Ensuring Successful Collaboration

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At its core, RTI is about creating a collective response when students need additional support, rather than leaving this response up to each individual teacher. This process is predicated on the staff having the time necessary to work together. When collaborative time is not embedded within the contract day, teachers are too often forced to make a choice between meeting the needs of their students at school and their children at home, or between making teaching their career or making it their entire life.

We have seen hundreds of examples of how schools have embedded collaborative time within the staff’s contracted work time. The key criteria are: (1) it must be frequent, (2) it must be during a time that the faculty is paid to be on campus, and (3) it must be mandatory that every staff member participate. We have found that weekly team meetings are necessary for effective teacher collaborative teams. the meeting must also be of a duration that allows for meaningful work. Powerful, targeted collaborative meetings can take place within forty-five to sixty minutes. Finally, the meeting must be mandatory. Collaboration by invitation rarely works. 

Considering that the professional learning communities process is endorsed by virtually every national teacher professional associations, it is difficult to understand why a teaching professional would desire or expect the right to work in isolation. More importantly, if a teacher is allowed to opt out of team collaboration, then that teacher’s students will not benefit from the collective skills and expertise of the entire team. If the purpose of collective responsibility is to ensure that all students learn at high levels, then allowing any teacher to work in isolation would be unacceptable.  

Occasionally, we encounter schools that claim to be stumped in their efforts to find the time necessary for collaboration. We find this perplexing, as the average teacher is paid to be on campus six to seven hours a day, totaling thirty to forty hours a week. Is it really impossible to carve out thirty or forty minutes of meeting time out of a thirty-five-hour work week? More often than not, the problem is that the school is trying to find “extra” time, while keeping the current schedule unaltered. Very few schools have extra time in their schedule—that is, time that is currently unallocated to any particular purpose. For this reason, the task is not to find time for collaboration, but rather to make collaborative time a priority.  

To illustrate this point, we offer this analogy. Imagine you visited your doctor and were told, “Your test results are in, and you are severely diabetic. You must begin taking daily insulin shots—without them, you could die.” What is the likelihood you would respond, “But doctor, you don’t understand. I’m so busy; I don’t have time to take insulin”? Not likely. Instead, you would probably take out your calendar, pencil in the insulin shots, and then build everything else around it. This is what schools must do to create collaborative time—make it the highest priority, pencil it into the schedule, then build everything else around it.   

We cannot overemphasize the importance of setting team norms—or collective commitments—to guide professional behavior while collaborating. True collaboration often requires staff members to have difficult conversations, and educators are passionate about their beliefs. People can feel vulnerable discussing the best ways to meet the needs of students or the current reality of what is not working. For this reason, teams must set collective commitments regarding how they are going to act with each other, such as starting and ending meetings on time, coming prepared, and sharing the workload equally. #ese norms are so important that they are not merely recorded in a notebook and never looked at again. Instead, they are reviewed at the start of team meetings and revised as needed. Unfortunately, some schools struggle with building a collaborative culture because personal conflicts stop the team from functioning efficiently. It would be truly tragic if meeting the needs of students becomes impossible simply because the adults in the building cannot treat each other professionally. 

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What is an Intervention?

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When a school creates a culture focused on collective responsibility for student learning, ensures that every educator is part of a high-performing team, identifies the essentials standards that all students must master, and frequently measures student learning and teaching effectiveness, a vast majority of the school’s students are going to succeed. But our goal is not to have most students learn. If we want to achieve our mission of high levels of learning for every child, then we must be prepared with additional time and support for every student that demonstrates the need. Invariably, some students will need some extra help from time to time, while a few students will require a lot of extra help nearly every day. In other words, we must be prepared with a system of interventions designed to meet the unique needs of each child. There are three critical considerations a school must address when creating an effective system of interventions. 

First, a school must build a toolbox of effective interventions. Students struggle at school for a multitude of reasons, so a school must be prepared with a variety of proven responses. Second, there must be time available during the school day to provide additional support without having students miss essential core instruction. Finally, there must be a systematic, timely, and reliable process to identify students in need of additional support. Without a foolproof identification process, some students will slip through the cracks. Failure to address these three critical components will place a school’s RTI efforts on shaky ground and ultimately undermine the entire process.

Many schools and districts argue endlessly about the language used to define the words intervention, strategy, and core instruction. To bring clarity to the topic, an intervention is anything a school does, above and beyond what all students receive, that helps a child succeed in school. This additional support can be a practice, method, strategy, and/or program. The important consideration is this: if all kids at a school receive it, then it is part of Tier 1 core instruction and would not be considered an intervention. If a specific practice, method, strategy, or program in addition to core instruction is used on the child’s behalf, it is an intervention. Interventions are not only actions directly in support of instruction. If a child demonstrates behaviors that interfere with the child’s ability to learn, and the school provides additional behavioral support, that is an intervention. Attendance support for a child with chronic absenteeism is an intervention. Medical support for a student with severe diabetes is an intervention.

A system of interventions can only be as effective as the individual interventions of which it is comprised. If a site builds a system of interventions with ineffective instructional programs and practices, all students will have certain access to what is not working.

