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

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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.


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  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.

Applying, Not Just Acquisition of Content Knowledge, is Critical

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There is an overwhelming amount of research and policy supporting the fact the skills are as critical as content. And it’s common sense. Knowledge isn’t worth much if we can’t use it. And knowledge won’t be retained if we don’t use it.

We know what to do. We now must do it, with more frequency, consistency, and success. Here are a few new practices that the incredible educators with whom I am lucky enough to work have put in place:

  • Our district, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, from science to Visual and Performing Arts, is revisiting and redesigning content areas and courses to favor depth over breadth, so that retention of knowledge improves, so that there is time for learning to be more active and for learners to be more empowered, and so that students have time and opportunities to apply skills. Prioritization allows us to achieve better balance and balance allows us to meet our mission.
  • Our secondary science teachers recognize that when prioritizing outcomes, it’s the Science and Engineering Practices – the skills – that are critical. The Disciplinary Core Ideas – the content – are the contexts within the skills are applied. It may not be necessary to cover all the content as if it is equally important; it is essential that students learn and have opportunities to apply the skills. In lessons, students are using knowledge .Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) is a great example. Students work with new material by interpreting models and creating inferences to answer questions. The answers they generate are then “put to the test” with additional models. Often times, they will need to go back to the original models and re-interpret. Students are acquiring content via application. These two should not be separate ideas. They are intertwined. Students may or may not remember specific content years from now, but they will remember how to struggle, self-assess, and modify your understanding.
  • Our teachers are requiring students to make claims and justify claims with evidence in all content areas, from Kindergarten through high school. In grade six and above, we additionally ask students to add reasoning to their claim and evidence – to provide a reasoned explanation that connects the claim they have made and the evidence they have provided. The C-E-R is a central, common-sense strategy that reinforces skills and guides teachers and students in applying skills to content knowledge.
  • Our teachers are asking students to model their understanding and explain why these models make sense. There are various ways of modeling. Models can be schematics, diagrams, visual representations, or concrete objects, and they also be metaphors and formulas. Additionally, teachers are much more regularly requiring students to explain and justify approaches and solutions. Modeling, explaining, and justifying are critical skills in all content areas.
  • Our teachers of AP courses are eagerly following the College Board’s redesigns (2018) that will result in a greater emphasis on inquiry, reasoning, and communication skills and a better balance between breadth and depth. As we strive to increase equity and access, we are working to ensure that the sheer quantity of content to cover in advanced courses does not compromise the success of some students and limit the future success in specific disciplines of all students.

Let Mr. Elmer make common sense of RTI/MTSS/PBIS, and help you tell each student’s WHOLE story.


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Since the shift toward common standards (initially at the state level) prompted by A Nation at Risk (1983), this more recent shifts toward skills applied to content as opposed to the simple acquisition of content knowledge may represent the most significant curricular change we’ve experienced in 35 years.

We all must make a commitment to thinking and doing differently in our teaching within content areas and courses so that our students are prepared for the realities and demands of today’s society and workplaces. Knowledge and skills are inextricably linked.

If we want students to apply what they learn in K-12 when they enter college and a skilled career, it’s common sense that we must model, teach, and provide opportunities to apply and employ reasoning skills. It’s common sense that we have a better balance of content and skills.

Four Engaging Strategies

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Inquiry-based approaches represent a more facilitated form of teaching and learning. These approaches contain many of the same elements of more directed lesson designs; the order of these elements is certainly different as are the purposes and types of tasks and the types of teaching strategies. It’s generally agreed that there are four phases of an inquiry-based approach to learning, During Phase 1, students interact with the content or task, independently or with peers, “doing it alone” or “doing it together.” Either way, they’re doing the doing. In the next phase, students clarify their thinking, through a guided of process summarizing, paraphrasing, and categorizing. This can and often occurs with the teacher – the class is now “doing it together.” Sometimes, the teacher may need to provide a model or “I do it.” The thinking and work from Phase 1 is analyzed and misconceptions are examined and collectively corrected. Within Phase 2, the class develops questions, or inquiries, that drive the rest of the lesson. These questions may relate to misunderstandings that were uncovered in Phase 1. Phase 3 is the longest and most important portion of the lesson, when students launch into inquiry – into doing the thinking and doing. It is likely that Phase 2 (and even Phase 1) will be revisited as needed. The last phase, Phase 4, of the approach is when students to design and/or produce solutions that meet the need or goal that framed and launched the inquiry. Phase 4 provides a lesson’s culminating evidence that informs future teaching and learning.

