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.
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 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)
…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).
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 (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/). 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. www.mrelmer.com
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
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 (http://www.chriswebereducation.com/). 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.
The citizenship and workplaces for which we are helping students prepare will require us to focus more deeply on skills and habits on which we have not historically focused.
In many schools, the populations of students whose percentages are growing are the very same students for whom schools have historically provided inadequate supports and whose readiness for the future has been severely lacking. The percentage of students living in poverty has increased from below 14% in 1968 to above 22% in 2012 (Gabe, 2015). The percentage of students who were not born in the country in which they attend school has increased from under 5% in 1970 to 13% in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). The percentage of students who primarily speak a language at home different from the primary language of instruction in schools has increased 41% from 1993 to 2005 (McKeon, 2005).
Students within these groups are often, but not always, highly vulnerable. Students within these groups often, but not always, perform more poorly than peers and experience significant difficulties, in schools. The futures for which we are helping students prepare have changed. The students who we serve have changed. We too must change.
Based on the vast majority of evidence of student learning, we can do better. For example, in 2012, 67% of all ACT-tested high school graduates met the English College Readiness Benchmark, 52% of graduates met the Reading Benchmark; 46% met the Mathematics Benchmark; 31% met the College Readiness Benchmark in Science, and 25% met the College Readiness Benchmarks in all four subjects. Please keep in mind: these percentages only include high school graduates (ACT, 2012).
US graduation rates have increased to 80% in many districts, yet less than 40 percent of these graduates are ready for math and reading at the college level (The New York Times, 2015).
Our success in meeting the future-ready needs of students requires our immediate attention. We can and must do better. It’s a moral imperative.
ACT (2012). Condition of college and career readiness. Iowa City, IA: Author.
Gabe, T. (2015). Poverty in the United States: 2013. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
McKeon, D. (2005). Research talking points on English language learners. New York: National Education Association.
The New York Times. (2015).The counterfeit high school diploma. The Editorial Board, December 31, 2015.
Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
U.S. Census Bureau (2010). Census of population, 1850 to 2000, and the American community survey.
Educators have also become jaundiced about a critical but complicated topic in the teaching-learning process – assessment. RTI-based practices require evidence and yet we face a paradox – we believe that we assess too much, but we do not possess the information required to inform our work. We feel that we do not have time for assessments. We recommend that all staffs inventory the assessments that they are currently administering to ensure that we are gathering the timely information that we need to ensure that all students learn at high levels, but without redundancies and inefficiencies.
We will benefit from embracing the notion that instruction and assessment are inextricably linked, and that checks for understanding and observations count and can inform instruction and grading. We must recognize that screening and pre-assessment, as is the case with other tests, can absolutely save time. Screening reveals students with such profound deficits that they will most certainly experience difficulties within the year, at some time and in some content area. Let’s save time and students’ senses of self-efficacy by initiating supports immediately. Pre-assessing prior to units will reveal students with gaps in their knowledge of immediate prerequisite skills, gaps that will likely necessitate interventions within the unit. Let’s pre-teach prerequisites before and at the beginning of units to fill gaps, prepare students for success, and minimize the need to spend time later on interventions. By the way, pre–assessments can also reveal that students already possess knowledge of content in upcoming units. By compacting content, we can avoid wasting time on content for which students already possess understanding, thereby allowing time for more depth of study or more practice with other content. We must have these conversations with staff that feel that there is not time for more assessment. And, we must help staff with the practical steps required to inventory assessments, link instruction and assessments, and screen and pre-assess in a successful way.