Education For All

Not General Ed…Not Special Ed…Equitable Education for All

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education published a list of eleven RTI myths in 2006. This publication reinforces an important point—RTI is the responsibility of both general and special education educators. Some have loudly stated that RTI is a general education responsibility (Batsche et al., 2005). The reasons for this insistence are understandable. RTI should not simply be an alternative, albeit superior, way of determining if a student has a specific learning disability. RTI’s advantages over the discrepancy model are well documented. But if RTI evolves to be solely the domain of general education, we will lose a powerful opportunity. Special educators may hesitate to contribute their critical knowledge and experience to assisting teams of educators in meeting the needs of students as early as possible, as their efforts may not be deemed needed or appropriate at Tier 1 and 2. General educators may hesitate to welcome their contributions for the same reasons. Meeting the needs of all students, whether prereferral or after a student has an IEP, is the responsibility of all educators at all times. 

“What might a new collaboration between general and special educators look like?”

What might a new collaboration between general and special educators look like? This collaboration would include not only teachers but also the special education staff members so vital to meeting the needs of students with special needs: the school psychologist, speech and language pathologist, occupational therapist, and registered nurse, to name but a few. 

For the sake of illustrating the potential power of nonteaching special education staff in supporting general education, let’s consider the speech and language pathologist. Speech and language pathologists are experts in language acquisition, a major factor in the difficulty that leads to more students qualifying for special education with a diagnosis of specific learning disability than any other difficulty—failing to learn to read. As we have learned more about reading, as we screen for reading difficulties earlier and more successfully, and as we use more targeted and well-designed programs and strategies to provide supplemental supports, we are becoming more successful at meeting the phonemic awareness needs of students. Phonemic awareness, however, is a subset of a much broader set of reading and language skills known as phonological awareness. Students who do not respond to phonemically based core instruction and supplemental supports may have challenges based on their ability to process auditory inputs. Discrete sounds, or phonemes, may present difficulties for these students. They may respond to a broader phonological approach. Luckily, there are staff members on every school campus who are experts in language acquisition, phonological awareness, and auditory processing. They are the speech and language pathologists. They can and should be working with students in early schooling in a preventative manner. They can and should be working with all teachers, providing the knowledge and strategies to identify needs and provide targeted instruction. They can and should be screening and more fully diagnosing phonological and auditory needs earlier. Doing all this will require increased levels of collaboration between general and special education staff and an increased commitment to fully funding and staffing key positions. The same scenarios could be described for other special education support staff. 

Through this collaboration between general and special education, many students will receive supports that traditionally required special education identification. If general and special education staff work collaboratively through the RTI process to meet the need of all students, then what is so “special” about special education? Why should students be qualified for special education, and what services should be provided once they have qualified? First, the special training of special education staff should be used to help any students who might benefit from their expertise, not just those students who have earned the right by failing far enough behind. This ability to provide preventive support for at-risk students is a critical new role for special educators and one allowed and encouraged in IDEA. And because the RTI process can impact overqualification of students, this will allow special education to focus on the primary role for which it was founded—to meet the unique, intensive learning needs of students whose disabilities are adversely affecting their ability to learn. These services will include both students who are capa-ble of being independent adults but suffer from learning obstacles that far exceed the resources and training of most faculties, and students who face profound disabilities and require specialized curriculum, facilities, and educational staff. 

We look forward to the day when all schools and educators are empowered to create systems of interventions that are designed to meet the specific needs of their students with the limited resources at their schools, and to build upon the unique talents and skills of their staffs. Yet we fear that some may equate the word simple with the word easy. These are not synonymous. If RTI was easy, everyone would be doing it, and we would have record levels of student achievement at virtually every school. Ensuring that every student succeeds at school is difficult, demanding work. There will undoubtedly be challenges and unexpected obstacles for any school with the courage to embrace this work. The journey may be challenging, but we cannot image a cause more important or efforts more worthy of a life’s work. 

“We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

C.S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis once said, “We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” RTI is at such a transitional point. Within RTI lies the ability to transform our schools and provide all children with “wings” to reach their fullest potential. Yet at most schools this potential lies dormant, buried under layers of state regulations, district protocols, and traditional school practices that are misaligned and counter-productive to the essential elements of RTI. Over time, this promise will decay into just another failed educational reform unless we, as educators, grasp a new way of thinking about our work. If we are willing to believe that all students can learn at high levels and embrace that our collective efforts can achieve this outcome, then we can begin to reach this noble goal for every child. 

Following the Empowerment Mindset Equation

Schools are facing two challenges…or will face them soon:

  • How to connect with and engage students in virtual environments.
  • How to re-establish relationships and school and classroom cultures as students return for full or partial in-person instruction.

The “answers” to these challenges (to the extent that there are answers) are tried, true, and research-based: Establish positive relationships with students and nurture positive mindsets.

In my district, we use an empowerment mindset (EM) equation to focus on enhancing student empowerment and improving student mindsets. This equation is as follows: 

EM = (relationships + rigor + relevance) + (student voice + choice + agency)

Here are a few examples of how we boost EM. 