Another more-facilitated approach to teaching and learning – an approach in which students are doing more of the thinking, writing, and doing – is Argument Driven Inquiry. Commonly in use in our secondary science classrooms, Argument Driven Inquiry typically has eight stages. In Stage 1, the teacher presents a real-world scientific phenomenon and students (or, in some cases, the teacher) identify a question they’d like to examine and a task they may complete to figure out how things work or why things happen. At Stage 2, groups of students design their method for collecting data and gathering evidence. Stage 3 sees teams of students make initial claims (or arguments) based on evidence that they gathered and justified through logical reasoning. In Stage 4, teams share their initial claims and receive feedback from other teams who ask questions of the claims, evidence, and reasoning, before each team makes revisions to their initial arguments. Teams reflect upon their conclusions, making connections to other topics and to broader concepts during Stage 5. At Stage 6, each student reports their processes and results, employing the skills of the discipline, such as analysis, interpretation, modeling, argumentation, and constructing explanations. Within Stage 7, teams review the reports from students in their teams, allowing opportunities to read, evaluate, and critique an argumentative text and provide feedback to their peers. Finally, in Stage 8, each student revises revise and resubmits their report.


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Another facilitated approach is Question Formulation Technique, a process that guides students to produce, improve, and prioritize their questions. Students 1) Design a question focus; 2) Produce a set of questions related to this focus; 3) Specifically craft both closed-ended and open-ended questions; 4) Prioritize their questions based on their quality and connection to the topic; 5) Plan for the steps that they will (or would) use to answer their questions; and 6) Reflect on the process and quality of their questions.

The new science frameworks and standards, referred to in many states and districts as the Next Generation Science Standards, do a terrific job of representing learning in which students do more of the thinking, writing, and doing. While not a new framework, this new approach involves the use of a 5E lesson design. Students are first Engaged, typically with a real-world phenomenon that contextualizes and motivates the learning. Next, students Explore a concept through hands-on or minds-on tasks. Then, students attempt to Explain their findings and emerging understandings with teachers providing guidance, clarifications, and vocabulary if and when necessary; students are the ones trying to make meaning and make sense. The next step requires the class to Elaborate: Students develop a more complete understanding of the concept, assign vocabulary and scientific ideas to their explanations, and apply new knowledge to daily lives and fresh contexts. Lastly, the students and teacher Evaluate progress toward and mastery of the learning targets related to the lesson’s concept and learning targets; these evaluations or checks for understanding occur during and toward the end of the learning experience and inform future teaching and learning.

Inquiry-based approaches, Argument Driven Inquiry, Question Formulation Technique, and the 5E lesson model are means to an end – the end is more active learning. While each approach is represented by a set of steps, the steps themselves should be viewed a simply guidance; it’s the common sense ideals described by the steps that matter.


Taking the mystery out of MTSS

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RTI, MTSS, and PBIS are Common Sense in Action. Intervention Compass and Mr. Elmer empower educators to make the common sense more common.

The common sense benefits of RTI, MTSS, and PBIS can be relatively easy to realize with the right tool and technology. You don’t have to be an expert. Intervention Compass minimizes the labor, streamlines the processes, and removes the confusions that teachers and administrators sometimes have when attempting to implement systems of supports.

All you have to do is log in to Intervention Compass and serve students.

What follows are common questions for which there are common sense responses; Intervention Compass guides educators in delivering on the common sense.

How can schools deliver on their mission statements?

RTI, MTSS, and PBIS operationalize a schools’ mission statement: “We believe that all students can learn and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.” Designing structures that ensure that all students receive the supports that they need is a moral imperative. Intervention Compass is designed around the structures of systems of supports.

We understand that student needs ought to be predictable; how do we proactively prepare for these needs?

