How can I reach every student in my math classroom? Whether I am in self-contained classroom with 20 students or teaching five sections of math with 30 students, getting to every student is always the challenge! In this article, we’ll explore how to use a Multi-Tiered System of Support in math instruction, assessment, analysis etc. to ensure all students reach math proficiency. Plus, you’ll find printable resources that can be used in department meetings or professional development initiatives to learn about MTSS in education.
Watching Ellen Edmond’s webinar, “Implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Math Support, Grades 1–8,” reminded me of what I know about Response to Intervention (RTI) strategies and differentiation. In addition, it brought me up-to-date on the most recent research and best practices on the topic. There are several resources from which I’ve pulled together ideas that you can download and use in your department meeting, professional development day, or even for your own personal planning.
The idea of “mathematical power for all,” reaching all students, first gained national prominence through the 1989 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards documents released starting in 1989. This idea that every student should achieve some core base of standards in math regardless of socioeconomic characteristics or previous experiences in mathematics is at the core of the NCTM standards movement, the Common Core State Standards, and more broadly, the education reform and accountability movement in the U.S.
Nonetheless, we still face the challenge of finding ways to educate every student and bring them to age-appropriate mathematical proficiency. As Ms. Edmonds stated in her webinar, “The use of the word every is really intentional because the term “all” has traditionally been used and unfortunately all didn’t always mean all.” I struggle with this every day–on my own, to convince myself that every students can reach the standards, and to convince other teachers that certain students are not “lost causes” in our classrooms.
What Are Multi-Tiered Systems of Support?
According to Edmonds, the MTSS model is:
An evidence based model of schooling that uses data-based problem solving to integrate academic and behavioral instruction and intervention. The integrated instruction and intervention is delivered in varying intensities based on student need. Those varying intensities equal the multiple tiers that the term references. Need-driven decision making ensures that the school resources are really reaching the appropriate students, at the appropriate level.
For me, a visual helps explain the idea of MTSS in education. I liked Ms. Edmond’s Venn diagram from her webinar, and have developed it a bit to be able to apply it to our local situations explained at the end of this article.
Major Cornerstones of the MTSS Framework
As you can see from the diagram, there are three major cornerstones of the MTSS framework:
- Systems of Tiered Instruction–Also known as Response to Intervention
- Data Monitoring and Analysis–Using data at every level to quickly respond to student needs
- Systematic Problem Solving—Teachers, administrator, and support staff applying their talents, skills and knowledge to foster student progress
As I learned more about the MTSS framework, I was able to come up with specific ways in which these three cornerstones interacted. They were very consistent with my experiences from a daily practice of working with students. It was so helpful to pull together these experiences within a framework to guide the efforts of myself and my colleagues.
While there are many “big ideas” to be found in the MTSS framework, Edmonds identified four ideas from the research literature (Dave Tilly, Iowa 2005) that we should focus on.
- Deciding what is important for students to know
- Teaching what is important for students to know
- Keeping track of how students are doing
- Making changes according to the results collected
While I had never seen them presented in this sequence, I could see that these four items have helped me be effective with my classes. While the most effective way to implement MTSS is as a whole school, I have sometimes just adapted the framework to my own classroom or to a small team of teachers. In either case, I need to know my objectives for students; teach based on those objectives; regularly (that is, more than weekly!) assess students’ progress; and adjust my unit plan, grouping strategies, differentiation, or pacing based on the results of my formative assessments.
MTSS vs RTI– The Difference in Tiers for RTI and MTSS
While Response to Intervention and it’s three tiers have existed since the late 1970s inSpecial Education literature, they were increasingly applied to general education in the early 2000s. Here is a brief review of RTI followed by how it has been subsumed by the concept of MTSS in the past few years.
RTI has been used as a framework to identify students who needed intervention and consists of providing supports to students at three different tiers.
Tier 1: Ensuring that proper academic and behavior supports are in place in the general classroom
Tier 2: Providing academic and behavioral support in small groups in addition to the general classroom
Tier 3: Working one-on-one with students to support their work in the general classroom
The general guidelines have been that 80% of students should be successful with only Tier 1 supports. The remaining 20% will need some small group (Tier 2) support, and only 25% of the Tier 2 students (meaning 5% of the original population) should need individualized (Tier 3) support.
Edmonds extends the standard definition of RTI and includes it as one component of MTSS. Here are here definitions from the webinar.
Tier 1: High quality teaching and behavior support for all students in the schools
Tier 2: Additional interventions for students who need help on specific skills
Tier 3: Interventions designed to address the unique needs of an individual student
The primary difference that I noted from her discussion was that the difference in Tiers for RTI and MTSS is the work at the Tier 2 level. Edmonds says that the best teaching resources should be deployed at this level. There was also something subtle stated in her definition– that Tier 2 is “for students who need more help on specific skills.”
The implications here are important–that students at Tier 2 are not seen as permanent assignment to a program, but rather that they are there for quick bouts of intervention, as they need it, in order to support the work that they do in the general classroom.
A second difference from the standard RTI models I have known is a focus on looking at behavioral and social-emotional support in addition to academic support.
A third distinction in the newer models is that intervention should also be used to accelerate students, not just support struggling students. Every student benefits from MTSS in education!
In other words, the RTI system of Tiers is strongly present, undergirding the MTSS framework, but only as a part of the program. The other components are Problem-Solving Process and Data Monitoring and Analysis. These components are related to and support the older RTI model.
