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

A Focus on the HOW


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


  • Intervene – We commit to supporting vulnerable students’ most immediate area of need proactively, immediately, and with intensity. We strive to target the antecedent or causal factors that are most contributing to difficulties and vulnerabilities and that lead to significant deficits in foundational skills. All students will learn at high levels, but when a significant deficit in a foundational skill is present, frustrations and challenges highly compromised learning. While the significant deficit exists, or until we have identified and empowered the student to employ sustainable coping mechanisms, the student’s chances of success in school, career, and life are significantly at risk. We will not defer or delay in providing these supports. The most critical, customized, highly specific support for a vulnerable student will undoubtedly involve addressing foundational skills. Foundational skills represent the most basic elements required for success in any subject area, at any grade, for the mastery of any skill. Without these foundational skills, meaningful experiences with, and mastery of, the 4 Cs and other 21st century skills will be compromised. These skills are foundational to motivation, self-efficacy, and access. We define foundational skills as:


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


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


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


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


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


  • Feedback for educators: How well have we matched the support to the diagnosed need?
  • Feedback for students: How much growth am I making? Where are my strengths and where do I still have needs? What are my next goals? What can I do? What support do I need?


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


Progress monitoring is an essential tool within a well-defined collaborative system of supports. It assesses the adequacy of school supports as well as students’ responses to these supports. Information can lead a team to conclude that a student needs a more intense level of support or decide that a student has responded to interventions and may be successful with a less intensive level of support. Progress monitoring ensures that students receive the intensity of supports that they need to succeed. It also provides the evidence to justify removing supports when progress indicates that skill deficits have been ameliorated, so that students receive supports in the least restrictive levels of support.

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

A Focus on the HOW.

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Differentiation Beyond Tier 1


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

A Focus on the HOW





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


A Comprehensive Approach to Differentiation within Instruction and Intervention Systems


Effective Core (Tier 1) Supports are built on providing students what they need; educators call this differentiation. What follows are the elements of differentiated supports for each and every student:


  • We survey our students to learn about their interests, passions, and drives; we then incorporate this information in small and large ways throughout the school year.
  • We screen to ensure we have identified students at high-risk of experiencing failure in the absence of a scaffolded set of Core Supports and immediate, intensive, and targeted Specialized (Tier 3) Supports. These students will need our very best in terms of scaffolded and differentiated supports to achieve successes within the core.
  • We build relationships with students early and often, so that the learning environment is positive and productive and so that a growth mindset prevails.
  • We plan for:


  • What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.
  • A prioritized scope of sequence of concepts and skills, based on state and local priorities and student needs.
  • How students will access information and content?
  • How we will differentiate during whole group instruction?
  • How we will differentiate during small group instruction?
  • How students will interact with the content?
  • With whom students will learn?
  • Tasks that provide students with choice and opportunities to exercise agency.
  • When students will learn?
  • Where students will learn?
  • How students will show us what they know and what they can do?
  • The materials we will need to provide differentiated supports.
  • Pedagogies that that will scaffold students to success, such as those based on a gradual release of responsibility model. This does not mean teacher-only lecture, but a sound lesson design that includes rich student discourse and interaction supported by a teacher’s metacognitive modeling. There is a reason that direct instruction has twice the effect size of inquiry-based approaches (although we are huge fans of inquiry too…the genius of AND)
  • Questioning techniques that meet students at the leading edge of their zones of proximal development and engage them in productive struggle.
  • Practices and strategies based on interests, modalities, styles – not because any are superior or because students necessarily possess a predisposition to learn best from one more than another, but because multiple approaches contribute to a greater likelihood that learning will occur; because interacting with concepts from multiple perspectives and directions strengthens understanding.
  • Assessments that ensure that we can accurately measure what students know in relation to the very first element for which we planned: “What – specifically and fundamentally – students will learn.”

Think “system”atically

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christman, et al., 2009

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


Visit Mr. Elmer to see why Intervention Compass is Chris Weber’s favorite student support software. 

Focus and Simplicity


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


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


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


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


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

McTighe and Seif, 2009


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


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


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


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


What is RTI? Common sense, in fewer than 900 words


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What if we didn’t know the rules…or if we didn’t feel tied to the way we’ve always done things? What if we just used common sense? What if the guiding principle (our North Star) was giving students what they need most, right now? What if we prioritized that? What if we organized ourselves so that we could do more and more of that?