Making connections with the students: We have accepted that students respond well to teachers they like; in effect, they won’t care to know until they know we care. A student’s sense of belonging increases when a school acts on the knowledge that relationships matter (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011; Yeager & Walton, 2011). Making connections with students is critical. It’s common sense: when students are connected to something or someone on campus— when they feel like they belong—they are more committed and more engaged. Recognizing this common-sense truth, we set the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG; Collins & Porras, 2004) that every student has a connection to something and someone at school, whether it be a person, a sport, a band, or a club. 

Promoting more positive student and staff mindsets: We are developing action plans that include the following concrete steps for promoting more positive student and staff mindsets. 

  • “I belong in this academic community.” To increase students’ connections to school, we are reinvigorating advisory periods in secondary schools and classroom meetings in elementary schools. Classroom teachers, or the staff who serve as advisors to a group of students across their middle or high school careers, are tracking interactions within classrooms to ensure that a conversation (however brief) happens with every student at least every week. We are expanding the quantity and types of school activities or clubs so that every student can be involved, and we are holding students accountable for staying involved in and connected to something on campus. We are fully including all students, including students with special needs, in college preparatory courses, which two credentialed teachers typically co-teach. 
  • “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” To increase student and staff beliefs that, given time and the right supports, all students can learn at high levels, several PLC teams no longer assign points to assessments before they return them, instead highlighting errors (opportunities for improvement) that they expect all students to correct or improve. Several teams no longer assign zeros, which either condemn students to a low grade or effectively let them off the hook. Instead, these teams assign incompletes and require students to complete all assignments that were worthy of being assigned in the first place. We are increasingly requiring students to refine assignments and retake tests on which they show less than the agreed-on level of mastery, instead of denying them the opportunity to show us what they now know after correcting errors, relearning concepts, and receiving support. We are more consistently communicating a “not yet” approach to lack of understanding, as in, “I don’t get this yet,” instead of, “I don’t get this.” Finally, we are making more of an effort to ensure that we explicitly learn from errors; we use routines like My Favorite No, in which a teacher shares a “good” mistake with the class as an opportunity to grow. A good mistake is typically one from a solution in which much was done correctly but a pivotal, significant step was missed; reflecting upon, analyzing, and correcting these errors proactively addresses misconceptions. 
  • “I can succeed at this.” To increase students’ and staff’s beliefs that success with a task is possible, we have acknowledged that we do not know enough about what differentiating and scaffolding are and how to do them. Differentiation strategies are now shared and modeled at all professional learning events; and we have a long way to go. We are differentiating content and processes so that all students can access grade-level and course-specific concepts. We are providing students with multiple ways of showing what they know (for example, by recording their responses as video, a screencast, or audio). 
  • “This work has value for me.” To increase the relevance and purpose that students see in schools, learning, and tasks, we are striving to design experiences that tap into students’ lives. In addition, we are working to individualize supports at all tiers, promoting more voice, choice, and agency so we increase the value that students place on their learning. We are listening to students’ voices and using their input when providing options for the content with which they engage, the processes they use for learning, the products they use to show what they know, and the needs that they have. We are increasing choice, allowing students to exercise some agency over the place, pace, path, and time of day that they learn. We are striving to increase agency, giving students a stake in their learning, inviting (or requiring) them to track their progress toward learning. 

Mindsets are foundational to students developing the social-emotional and non-cognitive skills that are essential for success in school, college, career, and life.

So many schools are seeking guidance and supports with coming back to school and coming back to school safely. The search is over.

Learning…not Coverage

In this unprecedented year, when we have – maybe – 40% as much time with students as normal, prioritization and focus is more important than ever.

A Focus on Coverage 

In the United States, each state has attempted to define what all students must learn, and as a result many American schools and districts have abdicated their responsibility to define essential learnings to the state. Unfortunately, in their well-intentioned attempts to create academic content standards, states have identified far more than can possibly be learned in the amount of time available to teachers. After studying and quantifying this problem at McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning), Marzano came to the following conclusion: “To cover all of this content, you would have to change schooling from K–12 to K–22. The sheer number of standards is the biggest impediment to implementing standards” (2001). 

The process used to create state content standards might help shed some light on this problem. James Popham (2005) describes the process as one of convening subject-matter specialists and asking them to identify what is significant and important about their subject. This typically results in a document that concludes that almost everything about their subject is important. Popham adds, “These committees seem bent on identifying skills that they fervently wish students would possess. Regrettably, the resultant litanies of committee-chosen content standards tend to resemble curricular wish lists rather than realistic targets” (2005). 

In too many schools, facing an overwhelming amount of content they must cover, teachers pick and choose the standards they believe will be most beneficial to their students—or even worse, the standards that they like to teach. In other schools, realizing that this haphazard approach to determining what students must learn may negatively impact student performance on high-stakes tests, teachers frantically attempt to cover all of the standards equally—even if this means that many students can never truly understand what they are learning or demonstrate mastery of a standard. When everything is important, nothing is. Both of these approaches are disastrous for student learning. 