We can predict the types of supports that students will need: Some students will require differentiation and scaffolds to access learning opportunities, to optimally succeed and grow within core environments (what is commonly known as Tier 1); some students will need additional time and alternative supports at the completion of units of instruction, as revealed by evidence, to master core priorities and others will be ready for greater levels of complexity and will greatly benefit from opportunities to delve into priorities at greater levels of depth (what is commonly known as Tier 2); some students will be in desperate need of immediate, intensive, and targeted supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills and other students will benefit from opportunities to dive deep into a passion – highly specialized supports to meet students’ at, and nudge them from, their zones of proximal development (what is commonly known as Tier 3). The tiers of support represent proactive preparation for predictable needs. Within Intervention Compass, educators are prompted to take action when needs emerge.

When is the right time to initiate supports for a student who is experiencing difficulty?

Students need not fail within core environments for six weeks and then receive core and more supports (Tier 1 + Tier 2) for six more weeks before they received intensive and targeted supports; students at great risk for experiencing failure and frustration immediately receive highly specialized (Tier 3) supports. When we identify a student with a significant deficit in foundational skills, must act with a sense of urgency and provide immediate intervention. Students can also be provided with highly specialized supports if core and more are proven insufficient; if students are not adequately responding to a combination of core and more supports, then we should strive to diagnose a likely cause and provide a targeted, intensive intervention. Student study teams should become involved earlier; they should not be the gatekeepers to a formal evaluation. These expert teams should collaboratively inform highly specialized supports. Students should not need to rely upon a specific teacher to advocate for their success. We have all the data that we need to identify students who are at grave risk of failure. We must act. And, documentation, or lack thereof, should never be the gatekeeper to a child receiving support. Intervention Compass empowers teams, streamlines data and documentation, and guides educators to meet student needs in a timely manner.

How do we efficiently and effectively monitor the progress of students, whether in response to core instruction or intervention?

There is no RTI if we cannot measure the extent to which students are responding to instruction and intervention. We must proactively plan for efficient and effective checks to fulfill the following evidence-gathering need: To what extent are students responding to supplemental supports? We call this progress monitoring and use various methods to gather feedback.

We must measure the efficacy of our efforts on behalf of students. Intervention Compass reminds educators when to monitor progress and automatically plots progress and illustrates growth on Data Walls.

We have a decent handle on academics; how do we effectively meet students’ behavioral needs?

Behaviors are as critical as academics. We have not encountered many students with significant deficits in foundational academic skills for whom years of academic failure and frustration have not led to significant behavioral needs. We have not encountered many students with significant deficits in behavioral skills whose behavioral challenges have not contributed to academic difficulties. And for all students, the behaviors, habits, and attributes known as 21st century skills, self-regulation, or executive functioning are as critical to success in college, career, and life as academics.

Intervention Compass has behavioral and social-emotional learning skills programmed into its DNA. No matter the student need, Intervention Compass will do the backend work and allow educators to serve students.

Intervention Compass by Mr. Elmer is designed to take care of the logistics of RTI, MTSS, and PBIS so that educators can focus on serving the needs of the students in their classrooms and schools. By automating, prompting, and guiding teams and teachers through the principles of systems of supports, Intervention Compass helps ensure that RTI, MTSS, and PBIS deliver on their research-based promise.

Foundational Principles of RTI


We have written that response to intervention, or RTI, is a verb (Hierck & Weber, 2015), as in, “To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention? To what extent are students RTI’ing?”

To extend the metaphor, RTI is not a noun. There are multiple methods and approaches to designing systems of supports for each and every student. Each school has local, contextual needs that require local, contextual responses.

RTI integrates the powerful features of PLCs, UDL, Special Education, Gifted Education, and Differentiation into a cohesive whole that is great than the sum of its parts, with efficiencies and without duplicated or uncoordinated efforts.

And while the many important elements within which schools must exercise their professional judgment when designing their “System,” there are also non-negotiables—the foundational principles below—that must guide our efforts of behalf of all students’ learning at high levels within RTI.

