficits and developing coping mechanisms and workaround strategies. Within special education, the intensity of focus and resources that we are prepared to assign are greater than ever, as is the sense of urgency.


  • Behaviors: As noted above but with even more care, we teach, reteach, and reinforce key pro-social and pro-functional behaviors for students with special needs. The 16 attributes describe above of doubly important for a student determined eligible for special education services.


  • Monitor: Measuring the extent to which students are responding to instruction, intervention, and in this, case special education supports, should be done more, not less, when a student has been determined eligible for special education services. There is not a moment to lose and adjustments, in collaboration with the IEP team, must be made when adequate progress is not made.


  • Exit when possible: Approximately 12% of students receive special education services and have an Individualized Education Program plan. Approximately 1% of students have been diagnosed with a severe or profound disability, meaning that their intellectual functioning will significantly limit their ability to live an independent adult life. They will have modified jobs and accommodated living conditions. We feel blessed to live in societies in which we provide care and support for these precious individuals.


A review of the percentages in the above paragraph reveals a very important reality that directly impacts high expectations, or a lack thereof. The vast majority of students receiving special education services, students who have an Individualized Education Program plan, do not have a severe or profound disability and will be expected to live an independent adult life, without modified jobs and accommodated living conditions.


The critical implication is as follows: When we do not expect high levels of learning for all (and complement these expectations with intensive and targeted interventions as necessary), we significantly limit future prospects with equally significant impacts on our societies. Students receiving special education services graduate from Grade 12 at rates that are demonstrably lower than their peers; they attend 4-year universities and colleges at equally lower rates (Samuels, 2015). We must remove supports when students are ready, allowing students to learn and thrive within the least restrictive environments, and ensure they have access to any and every opportunity.


We fear that tragically lower expectations for students receiving special education services has lead (and continues to lead) to their significantly lower achievement. Accommodations and modifications in support of successful educational experiences must not correspond with modifications to expectations. Students within Individualized Education Program plans who do not have a severe or profound disability will be expected to compete and collaborate with rest of the 99% for a purposeful and productive adult life, and we must urgently prepare for this reality.



Differentiation and special education are not new processes and they continue to be identified as areas of need by schools and schools leaders. They should be. They are incredibly impactful and important sets of principals and practices and we have not yet done them well. We must, for once and for all, do it right. A comprehensive approach to differentiation and special education, integrated into Instruction and Intervention Systems, is possible and more necessary than ever.

Part 4 – Reimagining Differentiation and Special Education within Instruction and Intervention Systems

A Focus on the HOW


In Part 4 of this series, let’s discuss intervening and monitoring:


  • Intervene – We commit to supporting vulnerable students’ most immediate area of need proactively, immediately, and with intensity. We 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, 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:


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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As we relentlessly strive to find the right support for students in need – supports that will lead to positive responses to intervention – we are guided be several factors:


  • We are seeking causes of student difficulties. We must look beneath the symptoms and determine the For example, when striving to determine the appropriate behavioral support when a student is misbehaving, we look beneath the symptom (perhaps inattentiveness) to identify the function, purpose, or cause of the symptom: Why is the student misbehaving? We then do our very best to match a support to the cause.
  • The more precise and focused we can be in making this match, the more immediate the positive response. Research has continually validated this targeted approach (Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, & Linan-Thompson, 2009).
  • As we will note below, in addition to the learning benefits (students respond more quickly to interventions), there are logistical benefits. When focusing on targeted causes, we can effect a significant change in 30 minutes per day. If we instead provide broad, unfocused supports that do not address the underlying causes of difficulties, much more time per day will likely be required. Again, this is validated by the research (Burns & Gibbons, 2008; Burns, VanDerHeyden, & Boice, 2008). We (schools, staffs, and students) simply do not have time within the school day to spare. And, students surely do not have time within their learning journeys to wait; gaps must be addressed, ameliorated, and /or sustainable work-around plans must be identified and practiced immediately.