A Focus on Learning 

In his book Accountability for Learning, Doug Reeves asserts a compelling alternative vision: 

We can wait for policymakers to develop holistic accountability plans, or we can be proactive in exceeding the requirements of prevailing account- ability systems. If teachers systematically examine their professional practice and their impact on student achievement, the results of such reflective analysis will finally transform educational accountability from a destructive and unedifying mess to a constructive and transformative force in education. (Reeves, 2004, p. 6) 

Rather than frantically trying to cover everything in the textbook, or treating every standard with the same sense of urgency, teacher teams must be given the time and training to clarify exactly what every student must master. This philosophy, in part, led McKinsey and Company (Barber & Mourshed, 2007) to identify the Singapore school system as one of the best in the world, based primarily on results from the Programme for International School Assessment, which directly compares the quality of education across systems and countries. Rather than identifying an impossible number of standards, the Singapore Ministry of Education adopted “Teach Less, Learn More” as its framework. 

Effective core instruction cannot merely cover what is on the state test or plow through the pages of a textbook. In attempting to frame this discussion of “learning more” for educators, Rick DuFour, Becky DuFour, and Bob Eaker have repeatedly suggested that every collaborative teacher team ask and answer the following four questions: 

  1. What is it we want our students to learn? 
  2. Howwillweknowifeachstudentislearningeachoftheessentialskills,con- cepts, knowledge, and dispositions we have deemed most essential? 
  3. How will we respond when some of our students do not learn? 
  4. How will we enrich and extend the learning for students who are already proficient? (DuFour et al., 2010) 

It is difficult, if not impossible, for schools to attempt to answer questions 2, 3, and 4 if they have not sufficiently answered the first question. Schools that attempt to build an intervention program before they have clearly identified what is essential for all students to learn are placing the cart before the horse. Therefore, we advocate that teacher teams work together to establish what, exactly, Tier 1 instruction must include for each student to succeed in school and life. 

Schools are seeking guidance and supports in organize and monitor their efforts in these crazy times. The search is over.

In these unprecedented times, our students need our best and we need the best tools to serve them. Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Intervention Compass can help:

  • The universal screening of mindsets is available within Intervention Compass.
  • Data from these screeners can be organized and analyzed within Intervention Compass’ Data Walls.
  • Research-based strategies, found within Intervention Compass’ Intervention Library, can be used to promote more positive mindsets.
  • Students’ mindset needs and staff response to these needs can be documented within Intervention Compass’ notes section.
  • Progress monitoring can be scheduled, administered, and data plotted within Intervention Compass’ assessment support system.

We can be prepared to meet students’ behavioral needs. We must. Mr. Elmer is the best solution to help us in this critical work.

The A, D, Cs of Equity

Restarting schools amid the pandemic has everything to do with equity, social justice, and anti-racism. Of course, there are very compelling, very dramatic reasons why equity, social justice, and anti-racism deserve our attention at this moment in history. And, it’s so long overdue.

And, education at this moment in history simply must aggressively and passionately address inequities. The pandemic has affected Black and Latinx populations and those living in poverty at significantly higher rates; students living in poverty, and Black and Latinx students, have been negatively impacted by distance learning at relatively higher rates.

Importantly, we recognize that there are other groups who we have underserved: LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, and students learning English (who are potentially biliterate) also demand our best and better efforts.

In my school district, we can predict student access to college preparatory courses, students graduating eligible for applying to four-year public universities in California, and students receiving passing grades in classes based on these same racial and socioeconomic subgroups. When a Black or Latinx student begins their educational career in our district (and every other district) they have about half the chance of graduating high school college and career ready as Caucasian and Asian students. When a new school year begins, half of our schools’ Black or Latinx students will receive a D or F in high school courses. The rates are even higher for Black or Latinx students living in poverty.

Now is the time (it’s way past the time) to end inequities. If not now, when?

By the way, the success rates, low as they are relative to other subgroups of Black and Latinx students, and students living in poverty are higher in my school district than they are in nearly every other school district. We have the best teachers and the best schools in the state. We simply must do even better.

And so, led by teachers, we are engaged in a fierce effort to, ultimately, end these unacceptable and avoidable discrepancies in access and achievement based on demographics. While we are still in the planning stages, we are applying the A, D, Cs:

  • A – Awareness, Acknowledgement, Action, Accountability
  • D – Define and Document 
  • C – Challenge and Change

A – Awareness, Acknowledgement, Action, Accountability

  • Awareness – We all must be committed to increasing our awareness of our own biases, privileges, the experiences of others, what racism means, and how to be an anti-racist.
  • Acknowledgement – We must acknowledge that there is a problem…that inequitable and differential distributions in access and achievement along demographic groups is real and unacceptable.
  • Action – We must identify areas which represent opportunities growth and develop a plan for improvement.
  • Accountability – We must determine ways in which we will eagerly and humbly gather data and evidence that monitors the progress, in as timely a manner as possible, of our plans until and after success is achieved.

D – Define and Document 

  • Define – We must define the challenges, the needs, the goals, and the vision of success.
  • Document – We must document our commitments and our efforts, so this critically important and long overdue work represents a movement and not simply a moment.