RTI-based practices will inevitably raise the issue of fairness. Some teachers express the belief that it is not fair to other students, students who passed the test the first time, when we allow multiple opportunities for students to take a test. Or, some teachers feel that we are not teaching responsibility when we allow multiple opportunities. We have an important decision to make, because we simply cannot have both a firm commitment to all students learning at high levels and a firm commitment to only one chance to demonstrate that mastery. They are entirely incompatible. We all recognize, as parents, uncles, aunts, and/or teachers, that children rarely learn at the same rate and in the same manner. To terminate instruction at an arbitrary date and suggest that learning of that content is at an end, and the one-time opportunity to demonstrate mastery is upon us, defies all logic. But, what about teaching responsibility? What are we teaching students when we communicate that they don’t have to actually learn the content being assessed; that they are off the hook and need not keep trying? Does it not teach responsibility when we demand that students keep up with the new content and receive additional support on old content until they reach the level of understanding needed for them to be successful? We are teaching children perseverance, to learn how to learn, and to continuously strive to improve. The “real world” for which we are preparing students is a myth. Colleges and universities increasingly embed multiple layers of supports for students. Careers have always provided multiple opportunities to enter the profession – multiple chances to pass the state teaching exam; multiple opportunities to pass the bar; multiple opportunities to revise the thesis or dissertation. It will not be easy and it will take collaborative action to design a system that provides remediation and allows for additional chances to take assessments. However, we cannot continue to defend a stance that denies the reality of the ways and rates at which individuals learn. It is disingenuous, or worse, to craft mission statements that promise high levels of learning for all, without the fine print that expresses that there are no second chances for the 5-18 year olds we serve.
Throughout our educational careers, two mistakes have been consistency made. More frustrating still, these two mistakes are relatively easy to avoid when egos are set aside and when the very real and very unique needs are different students are considered.
First, we must embrace the genius of AND and avoid the tyranny of OR (Collins, 2005). Ideological opinions can be productive elements of collaborative dialogues within the best systems of support for a student and for all students, but the diverse needs of students within a group, a classroom, a school, and a district will demand a more balanced approach. Rigid ideologies aren’t good for kids.
The following are critically important examples of how we too often settle for OR instead of designing AND solutions that will best meet the needs of all students:
Access to core instruction OR targeted intervention (instead of access to core instruction AND targeted intervention
Phonics-based approaches to teaching literacy OR whole language approaches to teaching literacy (instead of phonics-based approaches to teaching literacy AND whole language approaches to teaching literacy)
Procedurally-based approaches to teaching mathematics OR conceptually-based approaches to teaching mathematics (instead of procedurally-based approaches to teaching mathematics AND conceptually-based approaches to teaching mathematics)
Direct instruction pedagogies OR inquiry-based pedagogies (instead of direct instruction pedagogies AND inquiry-based pedagogies)
Writer’s workshop environments OR structured scaffolds to producing writing (instead of writer’s workshop environments OR structured scaffolds to producing writing)
Strategies to ensure students learning English (or the primary language of instruction) can positively and successfully learn all grade level and course content OR systematic and structured English language development based focused on forms and functions (instead of strategies to ensure students learning English (or the primary language of instruction) can positively and successfully learn all grade level and course content AND systematic and structured English language development based focused on forms and functions)
Play-based Kindergarten OR high expectations for Kindergartener’s cognitively-based learning (instead of play-based Kindergarten AND high expectations for Kindergartener’s cognitively-based learning)
There are many examples of where strongly-held opinions about what worked for other students, or past students, or this group of students rule out a more balanced approach that leverages various research-based pedagogies, strategies, and practices on behalf of any and all student needs. We believe that AND not OR represents a foundation of a collaborative system of support. In fact, an OR approach violates a systemic approach; the system is doomed to be incomplete.
There exists a second frustrating habit that erodes any hopes of systematic and coordinated approaches to serving students. As noted elsewhere in this chapter, initiative fatigue – the condition in which a school and staff lose their way and struggle to implement any one effort well – plagues our schools. Frustratingly, we miss a powerful opportunity to powerfully enhance a collaborative system of support when we do not make connections between potentially effective sets of practices, that when introduced and implemented separately risk more than simply failing to deliver optimal results; the risk is that they will individually and spectacularly fail.
For example, we passionately believe that the following research-based initiatives and practices with which we have had success must be strategically combined within a collaborative system of supports that benefits students and the educators who serve them.
Simply viewing related practices as related, as in the diagram below, is not enough.
We must design and commit to implementing a system that coordinates these potentially interdependent and powerful practices. The solution represented by a collaborative system of support can be greater than the sum of its parts when we proactively and explicitly make connections – student outcomes will be dramatically improved and improvements will be expanded and sustained.