Our colleagues often lament that they do not have the right resources to provide interventions. We cannot express this point often enough: The best intervention is a targeted intervention. We believe that interventions would dramatically and immediately improve if educators focused with laser-like intensity on specific foundational skills, because those skills were deemed to be the underlying causes that explain the symptomatic difficulties that the students were experiencing and that staffs were observing. We never give up; we never stop providing intensive supports for our most vulnerable students – not until we have found the right support, until the student is adequately responding, and until we have ultimately closed the gap. Even if and when an eligibility determination is made, and the student receives special education supports, we continue to adjust supports until success is achieved. It’s inevitable. We must, however, gather frequent and specific evidence about the extent to which students are responding to these interventions. We call that progress monitoring.


  • Monitor student response to instruction and intervention and learn from the evidence that is gathered: As we scaffold to ensure student access to learning at Tier 1 and provide specific interventions that target immediate areas of need within Tier 3, we learn about what works and what does not work. Moreover, we view progress monitoring as a logical task with which to meaningfully involve students. Progress-monitoring assessments measure the extent to which students are responding to supplemental interventions. Progress monitoring is feedback:


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

Part 2 – Reimagining Differentiation and Special Education within Instruction and Intervention Systems

A Focus on the HOW.

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Differentiation Beyond Tier 1


More (Tier 2) Supports – within Instruction and Intervention Systems – are crucial elements of differentiation as well. These supports meet students where they are, as do differentiated strategies within the Core. Whether differentiation serves as the umbrella under which Instruction and Intervention Systems work, or Instruction and Intervention Systems organize and systematize differentiated practice is unimportant. Both sets of principles must be present.


Everything above applies to special education. Stated another way: differentiation must be foundational to – synonymous with – supports for students with special needs. But there is more. Let’s examine…


  • Screen – The purpose of a screening process is to efficiently, and in a timely manner, identify students who at a grave risk of experiencing failure and frustration so that: 1) scaffolded supports can be immediately provided within Tier 1, and 2) intensive and targeted supports can be provided within Tier 3. This applies to all students, including students with special needs. We must not assume we know that needs within a domain or the antecedents to difficulties are known, and we must not assume that supports are already in place. We screen to ensure that we can proactively serve students who likely have a significant deficit in a foundational skill.


  • Scaffold: 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; 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. (See information on differentiation above.)


  • Behaviors: We find that students who have experienced frustration and failure in schools, who have not been supported in a timely and focused manner within a system of supports, often lack a growth mindset and have internalized a sense of learned helplessness. Therefore, nurturing the development of behavioral skills – such as self-regulation and executive functioning – while important for all students, is absolutely critical for vulnerable students. This process requires that we:


  • Identify the priorities that all students will master.
  • Clearly define what mastery “looks” and “sounds” like.
  • Explicitly teach and model the habits and skills that we want to see and hear displayed and employed.
  • Prepare and plan for differentiated supports, because we know that some students will need additional time and alternative supports to master priorities; others will have mastered priorities before instruction begins and will require enrichment.
  • Assess student mastery of prioritized habits and skills so that we can determine the efficacy of our instruction and identify the areas of need for intervention.
  • Provide feedback regarding students’ success and setbacks as they relate to achieving mastery.
  • Intervene in a targeted manner if necessary.

1 – Reimagining Differentiation and Special Education within Instruction and Intervention Systems

A Focus on the HOW





Comprehensive approaches to differentiation and special education are more necessary than ever if schools will reach our ambitions of high levels of learning for all students. Both differentiation and special education are critical elements of an Instruction and Intervention System and both are complex and critical processes.


A Comprehensive Approach to Differentiation within Instruction and Intervention Systems


Effective Core (Tier 1) 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 (Tier 3) Supports. These students will need our very best in terms of scaffolded and differentiated supports to achieve successes within the core.
  • 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 possess 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.”