Here is one example. We did this when I was last a principal. The school served a wonderful community and student population, 80% of whom were English learners and eligible for free or reduced price lunch. For four years, 20% of students scored proficient or advanced on the state tests. After one year of “breaking the rules,” 40% were scoring proficient or advanced. After four years of “breaking the rules,” 80% were scoring proficient or advanced.


Here’s what we did differently.


We looked at each student. The process wasn’t burdensome or lengthy. If, for example, the student scored in the 6th percentile, we asked what we could do to target their needs tomorrow.


When students were mostly on track, we committed to improving engagement and depth. We focused on thinking, and attempted to strike a balance between teacher and student-led experiences. We constantly asked, “What’s most important for these students?” We asked, “What aren’t we doing enough?” and then committed to doing more of that, while making sure we then determined what we weren’t we gonna do or what do we needed to do differently? Finally, we believed in students. We encourage them to believe in themselves.


If, upon looking at each student, we found that the student wasn’t on track to graduate future ready, we asked: “Is there a need within one of reading domains (phonemic awareness, or more broadly phonological awareness when auditory processing difficulties seem to exist; single-syllabic phonics; multiple-syllabic phonics, fluency; comprehension)? Is it computational fluency? Is it behavior?”


We were not “diagnosing” to determine what was wrong with the student or to pinpoint the area of deficit. We were simply identifying their most immediate area of need so we could provide an intervention that meet this need. When there were multiple areas of need, we targeted the antecedent or causal set of skills. Then we initiated those supports immediately.


With behaviors, we identified the why(s). We targeted one behavior, and provided a strategy for teachers and the student that was research-based to improve that behavior. We checked in frequently and had students reflect. We provided lots of feedback throughout the day. We paid attention to progress and adjusted.


We had a singular mission: How do we give our most vulnerable students what they need…NOW?


We scheduled when to provide the support. We asked, “What can students miss? What’s the biggest priority for this student right now?” Or, what less-than-absolutely-essential times available? We need 30 minutes blocks (we can do a lot in 30 minutes if we’re targeted and emphasize intensity). We recognized that for highly vulnerable students, some things might have to take a back seat, temporarily.


We asked, “Which staff able to support vulnerable students?” We repurposed staff. We re-evaluated the way we spent money.


We asked, “What cost-effective, research-based programs specifically target student needs? What do we have? What do we need to acquire?”


We knew we needed to address how we would intervene? It had to be “All hands on deck.” We trained staff well and often. Intervention sessions were intensive and directive, with frequent mini-tasks, frequent questioning, frequent checks for understanding, and frequent feedback. We limited group size to 5-7 students.


We also frequently monitored progress, checking in on the set of skills that most closely align to student needs and to the supports we provided. It wasn’t about graphs or even numbers; we determined efficacy using our professional judgment and collective response to these questions: “Is the students adequately responding to this intervention? Is the student on track to get back to where they need to be? Is this success transferring to other areas of their school life: behavior, attendance, work completion, attitude, motivation, participation?”


We created to system so that, to the extent possible, these supports took place automatically and with great efficiently. We worked hard, but we worked collaboratively and in a coordinated manner. And we communicated, communicated, communicated.


And we never, ever gave up. We passionately believed that high levels of learning are inevitable. It may take a few months or a few years. We’ll adjust, refocus, strive to learn more…but we will help students get back on track and stay on track to be future ready.


What would you call this? It is, by most definitions, response to intervention or multi-tiered systems of supports. There may be a few elements of RTI that are not found in the preceding 850 words (e.g., Tier 2 or buffer time) but let’s not overcomplicate it. RTI is common sense.


p.s. What about English learners and students with IEPs? We viewed them as students first, and while respecting the unique needs they may have, we expected them to be equally future ready and provided supports based on their needs, not their label.

Culture is Key…then Comes FOCUS!


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There is, perhaps, no greater obstacle to all students learning at the levels of depth and complexity necessary to graduate from high school ready for college of a skilled career than the overwhelmingly and inappropriately large number of standards that students are expected to master – so numerous in fact, that teachers cannot even adequately cover them, let alone effectively teach them to mastery. Moreover, students are far too often diagnosed with a learning disability because we have proceeded through the curriculum (or pacing guide or textbook) too quickly; we do not build in time for the remediation and re-teaching that we know some students will require; we do not focus our efforts on the most highly prioritized standards and ensure that students learn deeply, enduringly, and meaningfully.