C – Challenge and Change

  • Challenge – We must courageously challenge the status quo, the normalcy of differential distributions of students based on demographics, and the adequacy of success for some.
  • Change – We must immediately and permanently change the system, which involves among other factors:
    • Leadership decisions
    • District, site, departmental, and PLC team priorities
    • Input and outreach to the community, to parents, to students, and to staff
    • Hiring practices
    • Student discipline, in the classroom and beyond
    • Students sense of belonging in the classroom, in the course, and at the school
    • Student-to-student interactions
    • Teacher-to-student interactions

We must know what success looks like:

  • Demographic distributions of students within Advanced Placement and rigorous college preparatory courses match the demographic distributions of students across the school, for all subgroups.
  • Demographic distributions of student grades and assessment scores (being mindful of the inherent biases in many assessments) match the demographic distributions of students across the school, for all subgroups.
  • Demographic distributions of students who graduate future  ready match the demographic distributions of students across the school, for all subgroups.
  • Demographic distributions of student suspensions match the demographic distributions of students across the school, for all subgroups.
    • Justifications provided for suspensions should match demographic distributions of students across the school, for all subgroups.
      • That is, we should not see one justification used for one group and another for a different group in the absence of good reasons
  • Demographic distributions of all staff is more diverse..
  • All parents feel welcome in the district and schools and have ample opportunities to be heard.
  • All students feel welcome in the district and schools and have ample opportunities to be heard.
  • All staff feel welcome in the district and schools and have ample opportunities to be heard.
  • Students feel like they belong, that they are honored, that they have a voice, that they can succeed, and that they “see” themselves in the course, the classroom, and school.

We must know how we will identify success:

  • semesterly data analysis of enrollment, grades and assessment, 
  • annual data analysis of matriculation rates
  • annual qualitative review of site-level anti-racist interventions
  • Analysis of how many students of color are accessing new programs and initiatives
    • Are we seeing changes in enrollment and participation for target demographics in new programming?

We must take concrete actions to create success: 

  • paid position/stipend for staff in charge of reviewing and analyzing district data on anti-racist initiatives
  • creation of safe indoor space for students before and after school
  • ethnic studies course requirement for graduation
  • Active teacher and staff recruitment from education programs that graduate greater proportions of education professionals of color (e.g. HBCUs)
  • Creating dedicated multicultural safe spaces on IUSD campuses
  • provide funding for ethnic student organizations (e.g. BSU)
  • provide funding for equity-oriented student organizations (e.g. GSA)

We can do this and we must. And it starts now.

Mathematics is a Civil Right

Post updated by Chris Weber July 2020

“Mathematics rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty.” – Bertrand Russell

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

A Civil Right

Mastery of mathematics is evading many of our students; an appreciation for mathematics is evading many more. Students and many educators have experienced anxiety or frustration with mathematics. Comfort and confidence with mathematics have been compromised by experiences dependent upon abstract, procedural, and computationally-based lessons. The mathematical memories of many adults in North America include extensive experiences with worksheets, textbook pages, and timed assessments. While elements of those instructional practices continue to have value in mathematical learning, the over-dependence on these practices likely contributed to many students and adults’ lack of confidence with mathematics.  

During the past decade, an examination of international perspectives has contributed to a new understanding and appreciation of mathematical learning. Teachers and students throughout North America have begun to develop a greater appreciation of mathematics through learning experiences that include inquiry, collaboration, and hands-on learning. 

For our students to develop the depth of mathematical knowledge we recognize is imperative, we must integrate innovative instructional strategies into a balanced mathematics program that promotes conceptual understanding and effective, efficient problem solving. 

An International Perspective:  The Critical Need for Mathematics 

The education we are providing our students must prepare them to be citizens in a global economy. We can longer accept the perception that being a literate adult is defined primarily by elements of written and spoken language; mathematical reasoning and problem solving skills are equally essential for today’s students. Multiple international organizations that promote educational reform emphasize the critical importance of mathematical learning (e.g., The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 21st Century Learning Initiative). 

The international perspective reinforces our recognition that high levels of mathematical competency will unquestionably be a significant factor in our students’ personal success and our global community’s ability to solve some of the critical challenges we are facing economically, environmentally, and socially. Analyses of international studies, such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal two key improvements that must be made to North American teaching and learning of mathematics – greater focus and superior instruction.

Mathematically Redefining What We Teach and How We Teach

In order to address these areas for improvement, educational systems across North America have invested significant time and resources in the revision of curriculum standards in order to promote more rigorous understanding and application of mathematical concepts. Educators have recognized that extensive lists of curricular outcomes have impaired teachers’ ability to ensure high levels of learning for students. The primary purpose of mathematics instruction in many classrooms has been reduced to the covering of content, as opposed to developing mathematical learning that encompasses conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and problem solving, as recommended by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s report in 2008. 

Redefining the quantity and quality of what we teach through revisions to standards and outcomes is a critical first step to promoting understanding and application of mathematical learning. However, the revision of standards alone will do little to increase actual student achievement. As educational systems identify more cohesive, rigorous standards relevant to today’s learners, the investment of time and resources must shift to instructional approaches that will connect the standards to increased student achievement in the area of mathematics.  