Foundational Principles

  1. RTI operationalizes our schools’ mission statements: “We believe that all students can learn and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.” Designing structures that ensure that all students receive the supports that they need is a moral imperative. And education is a civil right. It’s social justice. RTI is the concrete representation of the imperative.
  2. We can predict the types of supports that students will need: Some students will require differentiation and scaffolds to access learning opportunities, to optimally succeed and grow within core environments (what is commonly known as Tier 1); some students will need additional time and alternative supports at the completion of units of instruction, as revealed by evidence, to master core priorities and others will be ready for greater levels of complexity and will greatly benefit from opportunities to delve into priorities at greater levels of depth (what is commonly known as Tier 2); some students will be in desperate need of immediate, intensive, and targeted supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills and other students will benefit from opportunities to dive deep into a passion – highly specialized supports to meet students’ at, and nudge them from, their zones of proximal development (what is commonly known as Tier 3). If we can predict it, we can prepare for it. RTI represents our proactive preparation for predictable needs.
  3. We passionately subscribe to the practice of teach less, learn more. Students deserve more rigorous and relevant learning opportunities. The deserve opportunities to practice 21st century skills. They deserve differentiated, individualized, and personalized learning paths. To give students what they deserve—to meet the mission statement of so many schools (“We believe that all student can learn and we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”), we must challenge the inch-deep, mile-wide mentality of our curricular programs. We must favor:
  • Depth over breath;
  • Verbs (skills) over nouns (content);
  • Integrated disciplinary tasks over tasks related to singular content areas;
  • Quality over quantity; and
  • Mastery over coverage.
  1. Don’t bother with RTI if you don’t believe high levels of learning for all students are inevitable. Don’t go through the motions so that you can compliantly satisfy a policy or mandate. There is compelling experiential and neurological evidence to confirm that all students can learn at high levels and it’s our professional obligation. There is no one else who can or should serve students’ academic, pro-social, and pro-functional skill needs. We must simply continue to adjust and revise—to identify the causes, antecedents, or explanations—we just need to find the right support. High levels of learning for all are inevitabilities. And all means all—if a student will be expected to live a happy and productive adult life without accommodations and modifications (which is the case for 99% of students, including the majority of students with IEPs), then they are in the ALL category.



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5. All students receive all levels of support:

Differentiated: Teaching and learning cycles for grade-level and course-specific behavioral and academic priorities for all students. Teachers respond to a student’s unique learning needs by making adjustments to process, content, product, and environments based on a student’s interests, learning profile, and readiness levels. These supports are often described as Tier 1.

  • Quality not quantity
  • Depth not breadth
  • Mastery not coverage
  • Scaffolded, differentiated, respectful
  • Skills/content…verbs/nouns
  • Pro-social and pro-functional skills
    • Self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional
  • 21st century skills
    • Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication

Individualized: 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 can achieve reach greater depths of understanding. If differentiation is the how, then individualization is the when. Learning progresses at different speeds; some students may need to review previously covered material, while others may be ready to immerse themselves in a certain topic. These supports are often described as Tier 2.

  • Benjamin Bloom
  • Time + Support = Learning
  • Informed by short-cycle assessments
  • More time:
    • for alternative supports
    • to gain mastery of the priorities
  • Buffer time
  • Teacher-directed small groups
  • Intervention & enrichment
  • Intended to prevent students from falling behind…or falling farther behind

Personalized and Specialized: Intervention and enrichment to meet students’ at the forward edge of their zones of proximal development; intensive supports to meet significant deficits in foundational skills AND opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of passions into which they will dive deeply. Extending the metaphor, if differentiation is the how and individualization is the when, the personalization is the where—as in, where are students in their learning journey. Students who are not yet performing at expected levels, due to significant deficits in foundational skills, receive targeted and intensive supports at the leading edge of their zone of proximal development to close the gap. Students who are meeting and exceeding age and grade expectations dig deeper into areas of interest. All students’ experiences are tailored to preferences and interests; support is paced to students’ unique needs. Students are involved in the creation and monitoring of their learning path. These supports are often described as Tier 3. Tier 3 supports:

  • Are proactive and immediate
  • Are diagnostically driven and targeted
  • Are intensive
  • Are coordinated
  • Ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills
  • Include personalized learning plans

When all students receive the supports that we have predicted and proactively planned, high levels of learning for all and readiness for college and career will be a reality.