I was honored to spend three very full days with the incredible communities, educators, and students of Coast Mountains School District in Northern British Columbia, a district serving a very representative North American population of students – students with great assets and significant needs.
We talked nuts and bolts: How can the principles and practices of RTI transform teaching and learning. Among many breakthroughs, three significant accomplishments stood out:
At Cassie Hall Elementary School, staff courageously reimagined the ways in which time and staff could be used to serve all student needs through: differentiated tier 1, intervention and enrichment to provide students more opportunities with core priorities within Tier 2; and immediate and intensive supports for students with significant deficits in the foundational skills of academics and behaviors. We also determined how this System of Supports would be systematically coordinated. Cassie Hall staff spent hours planning for research-based practices that they will employ upon the very beginning of the school year.
Staff from Skeena Middle School and Caledonia High School identified two specific ways in which collaboration between the two schools will be terrifically enhanced. Content-alike teams from each school will be vertically articulating the most essential academic and behavioral skills that students in grades 7-12 must possess. They will also share the most effective instructional practices that lead to the greatest student engagement and student learning. The second important commitment that staffs from the two schools made related to the smooth and successful movement of students from the middle to the high school. The schools will be striving more than ever to ensure a productive social-emotional and academic transitions, through a greater knowledge of every student’s strengths and needs and superior supports and scaffolds for incoming high school students.
Finally, this from a middle school math teacher, describing how she has transformed the mindsets and achievements of students in her class: She shared her strategies and practices and how she has established a positive classroom climate for learning. As she recently praised the class for their improvements and their attitudes, one student raised her hand and said, “Well you know why…it’s because of RTI.” True story.
The principles and practices of RTI are amongst the very most research-based in education. We know what to do; we must close the knowing-doing gap. Coast Mountains School District is leading the way.
I’m a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and a former Air Force pilot (I flew C-141s, now-mothballed, but in its day amongst the most durable of cargo aircraft). Not a day goes by when I don’t feel immense pride in serving my country. My good friends who gave their lives, or who now live as disabled veterans, are likewise constantly on my mind. One thing’s for sure: I gained as much from serving alongside the finest women and men in the world in the US Air Force as my country gained from my service.
Nearly every time an education colleague learns of my prior military service I’m asked the same question: “How did you go from flying in the Air Force to teaching, to being a principal, to serving at the district office? That seems like a strange transition to make.”
I understand the question, but the answer is quite simple.
I feel called to serve, whether that service is to country, community, or children.
Education is the most important endeavor in the world. The impacts of increases in learning are profound. Improvements in knowledge and problem solving skills can empower children growing up in difficult situations to break the cycles of poverty. Improvements in literacies can empower nations to take reclaim their destinies.
So what’s the purpose of this post?
Simply this: I beg you to consider that while service to country is the most noble of commitments, service to community and to children is equally noble.
Teaching, and the education profession, is a commitment. The preparation, the discipline, and the sacrifices involved in service to country in the military have parallels in service to students. And the need is as great. Change the trajectories of children’s lives and we will change the world. It will be a safer world, a healthier world, and a happier world.
Honor teachers, and if you are a teacher, feel honored that your service is amongst the most valued and valuable in any society.
We have been lucky to be teachers, senior district-level administrators, and most rewardingly, principals of schools serving vulnerable students – schools that had worked very hard but that had not yet experienced successes with historically underserved students and communities. For example, we led an incredible school in southern California, Richard Henry Dana Elementary. The school had made virtually no student achievement gains, as measured by state assessments, in four years. Less than twenty percent of students were scoring proficient and advanced on these assessments and the gap between the highest and lowest achievers was vast. Three years later (with no additional monies and the same staff, students, or curricular resources), nearly four times as many students were scoring proficient and advanced and the school had been named a Title 1 Achieving School, a California Distinguished School, and a National Blue Ribbon School. No students were scoring in the lowest achievement band, proficient students were increasingly scoring advanced, and the gap between the highest and lowest achieving students was cut by a factor of four.