What Do Educators Need to Significantly Improve Students’ Mathematical Learning? 

As we recognize the need for our students to be more confident with mathematical competencies, we also recognize the need to increase our understanding of mathematics and to increase our repertoire of evidence-based instructional practices. We also accept that richer learning experiences are necessary to engage today’s students in new and innovative ways.   While a greater focus and coherence of content is necessary, we must also attend to how we teach.

Despite the recognition of the increasingly critical need to for high-quality mathematics instruction, much less investment has been made to providing teachers professional development and practical, implementable resources to support their mathematics learning or instruction than has been made to the areas associated with language arts.  

Relying primarily on teacher education programs to address this need is impractical at best.  While we recognize that teacher education programs are critical partners in this work, it is equally imperative that school systems invest in supporting current educators. School systems must support teachers in developing a deeper understanding of the mathematics they teach and providing classroom teachers with practical instructional and intervention practices to meet the diverse needs of their learners.

How to Meet the Challenge

Civil rights leader Robert Moses calls mastery of mathematics a civil rights issue. We must ensure that today’s learners will engage in mathematical learning that is rich, exciting and prepares them for their individual and collective futures. We recommend that all educators engage in dialogue and action research that address:

  1. An overview of the most critical (essential) mathematical standards explicitly connected to a Response to Intervention model (Tier 1, 2, 3).
  2. The conceptual understandings of critical mathematics that will enhance their flexibility and “real-time” responsiveness to students’ mathematical thinking and learning.
  3. An understanding of the connections between the critical components of number sense including quantity, equality, proportional reasoning, place value, and pre-algebraic thinking. 
  4. Well-designed open-ended assessments (including CFAs, diagnostic interviews, universal screening probes, and progress monitoring tools) in the critical areas of mathematics that will promote identification of instructional needs for Tier 1, 2, 3 and will measure the students’ response to interventions.
  5. Evidence-based instructional practices that promote conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and problem solving for high, quality Tier 1 instruction.
  6. Intervention strategies to promote student learning of the identified essential mathematical concepts.  

No single course is failed by more high school students than Algebra. Students who do not pass Algebra will not graduate from high school; if they pass it after several attempts at taking the course, they will likely not directly attend a four-year university, since acceptance requires that students take and pass mathematics courses beyond Algebra. Success in mathematics is a civil rights issue. We look forward to further work and progress toward securing this right for all.

Schools are seeking guidance and supports in ensuring equitable access and success for all. The search is over.

In these unprecedented times, our students need our best and we need the best tools to serve them. Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Intervention Compass can help:

  • The universal screening of mindsets is available within Intervention Compass.
  • Data from these screeners can be organized and analyzed within Intervention Compass’ Data Walls.
  • Research-based strategies, found within Intervention Compass’ Intervention Library, can be used to promote more positive mindsets.
  • Students’ mindset needs and staff response to these needs can be documented within Intervention Compass’ notes section.
  • Progress monitoring can be scheduled, administered, and data plotted within Intervention Compass’ assessment support system.

We can be prepared to meet students’ behavioral needs. We must. Mr. Elmer is the best solution to help us in this critical work.

Social Justice – Success for Every Student

We must explicitly eradicate racism, injustice, privilege, and inequity. 

I am proud to say that my district is taking additional steps right now, building upon our positive, but frankly more indirect commitments to guaranteeing access and success for every student.

Explicit efforts must address systems.

There are systems of culture that we must explicitly and positively shift.

And, there are systems of support (PLC, RTI, MTSS) that we must re-energize to ensure that every single student is cared for and guided toward success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We close with a quote:

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

Edmonds, 1979, p. 23

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

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

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

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

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

Schools are seeking guidance and supports in addressing systems of support and culture. The search is over.

In these unprecedented times, our students need our best and we need the best tools to serve them. 

Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Intervention Compass can help:

  • The universal screening of mindsets is available within Intervention Compass.
  • Data from these screeners can be organized and analyzed within Intervention Compass’ Data Walls.
  • Research-based strategies, found within Intervention Compass’ Intervention Library, can be used to promote more positive mindsets.
  • Students’ mindset needs and staff response to these needs can be documented within Intervention Compass’ notes section.
  • Progress monitoring can be scheduled, administered, and data plotted within Intervention Compass’ assessment support system.

We can be prepared to meet students’ behavioral needs. We must. Mr. Elmer is the best solution to help us in this critical work.

The Remediation Plan for When We Return – In Summary

All schools are, or should be, planning for what to do for all students when schools re-open, presumably (and hopefully) in the Fall, for the 20-21 school year. My schools are planning, and I believe that all schools should be planning, for supports that all students will need and the supports that the most vulnerable students will need.

The most vulnerable will be even more vulnerable…

As we return to school this Fall, this formula will be more important than ever:

Time + Support = Learning

From the worlds of PLC and RTI, this classic formula has always been a game changer. Historically and tragically, we have held the amount of time a student is provided to learn and the types of supports that students receive constant; predictably but tragically, in this situation, learning is wildly variable.