There are innumerable forms that successful RTI may take. The size of the school, the needs of staffs, students, and communities, and the realities of resources will all contribute to the logistical characteristics of core, more, and specialized supports, including but not limited to:

  • Which staff performs which roles, and when?
  • How and when are core, more, and highly specialized supports scheduled.
  • How and with what tools and processes are students screened to determine who is most vulnerable and immediately in need of supports?
  • Which resources will we need to meet student needs?
  • How will allocate human, fiscal, and material resources?
  • How and with what tools and processes will we monitor the progress of students and the efficacy of our efforts?

We must address these questions and others, and our answers will undoubtedly be distinct. However, the 16 foundational principles described above must be the same for all schools that commit to building a system of supports based on the principles and practices of RTI.

The Leaders I Admire – Part 2

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The leaders I admire, and the leadership I strive to practice, are mixtures of confidence, humility, and empathy. It’s common sense. What follows are attributes of leadership that I have gleaned from the incredible mentors from whom I have been blessed to learn. These attributes match very well what leadership experts propose:

  • Leaders are listeners, learners, influencers, and persuaders: In my experiences, a leader who dictates and mandates either won’t last long or will impact short-term shifts that just won’t last. I believe that our shortcomings in these areas are related to, unfortunately incorrect assumptions. We sometimes, tragically, assume that the individuals who we lead don’t know, of worse, don’t care. In fact, leaders are coaches, whether interpreted as athletic coaches or cognitive coaches; leaders assume that the individuals who they are honored to lead possess great abilities. Our job is to bring out the best in those we serve, in those we coach. We do this by listening to understand, by learning about the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders, by summarizing and openly problem-solving, and by influencing and persuading individuals and the team to even higher levels of performance. Yes, we must be patiently persistent – the stakes for students are too high – but coaches combine patience and persistence in a blend informed by love, respect, energy, and high expectations. I memorably forgot this lesson as a school principal (most definitely not the only time I failed as a leader). The school team had identified a goal and had agreed to meet it, but my ego led me astray. I became myopically focused on my idea about how to meet the goal and failed to listen and learn. We recognized that we needed to increase the amount of time that students spent engaged in instructional tasks. I heard of a school that had extended their school day by thirty minutes and increased potential instructional time by over two hours a week. I cajoled (and strong-armed) the staff and community into adopting this plan. I wasn’t listening, I was rushing; and I was definitely attempting to move faster than the speed of trust. Luckily, the staff with which I worked was amazing. They pointed out that there were concerns, even flaws, in my plan. I finally listened. They further pointed out that there were other approaches that would result in us also meeting our goal. Through their creativity, we did just that and annual student achievement continued to increase. When I shifted from dictator to coach and facilitated the change process, we effectively and happily made changes that benefited all stakeholders. Leadership is as collaborative as teaching.



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  • Leadership must be shared and developed: Leadership is infinite. The job is too challenging for there to be a limited number of leaders. Administrators are leaders, teachers are leaders (of their departments, their teams, their classrooms), parents are leaders. Even if a new leader (at the district or site) could do it alone, the more empowered an individual, the more invested the individual. Leaders must be confident and humble to share “power” and we should be; we’ve already got the job and the best way of keeping the job is to trust colleagues and empower the individuals with whom we work. The district in which I work models this practice is two significant ways. First, every administrator at every level receives extensive leadership professional learning opportunities at least once a month. These 2-4 hour opportunities build the capacity of the positional leaders within the district. Not surprisingly, the focus of these sessions is on listening to, learning with, and influencing the colleagues we serve to even higher levels of effectiveness. The second example of the district’s commitment to shared leadership is the monthly, multi-hour session with our PLC facilitator coaches. These coaches are provided release time within their day to lead their colleagues in the work of teaching and learning within PLC teams. It’s an example of leaders supporting leaders who support leaders – district leaders build the capacity of the PLC facilitator-coach leaders who support their teacher-leader colleagues back at their sites. Both of these commitments to nurturing leaders within the district are big investments of money and time into the shared responsibility of serving our colleagues, students, and communities.
  • Empowering colleagues is a key goal of PLCs at Work: A reason for the enduring legacy of PLCs at Work is that there is more to the concept than the powerful practices that districts, schools, and teams apply. An underlying principle of PLCs at Work is that we believe in one another. Educators who fully embrace their professional responsibilities understand that leaders exist at all levels of the organization and that the educators closest to the student – teacher teams – are best positioned to make decisions – to lead – in areas related to curriculum and instruction.