We must focus our content and curriculum, collaboratively determining which standards are “must-knows” and which standards are “nice-to-knows.” This does not suggest that we will not teach all standards; it guarantees that all students will learn “must-know” standards because we will have developed a viable plan. To those who would suggest that all standards are important or that non-teachers can and should prioritize standards, we respectfully ask: Will teachers feel a sense of ownership if they do not participate in this process? Will teachers understand why standards were prioritized? Will they stay faithful to first ensuring that all students master the “must-knows,” or will teachers continue, as they have for decades, to determine their own priorities and preferences regarding what is taught in the privacy of their classrooms?




Focusing content and curriculum also requires that we collaboratively create clarity; that all teachers have the same interpretation of the meaning of standards. The “educationese” in which standards are typically written must be interpreted by the teacher teams that will provide the instruction that ensure that students master the standards. There are processes that can guide teams in this process – a process that will guide instruction and instructional decisions, while also informing the selection of common formative assessment items.




Once prioritized, teacher teams determine the number of must-know standards that can be viably taught so that all students can deeply master them. This step often involves teams flexibly placing standards within maps or calendars, that ultimately define units of study. Optimally, the process of mapping academic content is conceptually-organized and articulated vertically, from grade-to-grade or course-to-course.


The word “fidelity” continues to challenge our decisions when concentrating instruction. While we recognize the benefits of, and necessity for, curricular materials, we believe that fidelity to standards and student needs is the very best way of ensuring a guaranteed, viable curriculum.


We are stressing educators and students with the overwhelming number of standards that fill most sets of state standards and textbooks. While this stress directly impacts student learning, it also impacts the depth of mastery at which learning can occur. There is an overwhelmingly amount of research and policy positions that advocate depth over breath (see TIMSS reports and the work of William Schmidt and Robert Marzano as a start). Until we address a lack of focus…for the outcomes that we expect all students to master…the high levels of learning that we expect of all students to ensure that they graduate ready for college a skilled a skilled career will elude us.

All Staff for All Students


All staff must assume responsibility for all students. We must support students based on their needs, not a label. And staff must support students based on the staff members’ availabilities and expertise, not their job title or funding source. When any staff member, from tenured teachers to paraprofessional, receives the continuous support and resources needed to serve students, then they must be systematically and specifically deployed to meet students’ needs.

We all lament that there are not more staff to serve students and recognize that students would greatly benefit from additional staff. In our leadership roles, we have all reallocated the expenditures of fiscal resources to increase, even slightly, the number of educators providing direct supports to students. In the end, however, we must create successful systems of supports with the staff we have. When planning for which staff members will mentor, facilitate, and monitor student learning, we follow these principles:

  • We commit to using staff in innovate ways (to complement the innovative ways that we utilize times, as described in the previous section.
  • Staff may need to work with multi-age groups.
  • Staff may need to work with larger groups of students during a given period of time so that they or their colleagues can work with smaller groups of students.
  • General education staff must serve all students in fully inclusive environments.
  • Special education staff must serve all students, regardless of label or the funding sources to which a student’s label or staff member’s funding source may be tied – as long as the students to whom these special education staff are primarily assigned are receiving exceptional service.
  • Staff must change the what, how, and why of grading – if we continue to evaluate students on the number of points they earn, and not on what they learn, staff will be overwhelmed and reluctant to innovate; if we do not involve students in self-assessment, staff will be overwhelmed and reluctant to innovate; if we do view learning as continuous and require (not simply allow) students to recomplete work and assessments that they have missed or for which they have not demonstrated adequate levels of mastery, the inculcation of continuous improvement and growth mindsets will not be achieved.

We can deploy staff in innovative ways that allow for staff to better meet student needs. It’s far more a matter of will than skill. We use the follow process to uncover new and creative ways in which staff can be made available to provide highly-specialized and personalized supports to smaller groups of students, all while respecting contractual agreements. We…

  • List all staff (admin, teachers, paraprofessionals)
  • List times (e.g., 8:00-8:30) or periods (e.g., Period 1, Period 2) across the top of the table
  • Have ALL staff record their specific duties during each time span (e.g., making copies, providing phonics support, teaching biology)
  • And analyze…

…Identify times during which staff can provide supplemental supports.

…Identify staff that can re-prioritize their duties so that they, or others, can provide supplemental supports during the prescribed time period.

…Engage in dialogue that will result in using staff more efficiently AND in allowing staff providing more and highly-specialized supports to more students.

When staff’s time is analyzed, and when staffs collaboratively and flexibly determine new ways to organize themselves on behalf of students, students with significant deficits in foundational skills will receive the highly-specialized supports they need to be successful by dedicated educators. And students who are currently meeting and exceeding the school’s expectations will be guided by dedicated educators within opportunities to exercise choice over the what and how in pursuing the passions into which they will dive deeply.