Think “system”atically

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Collaborative practices and systems of support are highly complementary (Deming, Senge, Fullan, and DuFour). We acknowledge and embrace the reality that collaborative practices are most impactful when coordination occurs within an organized system. While the term “system” and its related practices may seem mechanistic to many educators, and despite the fact that systemic thinking has not necessarily been common in schools, the importance and challenges associated with our mission of ensuring high levels of learning for each and every student require that we design and sustain systems that allow us to work interdependently.

The key to ensuring that every child has a quality teacher is finding a way for school systems to organize the work of qualified teachers so they can collaborate with their colleagues in developing strong learning communities that will sustain them as they become more accomplished teachers.

National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003, p. 7

These systems will involve time for collaboration; proactive preparation based on anticipated student rends; protocols for communication and coordination; allocation of time, staff, and resources; and the constant monitoring of student successes and challenges followed by targeted responses. A systematic approach to organizing our work on behalf of students is a universal concept for which we stand. The goal of collaborative systems of support is to design never-ending feedback loops that continuously inform teaching and learning.

One of the pioneers and earliest practitioners of collaborative systems of support was Benjamin Bloom (1968; 1984). Bloom’s preliminary studies showed that excellent but isolated (non-systematic) classroom teaching resulted in student learning with an effect size of 0.4 standard deviations, a result validated by Hattie (2009). When teams of teachers worked collaboratively within an organized system to also provide timely and targeted supports for greater levels of student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities…so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind) and so students reach greater depths of understanding, student learning was measured at an effect size of 1.0 standard deviation. When teams of administrators, specialists, and teachers worked collaboratively within an organized system to also provide highly individualized and intensive supports to meet significant deficits in foundational skills, student learning was measured at an effect size of 1.6 standard deviations.

Bloom’s research demonstrated, our experiences as school and district administrators have repeatedly shown, and Hattie’s research (2009; 2012) has recently validated that collaborative systems of support work…and they are needed by staff and students like never before.

The key to improved student achievement was moving beyond an individual teacher looking at his or her classroom data. Instead, it took getting same-grade teacher teams to meet, analyze the results of each interim assessment to understand what concepts in the curriculum were posing difficulty for students, share ideas, figure out the best interventions, and actually follow up in their classrooms.

Christman, et al., 2009

One last note regarding systems: There is no one-size-fits-all system for a school. Collaborative systems of support must be customized based on specific and unique attributes, such as the characteristics of the school and the needs of the students. Rigid, protocol-driven approaches to systems of support are guaranteed to frustrate staff and fail students.


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Focus and Simplicity


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I fear that a lack of focus in hindering our efforts and inhibiting our chances of achieving the “possible” – high levels of learning for all students. I similarly fear that we’re making things too complicated. Three ways in which we must focus and simplify follow:


  1. We believe that student frustration, failure, and many disability diagnoses are the result of schools going too fast, trying to cover too much. We firmly subscribe to this belief and sets of corresponding practices: Teach less, learn more.


We must plan for greater focus of our curricular units. When we favor covering a large quantity of standards, quality suffers. The need to focus becomes more immediate when we acknowledge that we have not sufficiently prioritized behavioral outcomes, behaviors such as those associated with self-regulation and executive functioning (time management, organization, self-monitoring, self-concept, use of strategy, metacognition, and volition) and those skills described at the beginning the chapter. To those who would categorize some of these skills are more academic than behavioral, we say, “fine.” They still have not been sufficiently prioritized within our teaching and learning scopes and sequences. We must also prioritize, define, model, teach, assess, as well as provide feedback and differentiated supports, for other behaviors, such as those associated with social and emotional learning (self-control, coping, self-advocacy, empathy, and resiliency). These behavioral skills are also as critical as academics. Students may earn high test scores and marks based on their demonstration of academic skills, but they succeed in university and life due to their display of behavioral skills. Devoting the appropriate time to behaviors will necessitate that we prioritize academic content and skills to an even greater extent.