Leaders are primary shapers of cultures.

It’s common sense; if our goals are engaged stakeholders, leaders must take the lead in intentionally fostering cultures of high expectations.

I believe that we have as much growth to make in the art and science of leadership as we do in any other single aspect of our incredible profession. We most definitely have the capacity to make this growth. We will go a long way toward improving as leaders by increasingly viewing leadership as a collaborative endeavor.

Our leadership is never more needed than it is in designing systems of supports for all students that proactively prepare for the anticipatable needs of our students.

The Leaders I Admire – Part 1


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The leaders I admire, and the leadership I strive to practice, are mixtures of confidence, humility, and empathy. It’s common sense. While one may be the positional leader, leading by bossing people around is very unlikely to be effective, particularly in the long term. Leaders simply don’t need to have all the answers; in fact, the people with whom we work don’t want us to or need us to have all the answers; they may very well have answers that are as good as our ideas. So, I recommend leaders at all levels have the confidence and humility to engage colleagues in the continuous improvement process through a partnership and through questions. And, recognize that we’re all working as hard as we can; have empathy that changes are inherently stressful.

What follows are attributes of leadership that I have gleaned from the incredible mentors from whom I have been blessed to learn. These attributes match very well what leadership experts propose:

  • We can only move at the speed of trust: Relationships matter so much. In the case of relationships between educational professionals, continuous improvements and changes cannot be rushed. If time is not devoted to defining the why behind the necessary shifts and to listening to concerns, questions, and suggestions from all stakeholders, then, in my experiences, the change will not be successful and resentments may develop that dwell for years. My current school district recognizes that trust and transparency are inextricably linked. The new standards in English-language arts, mathematics, science, and history-social science have created a need to engage school communities in continuous improvement and provided the opportunity to practice trust-based, interest-based problem-solving. The district leaders with whom I currently work have employed such practices for the past several years. Groups of stakeholders are brought together from within the school district and from the surrounding community, including parents, industry professionals, and college/university experts. This stakeholder group reviews the conditions that necessitate the change; in the case of new curricular frameworks, the reason for and the nature of required changes are defined and historical student data is shared with successes celebrated and opportunities for improvements identified. Next, the story of the district in relation to the area of change is collectively told – where have we been and where are we now? Then, stakeholders identify the interests upon which all agree. These are not actions or decisions on what and how; the interests represent the ideals or north stars that will guide the work of the stakeholder committee and the decisions of the district (the what and how) going forward. Trust is being built, in large part, because of the how and the what is preceded by devoting as much time as needed to the why. Leaders mandate at their peril. Trust must be earned and continuously nurtured.



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  • Accept that Questioning Change isn’t Resistance, it’s Engagement: When the individuals that we serve and with whom we work as leaders seem to “push back,” we must resist the temptation to respond with equal force. Change is hard, whether the changes occur in our professional or personal life. If we can predict that change will create discomfort, then let’s prevent any negative outcomes we can by facilitating and leading the change in a collaborative, systematic manner. Among the reasons that change is difficult are: There are concerns with uncertainty; with perceived loss of control; with expected losses to the efficacy of the oneself and the organization; and with a mistrust forward the change agents and the change process (Fox & Amichai-Hamburger, 2001). Leaders can mitigate these difficulties by successfully addressing the five domains reported by Lippitt (1987). The first is sharing the vision; when stakeholders do not have a clear understanding of the vision and the whys, reasons, and need of a change, confusion will occur. The second is ensuring that stakeholders possess the necessary skills; when stakeholders do not possess the knowledge and abilities to successfully and confidently make the change, then anxiety will be the result. A commitment to initial and ongoing professional learning must be made. Third, there need to be incentives for the change; in what way will students benefit and in what ways will the satisfaction and effectiveness of educators be enhanced. A sometimes forgotten incentive is accountable. We must hold one another accountable to making changes that align to the vision. If an incentive to change does not exist, then changes and improvements will be uneven at best. The fourth domain is ensuring that resources necessary to implement the change have been acquired and shared; when resources are insufficient, then frustrations will be felt. The last domain is the presence and execution of an action plan. A clearly communicated and well implemented plan, through launch, ongoing supports, monitoring, and adjustments, will help prevent false starts. These five domains will help leaders successfully effect change. Assuming the best intentions of stakeholders, including those who ask the tough questions, is a necessary prerequisite. We have used this change paradigm to plan and manage our continuous improvement efforts. Schools deserve leaders who lean in.

