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Expert Answers: Dr. Kimberly Gibbons on Sustainable Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars

The second webinar for our Results Matter: Closing the Achievement Gap webinar series was led by expert on RtI and MTSS Dr. Kimberly Gibbons. During “Getting Results with a Sustainable Multi-Tiered Support System” Dr. Gibbons provided strategies for MTSS implementation with a focus on approaches for effective leadership and sustainability. After the webinar, Dr. Gibbons sat down with our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead to answer questions from district leaders, educators, and clinicians. Below is a summary of their discussion.

Clay: Thank you, Kim. That was fantastic. I really appreciated it. There was just so much in there. I loved how you worked in sustainability, as well, such a key component that all too often gets neglected in discussion.

We have tons of audience questions, but before I dig in on those, I want to ask one general question, which is: What impact do you see on MTSS adoption and implementation as a result of the new ESSA or Every Student Succeeds Act?

Dr. Gibbons: Thanks, Clay. That’s actually a wonderful question. I really believe that the new ESSA legislation presents significant opportunities and flexibility for districts to implement the MTSS framework. The new legislation includes MTSS language and it was really installed in legislation to provide school districts with a framework to look at the needs of students and develop a systemic response to those needs. It also codifies in law a definition of what it means to be evidence-based. In addition, it provides states and districts with great flexibility to blend different funding streams, such as Title I, II, and IV to provide high quality instruction, professional development, and those comprehensive learning supports that are based on the unique needs of each school.

I would really urge listeners to identify who their district Title I Director is and find out if revenue is being used to support implementation. Again, I think that the intersection of ESSA and MTSS, it’s really positive and should be viewed by districts as a positive outcome.

Clay: That’s great. How do you view the role of related service providers changing in this mix?

Dr. Gibbons: If you go to the National Association of School Psychologists’, NASP, website, you’ll see that they have some talking points around ESSA and the MTSS framework. I believe that many people think that the new re-authorization will provide much more access to school psychologists, as one form of related services in the area of mental health and certainly bringing in the expertise that school psychs have around academic and behavioral interventions.

Clay: Fascinating. Now let’s dig into the listener questions. First up, we have a real foundational question: What are the differences between RtI and MTSS?

Dr. Gibbons: I’m glad that you asked that. It’s interesting. When I started practicing in the schools in the early 1990s, the term RtI (Response to Intervention) really didn’t exist. We really just called it data-based decisionmaking using a problem-solving model. Then, RtI kind of evolved into this term that started to be used roughly around the year 2000. In 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was reauthorized, there was language included that allowed districts to use a student’s response to scientific research-based interventions to help make SLD entitlement issues.

Some people would maybe argue that RtI could be viewed more as SLD entitlement decisionmaking. I’ve never thought of that as the primary purpose. It’s really just a byproduct of the framework. Then, probably sometime around 2008, 2009, the federal government started using this term, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). I think it was used to convey more of a systemic approach to improving outcomes for all students, rather than just a focus on the individual students and how they were responding to interventions.

If you want my honest opinion, I don’t really believe that there’s practical differences in the two terms, but again, some would argue that the term RtI is associated with more of a eligibility framework and MTSS implies a broader framework. I think it’s really all in the definition.

If you’re a district that’s screening all students regularly using valid and reliable measures , you’re progress-monitoring students who are at risk, you’re implementing multiple tiers of support, focusing on universal instruction, supplemental, and intensive interventions, and you’re creating an infrastructure for data-based decisionmaking using teams, then you’re implementing RtI, MTSS, or whatever else you want to call it. There’s many states that have defined it differently. Again, I don’t really think that there’s much practical difference between the two terms, as long as we’re adhering to that definition.

Clay: That’s a very helpful perspective. It’s easy to get lost in the alphabet soup here.

I really appreciated you talking about how MTSS can vary building to building and some of the examples that you gave. One thing that jumped out is just the importance of the role of the principal here. I think this listener question is particularly important: What strategies have you found to be most successful in helping principals become leaders for the MTSS process?

Dr. Gibbons: Wonderful question and thanks to those of you who have asked that, because I really believe, after working as an administrator, and this was for 20 years, that we need to understand that many principals also need professional development and support around MTSS implementation. When you look at the research, leaders account for 25% of the variance on student achievement. They’re second only to teachers. The research shows that successful leaders need to be able to communicate a vision of high standards, that they have to create engaging and safe environments, that they have to really focus on encouraging leadership by others, so that whole shared leadership value, focus on improving instruction using data, and really improving outcomes through coordination of services and communication between staff.