Further prioritizing the content and skills (academic and behavioral) upon which our teaching and learning focuses will allow teachers and students to go deeper, developing the critical thinking and problem solving that will serve students most significantly as adults. School days and school years are unlikely to grow longer in the near future. There are those who argue that today’s high stakes tests dictate the breadth of our curricula, to which we say: The worst way to prepare students for a test that assesses everything is to teach everything. The worst way to prepare students for tests that inappropriately assess shallow levels of understanding is to teach to shallow levels of understanding. We lament that assessments too infrequently match the curriculum that we know we need to embrace and the realities of adult life, but trying to teach everything will all but guarantee that students learn and retain little. Teaching students to think critically and problem solve will enable them to answer questions for which they may not have received direct instruction.


The key to unclogging a crowded content-driven curriculum is to create a clear conception of a few really important ideas and essential questions in order to focus on understanding and integrate 21st century skills…teachers have time to “uncover” it by engaging students in analyzing issues, applying critical and creative thinking to complex problems working collaboratively on inquiry.

McTighe and Seif, 2009


A note on our most vulnerable students: It is probable that students experiencing some form of crisis will require more time to master fewer priorities. We should plan and prepare for this reality. It is misguided to expect vulnerable students to master the same quantity of content as less vulnerable students. Quantity is not the goal, however. When, with the best of intentions, we expect vulnerable students to master the same quantity of content, they fall farther and farther behind over time. Students with vulnerabilities in behavioral areas will likely require more time and support in this area. So be it. This modification will serve them well as developing humans and will help them master academic content and skills at a greater level than if behavior needs were not acknowledged and met. Students with vulnerabilities due to deficits in prerequisite skills will need us to build this background knowledge. This modification will both ameliorate gaps in prior skills and equip students to master the prioritized outcomes of a given grade level or course, albeit not as many outcomes. These modifications will result in covering fewer standards; it’s the right thing to do for our most vulnerable students, and it requires courage and conviction. Depth is more important breadth; mastery more important than coverage.


  1. Another area in which focus is critical and too infrequently practiced is in intervening and remediating for students for whom the need had been identified. The best intervention is a targeted intervention. Reteaching the entirety of a preceding unit of instruction, when evidence suggests that a sufficient level of mastery was not attained, is impractical and inefficient. Instead, we must focus on the specific outcomes with which students require assistance, and focus on the causal factors (e.g., the way we taught, gaps in necessary perquisite skills) of the difficulty. Similarly, when a student reads far below the level at which they ought to read given their grade or age, providing a broad intensive reading intervention is impractical and inefficient. Reading is a complex set of skills, but a complex set of skills about which we know a great deal. Instead of providing intensive intervention in all domains of reading, provide targeted supports in phonological awareness and/or single-syllabic phonics and/or mutli-syallabic phonics and/or fluency and/or vocabulary/comprehension based on a fifteen minute reading inventory conducted with the student that reveals and diagnoses an immediate and antecedent need.


  1. Lastly, we must focus the initiatives that we invite or require schools and staffs to implement. Initiative fatigue, or in its most severe form, death-by-initiative, is a very real concern in education. Let’s embrace the wisdom of the Pareto Principle (McKeown, 2014) and focus on one or two improvement efforts for which we have evidence of need and for which there is a high likelihood of profound impacts; other areas not directly impacted by the improvement effort will, in our experiences and based on the Pareto Principle, similarly improve. For example, students with more well-developed behavioral skills learn more academic skills; students who can comprehend texts more confidently and competently are likely to perform better in the sciences and social sciences; students with more mature behavioral and academic skills will probably been more engaged and less likely to exhibit less asocial behavioral skills. Instead of new initiatives, let’s continue to work together, systematically, to improve the significant improvement efforts to which we have, after gathering evidence, researching, collaborating, and planning, dedicated ourselves.


Educating students is complex; let’s not make it more complicated. As we will attempt to clearly describe, the tasks associated with organizing ourselves on behalf of students, and of organizing teaching and learning, are simpler than we have allowed it to be.