High levels of learning must be the constant for all students. For this to be a reality, we must proactively plan to make time and support variable, varied depending upon the evidence we gather related to student needs.

Among the most critical goals within my school district are increased rigor, differentiation, and expectations. These areas of focus have led us to develop another formula, to serve as a complement to Time + Support = Learning. The formula is:

More Access + More Rigor + More Supports = More Future Opportunities for All

Let’s dig a little more deeply into each term of this formula.

More Access

Access is what high expectations for all looks like. By access, we mean that there is an intentional, proactive commitment to all students being in college preparatory classes or above, whether the student has special needs, is an English learner, or has differences in readiness levels that will make scaffolds and differentiated supports a must. And by access, we don’t simply mean offering the chance for students to take these courses; we mean that we strongly encourage students to enroll.

More Rigor 

Access is not enough. Increasing access into watered down classes (with lower rigor levels because we’re now letting those students in) defeats the purpose. But rigor doesn’t mean difficulty. Rigor means that students are struggling (and are given the opportunity to struggle) with tasks of cognitive complexity for which there is more than one solution and/or possible approach. Rigor doesn’t mean more assignments, or covering more content, or reading longer texts or solving math problems that have bigger numbers. Rigor means students are collaborating with one another, that they’re engaged in academic discourse, that they’re thinking critically, problem solving, and modeling and applying using the tools of the discipline. And therefore, rigor takes time. Rigor requires a focus on depth of mastery of prioritized content instead of a shallow coverage of all possible content.

More Supports 

Whether a student has special learning needs or not; whether a student has lower readiness for a given course or not; proactive and positive supports are necessary to ensure that all students master the prioritized concepts and skills of a course. By supports we mean differentiated instruction within Tier 1 and Tier 2 buffer supports (more time and alternative teaching and learning strategies when first, best instruction is not sufficient). By supports, we mean that learning will be the constant – the expectation – for all; we’ll adjust time and types of supports for this to be a reality.

More Future Opportunities for All

Our goal is not simply that 100% of students (ALL students) graduate from high school. We are committed to every student graduating from high school ready for college or a skilled career. Here’s the California scenario. To apply to University of California or California State University schools, students need to meet grade and course requirements in seven categories that are more demanding than most district’s graduation requirements. Our goal is that every student meets these entry requirements. Or, given that community college is the best option for a student, we want to make sure that our students who matriculate to community colleges can take transfer-eligible courses (courses that put them on the path to transferring to a four-year university) right away, without taking remedial courses. Presently, approximately two-fifths of students enrolling in community college must take remedial courses in mathematics and/or English before taking transfer eligible courses. Or, students do not choose to attend university of college, instead pursuing a skilled career. But we know that the demands of a skilled career are now equivalent to the demands of university, in terms of reading and numeracy skills, problem solving skills, and habits of mind. We want every single student to have options, possibilities, opportunities. One last word about all; students are in the all category if they are expected to live an independent adult life, without accommodated rent or modified jobs. This means that the vast majority of students with IEPs are in the all category.

I’m honored and lucky to work in one of the very best school districts in the country. Incredibly high levels of students graduate ready for college and/or a skilled career. And yet there are too many (and one would be too many) students who we do not yet serve well enough. More access, rigor, and supports can lead to all students leaving K-12 with unlimited possibilities, options, and opportunities. We can and must do even better than we already are.

So many schools are seeking guidance and supports in addressing scenarios such as these. The search is over.

In these unprecedented times, our students need our best and we need the best tools to serve them. Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Intervention Compass can help:

  • The universal screening of mindsets is available within Intervention Compass.
  • Data from these screeners can be organized and analyzed within Intervention Compass’ Data Walls.
  • Research-based strategies, found within Intervention Compass’ Intervention Library, can be used to promote more positive mindsets.
  • Students’ mindset needs and staff response to these needs can be documented within Intervention Compass’ notes section.
  • Progress monitoring can be scheduled, administered, and data plotted within Intervention Compass’ assessment support system.

We can be prepared to meet students’ behavioral needs. We must. Mr. Elmer is the best solution to help us in this critical work.

The Remediation Plan for When We Return – Rededicating to RTI-MTSS

All schools are, or should be, planning for what to do for all students when schools re-open, presumably (and hopefully) in the Fall, for the 20-21 school year. My schools are planning, and I believe that all schools should be planning, for supports that all students will need and the supports that the most vulnerable students will need.

We must plan to provided ongoing Tier 2 and 3 supports throughout the year. Of course, we have always done this, but it’s possible that students with vulnerabilities will need our timely, targeted, and intensive supports more than ever. Let’s ensure that our RTI/MTSS plans, for both academic and behavioral needs, ensure proactive and impactful supports for students.