From Compliance to Empowerment



Student empowerment is a popular topic. And it should be.

Student empowerment is often represented along a continuum. On one side of this continuum is compliance. On the other end of this continuum is empowerment. Somewhere in between is engagement.

John Spencer and A. J. Juiliani, in their excellent book, Empower: What Happens When Student Own Their Own Learning, describe each of the terms in the following way:

  • Compliance: Inclined to agree with others or obey rules, especially to an excessive degree; acquiescent.
  • Engaged: The merging of two key factors: high commitment and high attention.
  • Empowerment: The merging of two key factors: high commitment and high attention.

In my district, I observe teachers increasingly empowering students: 1) promoting more personalized learning for students, 2) designing experiences that are related to student interests, and 3) partnering with students as they track their progress toward mastery of learning targets.

Empowering students may go by different names or may be defined by different terms:

  • It may be described as student ownership.
  • It may involve greater individualization and personalization of learning.
  • It may allow students greater choice over the pace, place, path, and time (of day) of learning.
  • Referring to choice, it may result in increased choice and voice regarding their learning, and greater agency (or greater influence or a greater stake or more responsibility) in their learning journey.
  • It may be represented by tasks that are more rigorous and more relevant.

However we define empowerment, there is agreement that more student involvement in what takes place in classrooms and schools is a good and necessary thing, promoting higher levels of motivation and better-preparing students to succeed in school, college, career, and life.

[As an aside, in my district, we do not believe that empowerment is inherently good and that compliance is inherently bad. Elements of compliance, engagement, and empowerment are likely present in the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and week-to-week cycle of a classroom community.]

The shifts along this compliance-engagement-empowerment continuum don’t only apply to students; we should apply them to ourselves, the adults and educators within districts and schools.



How do you make sure each student is empowered?

We can help you make common sense of RTI/MTSS/PBIS, and tell each student’s WHOLE story.

Visit www.MrElmer.com to learn about Chris Weber’s favorite student support software.


There are student needs about which we cannot and should not continue to complain about. There are staff needs about which we cannot and should not continue to complain.

We must act. We must embrace empowerment.

As a teacher and principal, I was embarrassed by my feelings of helplessness, and by my ignorance of what to do, when attempting to support students with unique behavioral needs. Eventually, instead of complaining about student behaviors, instead of expecting others to fix students’ behavioral challenges, we acted. We recognized that behavioral skills, like academic skills, need to be defined, unpacked, and explicitly taught (and modeled and nurtured). We accepted that, when wondering what to do (and who would do it) regarding student behaviors, we were the answer we’d been waiting for. We studied. We learned. We put systems of supports into place. Over time, we moved from complaining to compliance to engagement to empowerment.

So what would staff empowerment look like when applied to nurturing positive and productive student behaviors and life skills?

Staffs would start by enthusiastically accepting (embracing) the responsibility for nurturing essential behavioral skills with and within students. If not us, then who?

Staffs would then, with the involvement or parents, students, and community members, identify those behaviors deemed to be most critical to success: skills such as positive mindsets, perseverance, organization, study skills, and social respect and responsibilities may emerge as important attributes. School communities may recognize that student attendance at school, the completion of classwork and homework, and the ability to be engaged in classroom lessons and collaborative work depend upon skills that are not necessarily innate and that can and must be taught and learned. Staff would finally conclude that a motivated student – a student who appears to be motivated – is a student who possesses and consistently displays these behavioral skills.

Identifying essential behavioral skills would naturally lead to defining what it looks like and sounds like when these behavioral skills are displayed. Following the same processes and principles we use in academics, staffs would then collaboratively plan for the instructional pedagogies, practices, opportunities, and experiences that could be planned and delivered so that all students receive core instruction in behaviors. Staff would gather evidence (assess) student mastery of these skills so that future teaching and learning would be proactively informed and would plan (in advance) for the differentiated supports that some students will need.