We screened students frequently – not to label them or justify their underperformance, but to identify students who needed immediate, intensive, and targeted interventions in addition to (not instead of) core instruction.
We provided these interventions and students responded – their deficits in foundational skills were ameliorated and their mastery of grade level priorities improved.
We had frequent and multiple measures to validate this effectiveness, and as noted, end-of-the-year, high-stakes assessments confirmed these gains.
We embraced the “teach less, learn more” approach to core instruction. We focused on depth, not breadth; on mastery, not coverage.
We acknowledged that not all students would master core priorities at the same rate or in response to the same first, best instruction, and so we proactively and regularly provided more time and alternative supports for all students to reach greater levels of mastery.
We vigilantly checked to ensure students were responding to core instruction and targeted interventions, and when they weren’t, we made timely and focused adjustments.
We supported teachers by providing high quality professional learning in differentiated instruction, learning models, high leverage strategies, and collaborative practices.
Most importantly, we expected – we firmly believed – that learning for ALL was inevitable; we just needed to determine the right approach. We supported students based on their needs, not a label (English learner, specific learning disability); staff supported students based on the staff members’ availabilities and expertise, not their job title or funding source. We have replicated these successes across large school districts; hundreds of our colleagues around the world have had similar successes.
We have written over a dozen books, chapters, and articles describing these experiences and have collaborated with thousands of fellow educators, face-to-face and virtually, in our ongoing commitment to improve teaching and learning. Success at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School, and at the dozens of other schools and districts in which we have served, was the result of organized systems of supports, in addition, of cultures of belief and high expectations. These systems can be scaled and replicated; they have been.
Collaborative systems of support cannot be and should not be solely defined by bell schedules, programs, interventionists, assessments, cut-points, or tiers. Instead, our version and vision of collaborative systems of support is defined by attitudes of excellence, collaborative problem-solving, and the requisite, collective actions on behalf of students. Systems are not rigid. As we have written previously, a system is not a noun, it’s a verb. It might be hard, understandably hard, to capture these “verb” variables in a research study, but the processes and practices they represent have been validated by research (Hattie, 2009; 2012).
One of the keys to improving schools is to ensure teachers know the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, know how well they are attaining these criteria for all their students, and know where to go next in light of the gap between students’ current knowledge and understanding and the success criteria; this can be maximized in a safe and collaborative environment where teacher talk to each other about teaching.
Hattie, 2009, p. 239
Structures and systems are critical, and for the record, we’re geeks about them. Collaborative systems work when they become the foundation of a school’s culture. These systems include:
Teaching and learning to mastery and depth of behavioral and academic priorities for all (often known as Tier 1)
Timely and targeted supports for greater levels student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities…so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind) and so students can reach greater depths of understanding (often known as Tier 2)
Highly individualized supports to meet students’ at, and nudge them from, their zones of proximal development – intensive supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills AND opportunities for students to dive deep into a passion (often known as Tier 3)
Collaborative systems of support and the related sets of principle and practices that they subsume (e.g., Response to Intervention, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, Professional Learning Communities, Universal Design for Learning) work and are amongst the most research-based practices ever studied, in the history of education (Hattie, 2009, 2012).
In order to raise student achievement, schools must use diagnostic assessments to measure student’ knowledge and skills at the beginning of each curriculum unit, on-the-spot assessment to check for understanding during instruction, and end-of-unit assessments and interim assessments to see how well student learned. All of these enable teacher to make mid-course corrections and to get students into intervention earlier.
Odden, 2009, p. 23
Let’s make collaborative systems of support the initiative, or one of the key initiatives, to which we dedicate ourselves.
Innovation and collaborative systems of support are necessarily complementary processes – a collaborative system of supports is action research in practice – in others words, we make adjustments to evidence regarding the extent to which students are responding to instruction and intervention. We must continue to push for innovation in our approach to collaborative systems of support instead of settling for dogmatic compliance to rigid protocols. Innovation requires us to consistently ask why, how, what, and when, and relentlessly elicit feedback to push us forward. If we are to create collaborative systems of support that transform, systems that will create the most optimal learning conditions, we must nurture positive and collaborative spaces that inspire dialogue and feedback.