It may be temporarily uncomfortable when staffs’ days and duties to be different than they’ve been. Ongoing supports will be required and we must determine the efficacy of our changes and make adjustments as necessary, but there is simply no way we can provide superior and more personalized supports to students if we do not reconsider the ways in which staff is deployed to serve student needs.

When engaged in the challenging work of re-allocating your precious human resources to provide more direct and impactful supports to students, don’t forget one of the most under-utilized and research-based assets on your campus: the students themselves. Peer tutoring, particularly when students receive coaching and structures to support them in the role, serves all students – both the tutor and the tutee (Hattie, 2009, Wiliam, 2016).

-Chris Weber



RTI for Contemporary Schools: Systems of Support for All Students


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Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning (SSRL) ensure high levels of learning for all students at all readiness levels through the integration of elements from the most important and impactful initiatives within public education: response to intervention (RTI), multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), professional learning communities (PLCs), positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), universal design for learning (UDL), special education, gifted education, and differentiated instruction.


Most directly and significantly, SSRL build upon RTI, a proactive, coordinated, and systemic approach to providing academic and behavioral supports for all students. SSRL are among the most-research-based initiatives with which educators can engage (Bloom, 1968; 1984; 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).

Within SSRL, collaborative teams of educators ask:

  • What student needs can we anticipate?
  • For what supports can we proactively plan and prepare?


Contemporary students deserve contemporary schools and educators. The very recent NAEP report reconfirms that most students are not ready for college and a skilled career and that a growing number of students are functionally illiterate and innumerate ( We must simultaneously increase the rigor and relevance of learning experiences and better support vulnerable students. The good news: We know more than ever what works best in schools.


SSRL are, fundamentally and foundationally, a framework, a way of thinking, in which teams continuously ask, “To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention?” When evidence indicates that students are not growing, adjustments are made. When students with significant deficits in foundational skills are not closing the gap in spite of intensive interventions, adjustments are made. When students who enter a course or grade level with significant levels of existing knowledge and yet are not progressing adequately and appropriately, adjustments are made. In this way, serving students using the principles of SSRL represents everything we do on behalf of students and staffs in schools. And, given the importance of complexity of this work, a coordination system is required. We may not be the cause of the challenges facing today’s students, but we can be the solution.


Check out how we streamline your MTSS/RTI/PBIS and get you back in front of the classroom.

While SSRL represent a set of supports for all students—one of the most highly-effective and researched-based practices in which schools can engage—response to intervention and SSRL entered the educational discourse most prominently through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in 2004.


IDEA 2004 altered the landscape for schools. Whereas practitioners previously used the IQ-achievement discrepancy model to identify children with learning disabilities, the reauthorization allowed schools to employ a lack of “response to intervention” as an alternative method for determining eligibility for special education and as a rationale for providing early intervention to children at risk for school failure.


While the reauthorized law seems, at first glance, to relate to eligibility determinations for special education, using a lack of response to intervention for such determinations has obvious implications for all of education. Systemically and successfully implementing RTI with a SSRL requires that we intervene and monitor the extent to which students are responding. IDEA 2004 encourages this intervention and monitoring to be done early—both early in a student’s school career (in grades K–3) and early upon the identification of a difficulty or deficit—and permits districts to use as much as 15 percent of their special education monies to fund these early intervening services.


An SSRL is a school-wide construct that provides high-quality instruction and research-based systematic interventions for all student needs—academic, pro-social, and pro-functional.

From struggling students striving to meet minimum proficiency levels to gifted students striving to reach their potential, SSRL invite a collaborative effort among students, teachers, parents, and the community to prioritize students achieving positive outcomes. The system of supports that schools are increasingly scheduling into their school days have the potential to provide more customized supports for each and every student.


Challenges remain in our well-intentioned efforts to realize the full potential of this important endeavor, and they are largely due to a lack of clarity about the positive impact of a well-constructed approach to SSRL that can be realized by all schools. The critical components of an effective SSRL are:

  • Differentiated instruction and learning opportunities for all students
  • Timely, proactive identification of students struggling to meet grade-level expectations
  • Attention to the learning rates and levels of performance of all students
  • Increasing the targetedness and intensities of future instruction and intervention based on student response to present instruction and intervention
  • Coordinated and evidence-informed decision-making using the skills of school teams to solve problems


SSRL are equally impactful for students who are not identified as struggling, but who are considered at or above level, and whose needs are not being met. SSRL can and must be applied to all students; educators must work to ensure that every student has access to engaging learning experiences.