Staffs would be empowered and would feel empowered. They would accept that if all means all – if all students must learn at high levels – then we must anticipate that some students will experience difficulties in meeting these expectations because of behavioral skill needs, and they’d be ready and willing to support these needs. Tier 2 and 3 supports would be anticipated and planned for, just as they can and should be for academic skills.

It’s alright. As educators, we weren’t necessarily trained to teach behaviors. It’s not alright to ignore the need, and abdicate the responsibility, for the teaching and learning of behavioral skills.

We must advance beyond compliance (“Ok, I’ll follow this classroom management plan and the student handbook that tells me the consequences I can assign when students misbehave”) toward empowerment, taking charge and taking responsibility for teaching students the behavioral skills they need to succeed, and preparing the supports necessary for all students to learn these vital life skills.

Research and the Common Sense of RTI-MTSS

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Visible Learning reports that response to intervention has an effective size that places this schoolwide support system in the top 5 practices in which schools can be engaged, out of over 200 such practices (Hattie, 2015). Of course, the research of Benjamin Bloom (Bloom, 1968, 1974, 1984), dating from the 1960s, validated the efficacy of response to intervention; Tom Guskey (2010) has interpreted Bloom’s work for the modern educator. Reading experts Richard Allington (2011) and Robert Slavin (2018) have both highlighted the effectiveness of response to intervention and have noted that we’re not doing it as well as we can. My research and practice, with Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos, and Tom Hierck (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015), also confirm the transformative impacts of designing and implementing systems of supports that proactively prepare for students’ anticipated needs. These systems of supports are among the most-research-based initiatives with which educators can engage (Burns & Symington, 2002; Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, & Moody, 2000; Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, Linan-Thompson, et al., 2009a; Gersten, Beckmann, Clarke, Foegen, Marsh, Star, et al., 2009b; Hattie, 2012; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2000; VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007).

The common sense aspects of response described here are matched by decades of research and my personal experiences that response is a worthwhile, and very necessary endeavor in which to engage.

RTI is common sense in action. The tiers of supports that represent RTI are schools’ systematic approaches to addressing a common sense reality: If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.

Anticipating that some students will need additional supports is predictable.

Anticipating that students will be become frustrated and will fall farther behind in the absence of proactively planned supports is predictable.

An outcome of frustrated students who fall farther and farther behind is preventable.

If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.


How do you monitor each student’s learning journey?

We can help you make common sense of RTI/MTSS/PBIS, and tell each student’s WHOLE story.

Visit www.MrElmer.com to learn about Chris Weber’s favorite student support software.

We need to regularly ask, “What student needs can we anticipate?” For what supports can we proactively plan and prepare?” PLC teams must continuously ask, “To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention?”

Designing and implementing systems of supports for students is common sense.

  1. We can predict that students will bring different learning styles, interests, and readiness levels to core learning environments; let’s prevent frustration and the wasting of time by being ready with differentiated supports, particularly scaffolded supports so that highly vulnerable students can successfully access priorities.
  2. We can predict that some students will need more time to master core priorities and that other students will benefit from enrichment within and toward the conclusion of units of instruction; we can predict that not all students will learn on our timetables or in response to our first, best instruction; let’s prevent students from falling behind and other students from missing opportunities to reach greater depths of learning by embedding time for supports into our unit plans.
  3. We can predict that some students coming to us at the beginning of each new school year will have significant deficits in foundational skills; let’s prevent continued failure and frustration by providing students with immediate, intensive, and targeted supports that explicitly address these needs.

The three scenarios represented above are realities for which we can be prepared and situations that should not cause surprise. RTI does not have three tiers because some wise sage dictated from on high that three tiers was best. There are three tiers because there are three predictable types of supports that we can anticipate students will need. The situations above describe what we do, and the reason for doing it, at each tier.

It’s common sense. And yet, as we often do, I fear we’ve overly complicated RTI. One straightforward way of describing the three tiers of supports, whether applied to academic or behavioral skills, is using the terms proactive, targeted, and organized.

We gather evidence, we collaboratively analyze evidence, and we collectively design supports in response to this evidence to meet student needs. In other words, we check for understanding, whether formally or informally, so that we can intervene – no matter the type of need, no matter the tier of support.