Understanding the MTSS Problem-Solving Process
Edmonds identifies a four-step problem solving process that is central to MTSS model shown in the graphic immediately above. This process along with the Decision Making Rubric (see graphic below) allow teachers and as a school team to begin the process of supporting every student. Data analysis is woven in at each step and is integral to making decisions.
In STEP 1 of the Problem-Solving System you should be identifying what and where the problem is. You can go back to your data and ask: Are 80% or more of students doing well in the general education classroom? If not, then implement STEP 2 and focus your efforts on that situation to be sure the curriculum, teaching methods, differentiation, classroom management and behavioral supports are adequate.
If attention is needed within Tier 1 Core Instruction, then it is important to shore up that instruction through for professional development of the teacher, or through curriculum alignmen, rather than to pull 30, 40, or 50% of students out for intervention.
Making sure that every student succeeds requires delivering strong core instruction aligned to standards, and using research-based best practices and curriculum. Instruction at Tiers 2 and 3 will be more effective if issues in the Tier 1 general education classroom are addressed.
If Tier 1 instruction is going well, then move to STEP 2 for the 20% of students needing instruction at Tiers 2 and 3 and assess what student needs are. They might be academic, behavioral, social-emotional, or some combination.
Intervening at Tier 2 or 3 has to be based on an assessment of why students aren’t able to meet a particular standard in the well-functioning general education classroom. While data may exist about where students need help, teachers and teams may need to develop additional assessments to fine-tune interventions for these students.
Having established what the problem is and why it might be occurring, implement STEP 3 and design interventions to address the problem. At Tier 1, it might be finding a stronger piece of curriculum, or helping a teacher with grouping, classroom management, or differentiation. At Tiers 2 and 3, it might be to choosing appropriate curriculum to reteach the content, provide situational support for students (such as addressing homelessness, recent loss in the family, bullying, and so on), or helping fill in prior knowledge gaps for students to help them succeed with the grade-level curriculum.
STEP 4 looks back at the intervention implemented in STEP 3 to see if it was effective in bringing students to the standard needed for effective progress in the general classroom. These assessments need to be frequent and quick, and must immediately provide feedback to students and staff.
The Multi-Tiered System of Support overlays this Problems-Solving Process with the old RTI tiers. These tiers of intervention are the subject of the process. Problem-solving, tiers, and data analysis are the cornerstones of MTSS, setting the stage to educate every student by touching on curriculum, professional development, social-emotional learning, differentiation, classroom management, assessments, small group pullouts, and one-on-one tutoring.
Three Things To Focus On When Implementing MTSS Model
Whether you have been using some kind of Response to Intervention and are moving to a Multi-Tiered System of Support, or are new to the idea of intervention tiers, there are three areas that I would recommend focusing on as you implement your system. Using the Venn diagram introduced earlier in the article (available for download), I would focus on the areas represented by the overlapping areas of the pairs of circles.
Having educated yourself and your staff on the three cornerstones of the MTSS model, the following three questions can help the implementation of the program by focusing on students and their needs.
How frequently can we move students in and out of Tiers?
I have found this the most difficult of the tasks, especially doing it on a larger scale involving several classrooms, but I would say it is among the most effective thing I have done as a teacher. Doing a quick assessment with students (as few as five questions) to determine who has mastered a topic and the next day being able to regroup the students for differentiation using my available resources works!
Students who are struggling get the message quickly that the teacher understands when they don’t get something and is doing something about it. Students who understood the material in the first go-round are getting to work on something more challenging to them keeps them engaged. Remember we are trying to move every student forward.
After a week of spending some part of the class in these groupings, it’s time to reassess and regroup. It can seem like a daunting pace, but it is well worth the effort!
How and where do we focus our resources to maximize our progress?
Some schools are resource-rich and others are resource-poor. I have been in both situations. What I have noticed is that with the support of the principal, resources can be identified and marshalled.
Academically, the flexible reassignment of paraprofessionals, or freeing up staff from non-academic duties facilitates getting even a half an hour of extra support in a classroom. This allows students to interact with more adults in order to have their specific needs addressed. When I have been in resource-poor schools, it was often using peer tutors by “borrowing” them from other classes. I’m grateful I had colleagues that were willing to do this!
I have seen the use of homeroom time in the morning also used effectively to pull together specific students to get help on a particular topic. In some cases, resources might need to be devoted to working with a teacher to help them change their classroom practice. This could be a coach, a mentor teacher, or even an administrator.
What do we do within a Tier to help students make progress?
Choosing the right curriculum piece to help students in their tiers is critical. If students are struggling with the material as originally presented, they probably need a different approach the second time around.
If students are semi-solid in their work, then they probably need more material that is similar to the original so they can solidify their skills. Students who have mastered the material need meaningful extensions and not just repetition of the work they have already mastered.
While I said that the first question above was the most difficult to accomplish, sometimes this question is the most time consuming--the finding of resources. Building a bank of materials over a period of years is what has helped me the most. I have taught in enough schools and changed curricula within the schools I was in, that I have sufficient resources that represent a wide variety of instructional strategies.
When you are really trying to reach every student in your classroom, using a Multi-Tiered System of Support provides a process and structures to help you achieve that goal. Whether you are trying to do this within your classroom or within the context of a grade-wide or building-wide effort, getting into the routine of frequent formative assessment followed by changes to your practice and quick, short-term regrouping of students for prompt remediation or acceleration has a great impact on the outcomes of classroom instruction.
Download these resources to include in your next department/team meeting, or professional development session so you can explain the multi-tiered process to your colleagues.