All students can and must benefit from core (Tier 1) and more (Tier 2) instruction and intervention. Core supports must be differentiated so that all students can access the essentials. More supports must provide additional time and alternative supports based on evidence of need. Specialized supports for all (Tier 3) represent intensive supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills or opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of the passions into which they will dive deeply when significant needs do not exist.


Interventions must supplement—not replace—the core. And, student response to intervention is used to determine further course of action. If students are responding to intervention, supports are continued until gaps are eliminated. If students do not respond in a timely manner, they are provided with a different, more intense, more diagnostically targeted set of supports. Their progress is again monitored and further actions determined. We never give up; high levels of learning for all are inevitable.


Unfortunately, part of the confusion about SSRL has occurred because of a lack of clarity around the definitions and functions of each level of support for both academics and behavior.


Core supports are 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. Key points include:

  • Quality, not quantity
  • Depth, not breadth
  • Mastery, not coverage
  • Scaffolded, differentiated, respectful
  • Skills and content; verbs and nouns
  • Pro-social and pro-functional skills, e.g., self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional
  • 21st century skills, e.g., creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication
  • Rigorously designed and focused units of instruction
  • Engaging, differentiated instruction for all students
  • Common formative assessments to plan for instruction and inform interventions
  • Daily small group supports to more homogenous groups of students based on need
  • Use of data teams to collaboratively inform professional practice


More supports are 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 that 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. Key points include:

  • Directly based on Benjamin Bloom’s work in the 1960s
  • Based on the “formula” – Time + Support = Learning
  • Informed by short-cycle assessments
  • More time—for both alternative supports and to gain mastery of the priorities – for intervention and enrichment
  • Intended to prevent students from falling behind or falling further behind
  • More time and differentiated supports for students who have not mastered the essentials, as measured by common formative assessments
  • Enrichment experiences with tasks of more depth and complexity, for students who HAVE demonstrated mastery
  • Interventions are provided during daily flex times or during “buffer” days
  • Students are grouped more homogeneously, based on specific skill needs
  • Interventions are provided to smaller groups, from the teacher who has had the most success, as measured by the common assessments
  • Other school staff may join grade-level and course-specific teachers, to reduce teacher-student ratios
  • The purpose is for students to further master prioritized grade-level or course content


Specialized supports are personalized—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. 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. Key points include:

  • Proactive and immediate
  • Diagnostically-driven and targeted
  • Intensive
  • Coordinated
  • Address and improve significant deficits in foundational skills, or
  • Provide personalized learning plans, giving students opportunities to exercise choice over the what and how of the passions into which they will dive deeply
  • For students who have been screened to be multiple grade levels behind their peers in foundational skills and for students who have not responded to Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports
  • Intensive supports provided in addition to Tier 1 and 2
  • Must be as targeted as possible, e.g., on phonemic awareness, single-syllabic phonics, or multisyllabic phonics
  • Supports should be adjusted to match student needs and revised until the student is adequately responding to intervention.


Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning are appropriate for all students and all educators who support and inform effective practices, and we are successfully transforming schools across the world by employing its principle and practices ( Success is dependent upon the enthusiastic and committed collaboration of all adults who are connected to students. Ultimately, an SSRL represent the ways in which we behave as educators and not simply a collection of things that we buy.



Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2). Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Study of Evaluation of Instructional Programs, 1–12.

Bloom. B. S. (1984, May). The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Leadership, 41(8), 4–17.

Burns, M. K., & Symington, T. (2002). A meta-analysis of prereferral intervention teams: Systemic and student outcomes. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 437–447.

Burns, M. K., Appleton, J. J., & Stehouwer, J. D. (2005). Meta-analysis of response-to-intervention research: Examining field-based and research-implemented models. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 23, 381–394.

Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M., & Moody, S. (2000). How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students at risk for reading failure? A meta-analysis of the intervention research. Reading Research Quarterly, 92, 605–619.

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., et al. (2009a). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to intervention and multi-tier intervention in primary grades. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences.

Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., et al. (2009b). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to intervention for elementary and middle schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences.

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

Swanson, H. L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject-design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33, 114–136.

VanDerHeyden, A. M., Witt, J. C., & Gilbertson, D. A. (2007). Multiyear evaluation of the effects of a response to intervention (RTI) model on identification of children for special education. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 225–256.