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.
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Our approach was simple:
- 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.
- We provided these interventions and students responded – their deficits in foundational skills were ameliorated and their mastery of grade level priorities improved.
- We had frequent and multiple measures to validate this effectiveness, and as noted, end-of-the-year, high-stakes assessments confirmed these gains.
- We embraced the “teach less, learn more” approach to core instruction. We focused on depth, not breadth; on mastery, not coverage.
- 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.
- 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.
- We supported teachers by providing high quality professional learning in differentiated instruction, learning models, high leverage strategies, and collaborative practices.
- 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.