As I said previously, principals need to help set that vision and help staff understand the “why” around this. I also think that principals need to be fluent in their use of data to guide systems improvement. There was an interesting Wallace Foundation study put a out a few years ago that showed that when principals focus their efforts to improve instruction and the teachers trusted the principal, that when the principal was knowledgeable about their use of data, and that when there was shared principal and teacher leadership, then those three things resulted in higher student achievement.

So, a practical tips for strategies to really help principals and leaders … In my previous district, we had monthly principal meetings and a portion of those meetings were always on MTSS implementation and really helping them troubleshoot systems issues. We created a lot of talking points for them to use both with parents and teachers in describing some of the assessments that are used in an MTSS framework as well as practical differences between tiers of instruction. We helped organize screening data for the principals and really tried to get them to focus on using data to evaluate the impact of universal instruction. We did data bootcamps for principals and taught them how to interpret screening and progress-monitoring data using their own building data.

Probably one of the more successful things that I did in my 20 years there was having principals identify grade-level team facilitators. They picked teachers from each of the grade-levels in their building. That was really trying to get the focus on shared leadership. Then, my organization trained these grade-level team facilitators to guide the discussion with their colleagues around data. Then, we required the facilitators to have at least monthly meetings with their principals to keep them folded in on the loop, updated on progress and issues. That’s a wonderful question and our leaders cannot be ignored, because they really do make the difference in implementation.

Clay: That’s great. You pointed out that principals, of course, are the second most impactful, in terms of student outcomes. The first source, obviously, is teachers. One of the things that motivates the teachers is understanding why the school is doing MTSS and getting their buy-ins. Could you talk about that part of the process?

Dr. Gibbons: That’s a question that often comes up when I go out and speak. It doesn’t really matter which state I go to, many educators that I talk with seem to be experiencing what I’d call initiative fatigue. They feel like things are constantly being added to their plate without ever having anything taken away.

I think that, first of all, the biggest way to create consensus and buy-in is to start with the vision, to help staff understand the “why” around MTSS. In particular, help them understand that this is not another initiative that, if you just wait it out long enough, will go away, and that this is a framework that we’re embedding research-based practices within. Think about the vignettes in my presentation: Clarissa, Zachary, and Jessie. Use those or create your own to emphasize that MTSS means improving outcomes for all students, because lots of times people initially think, “Oh, this is just about the students who are struggling.” Help people understand MTSS this isn’t about qualifying. It’s not about qualifying for Tier I, Tier II, or Tier III. It’s really about matching the needs of students to the resources in the building.

The other thing that really helps create that buy-in is to just really explicitly connect the initiatives going on in your building or district to the vision. Help people understand how it all connects to MTSS improving outcomes for all students. If you think about national buzzwords right now — Common Core State Standards, anti-bullying initiatives, educator effectiveness, college and career-ready, Results-Driven Accountability, achievement gap — I could kind of keep going on and on. We need to explicitly connect the dots for teachers and staff and show them how all of these buzzwords fit within the MTSS framework.

Finally, I guess I would say that having a written implementation plan really reduces false starts, where you feel like you get started on something, and you take three steps forward, and then five steps backward, and you’re just continually starting and stopping. I think those action plans help with consensus and buy-in, because they are a communication tool to guide implementation. It gives people a roadmap of where they’re going.

The final thing I’ll say is that most of the people I run into who are resistant are so due to fear. It’s just fear that they don’t feel like they have the skills necessary to be successful. It’s really up to leaders to make sure that we have the right amount of technical assistance, professional development, and coaching to make sure that our teachers have the skills that they need to be successful in this framework.

Clay: I think that’s right and what I see from my limited experience, compared to yours, is that it’s often the skeptics who become the biggest converts.

Dr. Gibbons: Yes, absolutely.

Clay: The next question: What result do you see when Special Education Intervention Departments work together as one?

Dr. Gibbons: Historically, that should always be the goal. We need to remember that General Education and Special Education aren’t two separate systems. They’re all part of one system, rather than these two separate systems running autonomously. When we talk about MTSS, we talk about different tiers of support.

In the eight years that I was a Special Education Director, I cared deeply about what happened at Tier I and Tier II, because the more effective we can make General Education, the stronger we’ll make Special Education as well. I think that when Tier I and Tier II are broken or ineffective, Special Education becomes the perceived answer. There really aren’t enough resources to support large numbers of kids, nor should we really be labeling kids with a disability when the cause of inadequate achievement is ineffective instruction.