Let’s consider a scenario that occurs every year. In past years, we have attempted to prepare for scenarios such as these before the school year. We must triple our efforts for the coming year:

Suppose there is a student about to be in grade 7 for whom there are reading concerns. These concerns are known in a timely and efficient manner through universal screening; we both examined assessment data that we gathered on all students (through regularly administered state [or province], district, or school tests) and systematically gathered input from teachers at the conclusion of the school year so that we had the information needed to proactively support students at the very beginning of the next school year. Let’s say this particular student scored in the fourth percentile on regular administered districtwide reading tests. We do not yet know why, but there is something amiss, and we intend to do something about it. Moreover, this year’s team of sixth-grade teachers notes that this student has difficulty reading grade-level material; they notice that he reads in a labored fashion and makes mistakes with longer words. 

After universal screening and identifying that this student needs additional support, we must determine why this student is having difficulty. To do this, we sit with our soon-to-be seventh grader and listen to him read. Given that this student is performing at the fourth percentile (at least as one indicator measures), we do not ask him to read a sixth-grade passage; instead, we asked him to read a fourth-grade passage so that accuracy does not compromise our assessment of comprehension. While the student reads to us aloud, we listen for fluency (rate and prosody) and accuracy, specifically paying attention to any pattern of decoding errors. Following the student’s reading, we ask a few comprehension questions. At the conclusion of this ten- to fifteen-minute period of informal diagnosing, we are in a position to confidently determine whether the student most needs (or first needs) targeted support in the area of single-syllabic phonics, multisyllabic phonics, fluency, or comprehension. We efficient and effectively (albeit perhaps preliminarily) identify why the student was having difficulty reading. 

Then, we determine what we will do to proactively target these needs so that the student is on the path to success. This seventh-grade team embeds buffer times within units of instruction and throughout the school year to provide intervention or enrichment depending on evidence of need that it gathers through assessments (Tier 2 interventions). All students in the class will benefit from these buffer times, either from intervention or enrichment, and we can anticipate that our at-risk reader in this scenario may require these supplemental Tier 2 interventions from time to time. However, his needs are such that he is likely to require targeted Tier 3 interventions.

We would have already developed a system of supports within which there are thirty-minute Tier 3 sessions in the various areas of reading difficulties, available within the school day. Assuming this to be true for our school, we assign this sixth-grade student to a targeted Tier 3 support that specifically addresses the most immediate area of need. Assuming that this situation is occurring at the end of the student’s sixth-grade year, this intervention support would begin at the very start of the student’s seventh-grade year. We would also prevent frustration and failure by being ready on day one of seventh grade with positive and proactive differentiation supports (such as text at the student’s Lexile level, graphical and visual representations of key content, and audio versions of the course’s texts) so that all students can achieve mastery of the course’s priorities.

In addition, we would identify who on staff will take the lead in providing these supports and when the appointed staff will provide them, at all tiers. In this scenario, seventh-grade teacher teams would prepare for the differentiated and scaffolded core instructional supports that students with significant needs in foundational reading skills require to be successful in their courses. If a student cannot successfully read grade-level content, in the absence of scaffolded supports he will experience difficulties accessing learning. But all students can think. All students can problem solve. All students can learn. Educators cannot allow reading deficits to prevent students from mastering grade-level essentials. This student must have equitable access to meeting grade-level expectations as a result of scaffolded differentiation.

Last, we must ensure that we check on student progress frequently and accurately and ensure that we have a process in place for making necessary adjustments. There is no learning unless we know the extent to which students are progressing so that we can adjust our teaching. There is no RTI unless we know the extent to which students are responding to the interventions. So, to measure the extent to which our middle school reader who is at risk is responding to Tier 3 reading supports, we monitor progress in the skill area that matches the area of need, and the area in which we are providing support, at least every two weeks. If the student is receiving single-syllabic support, then we monitor progress in decoding single-syllabic words. If the student is receiving multisyllabic support, then we monitor progress in decoding multisyllabic words, and so on.

Additionally, we ensure that the RTI team (principal, administrators, counselors, special education staff, and teachers) meets weekly to review evidence to ensure that students—particularly students most at risk—are adequately responding to intervention. If students are adequately closing the gap, then we continue these supports until the gaps do not exist. If students are not adequately closing the gap, then we make adjustments to the type of support (or to how we are providing the intervention) until adequate progress occurs. No matter what. No matter how long it takes. Success is inevitable.

None of these practices occur in isolation and they are not completed only for our fictional sixth-grade student. They occur automatically, systematically, as part of our specially designed RTI-based system of supports.

So many schools are seeking guidance and supports in addressing scenarios such as these. The search is over.

In these unprecedented times, our students need our best and we need the best tools to serve them. Mr. Elmer’s Intervention Compass is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Intervention Compass can help:

  • The universal screening of mindsets is available within Intervention Compass.
  • Data from these screeners can be organized and analyzed within Intervention Compass’ Data Walls.
  • Research-based strategies, found within Intervention Compass’ Intervention Library, can be used to promote more positive mindsets.
  • Students’ mindset needs and staff response to these needs can be documented within Intervention Compass’ notes section.
  • Progress monitoring can be scheduled, administered, and data plotted within Intervention Compass’ assessment support system.

We can be prepared to meet students’ behavioral needs. We must. Mr. Elmer is the best solution to help us in this critical work.