I’ve seen a number of districts that are doing a great job with blending General Education and Special Education, such as having special educators involved in problem-solving teams where they can help with intervention design and progress-monitoring, and co-teaching models where Special Education services are pushed into during core instruction. Special educators can work with groups of kids that also include non-identified kids. That was a wonderful question and, in my opinion, our outcomes will be maximized when we really do have those two systems working seamlessly together.

Clay: We have another question from the audience here, and I think they’re trying to understand the “how” of this. How are criteria developed for moving students up or down tiers?

Dr. Gibbons: That’s another great question. Sometimes I find that people are really kind of hung up on, “Well, how do kids qualify for Tier II and Tier III?” It’s really less about that and more looking at how large their needs are and the amount of resources that are required to address those needs.

At Tier I, we’re trying to maximize the percentage of students who reach our target scores that are set at different screening intervals. Districts use different methods to develop those target scores. Some use local percentiles and they will look at their screening data and say, “Okay, our target score is going to be the 60th percentile at the fall, winter, and spring.” Others use a criterion reference target, where they correlate their screening measures to the statewide accountability test and they come up with these predictive scores on the screen measures, that, if the kids reach that score, they have about an 80% chance of being proficient the next time they take the statewide accountability test.

At Tier I, you’re kind of trying to get about 80% of kids proficient, but then, again, you want to use that data to evaluate the percentage of students who start the year on track and who end the year on track. You want to have at least 95% of kids who start the year out just fine, end the year at just fine.

Then, at Tier II and III, that’s where we really need to have valid and reliable progress-monitoring tools that are administered regularly. At Tier II, we usually start out with group interventions. Some people use the term standard treatment protocol, where you identify an intervention for reading, for math, and for behavior that’s going to address the needs of that group. Then, you collect regular progress-monitoring data.

When you look at your progress-monitoring data, you can use a decision-making rule that many people use called a consecutive data point rule, where, if you have three data points in a row that fall below where you expected the student to be, you make some type of instructional change. The more instructional changes you make and the more that you have to individualize and intensify instruction, you’re going to work your way up that tier process. When you get to needing quite a bit of support and individualization, you’re likely going to be receiving Tier III supports. When I say Tier III, I don’t imply that that’s all Special Education.

Clay: We have time for one last question here. The question is this: What does research suggest about the role of technology, including blended and online learning, in implementing successful MTSS?

I love it. Love it, love it, love it. This is my opinion and I’ll fold some research in, too. Technology has come a long way and it can be really good, especially for practice interventions for kids who are working on fluency. I think we need to remember it doesn’t always replace a teacher. Teachers need to really ensure that the technology being used is appropriate for student needs and they need to monitor student progress regularly and recognize that there is a role for teachers in explicit instruction and providing that real, regular feedback.

I have the opportunity to work with a number of online schools. I would say that the most successful ones that I’ve worked with for students who are at-risk are those that I would call a hybrid model. They include a combination of face-to-face and online learning. Two examples of online schools I worked with created systems where students could come to a location and work on lessons online but have access to adults who could help them if they had problems and get that immediate help. Another school had math teachers available two days per week for three hours where kids could sign up for tutoring. Others assigned students a case manager or a homeroom teacher and require weekly video chats to review progress.

In some research that we did here at the University of Minnesota, I was looking at flipped instruction, where students were provided instructional videos to watch at home and then they came to school and the instruction was largely helping kids work through assignments and problems. One of the things that the research found is that for kids who were really at-risk and had challenges, particularly in math, the research found that there were many challenges with flipped instruction. The students reported that the videos were too long. Kids were reporting, “It’s hard to learn math watching these videos at home.” They weren’t as engaged.

I think we just have to recognize that technology is good. Flipped instruction can be good but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for everyone. We need to be flexible and open. It really goes back to collecting regular data to see whether or not kids are successful with whatever instructional format we’re using with them.

Clay: It’s just like the analogy you shared in your presentation: if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think the same is true of technology. It’s just another tool in the toolkit and you need to continually monitor to see if it’s the right tool for each kid.

Dr. Gibbons: Absolutely.

Clay: This has been tremendously helpful. Thank you for your thoughtful answers, for your time, for the wonderful wealth of content and lessons that you’ve brought to us today.

To watch Dr. Gibbons’ entire 90-minute webinar and download the accompanying slides and resource handouts, click here. To register for Dr. Dr. Mary Morningstar’s upcoming webinar on improving transition results for high school students with disabilities, click here.

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