Improving Student Outcomes When Your State Department of Education Has Adopted the Failed National MTSS and PBIS Frameworks (Part II of II)

Effective Research-to-Practice Multi-Tiered Approaches that Facilitate All Students’ Success

Dear Colleagues,

A (Re)Introduction

[CLICK HERE to read or re-read Part I of this two-part Blog discussion.]

The focus of this two-part Blog discussion (this being Part II) involves the reality that:

  • Many districts and schools across the country are struggling to implement sound and effective multi-tiered services that are actually demonstrating the outcomes needed for academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students.
  • Many schools have limited intervention resources and resource people... but the resources they have often do not have the deep and intensive intervention expertise that they need, or they are not strategically deployed so that they can provide the intensity of services needed by their students.

And most critically, that:

  • Many districts and schools are using (or are “required” by their State Departments of Education to use) obsolete and originally scientifically-unsound frameworks in the areas of MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports), PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports), and RtI (Response to Intervention).

Said a different way:

  • Many districts and schools have professionals with (a) intervention gaps, that (b) are compounded by unsound MTSS/RtI implementation processes (sometimes advocated by their state through professional developers at their county school districts, Regional Resource Centers, University Institutes and departmental faculty, etc.), that (c) are based on the U.S. Department of Education’s (largely through the Office of Special Education Programs—OSEP—and its tax-dollar-funded National Technical Assistance Centers) less-than-effective MTSS, PBIS, and RtI frameworks.

Part I of this two-part series described (and included near-verbatim) sections of a state grant MTSS proposal that was submitted for a district applying for school improvement funds in a state that had largely codified OSEP’s MTSS/RtI process in law and statute. This District had numerous schools that were identified as “Focus” schools—in need of improvement—based on the State’s Accountability Model.

As such, the grant RFP appeared to require unsound practices that anyone with psychometric, implementation science, and systems scale-up knowledge and experience would know would not work, and would either delay services to or educationally harm students.

As noted in Part I: In writing the RFP, we addressed this situation by:

  • Presenting the research-to-practice data and results that invalidated the unsound practices in the state’s framework;
  • Detailing the research-to-practice data and results that validated our proposed effective practices; and
  • Framing our proposal as one with “valued-added” procedures, services, supports, strategies, and interventions that would (a) build on the defensible ones in the state’s statute; (b) improve upon or substitute for the indefensible ones; (c) help more effectively and efficiently meet the grant’s “ultimate” student-focused outcomes; and that might (d) require some levels of waivers (if needed).

And so, Part I of this two-part Blog series shared the proposal’s description of the district and state’s current MTSS system, followed by a section that we titled, Why the RFP as Written will not Succeed. Finally, Part I quoted from the proposal as it discussed Seven Flaws that Need Attention in a Multi-Tiered Services Re-Design.

In reviewing the feedback to Part I from our Blog-Readers: It was interesting that some questioned the “wisdom” (from a grant-writing perspective) of including subheadings like, Why the RFP as Written Will Not Succeed.

While you may agree or disagree, please understand that this was done because:

  • We know that many department of education staff (who review grant proposals) know that there are flaws in their state models and RFPs.

I know this because I worked in the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years, and saw many faulty or unsound educational laws or procedures passed by our Legislature—laws that were grounded in politics, and not educational integrity. Similarly, I saw state education statutes or rules promoted and signed by Commissioners with virtually no educational training, or Assistant Commissioners who were naïve, uninformed, or motivated by power and control.

And yet, in those same departments of education, there were professionals with expertise in the substance of these laws or rules. And while they were appalled by their passage or promotion, they could not say anything publicly for fear of losing their jobs.

  • We wanted to transparently voice our MTSS concerns and outline our alternative approaches with the State Department of Education—so that we would not be accused of changing our approaches or being disingenuous later—after we won the grant award)
  • We truly wanted to educate the Department of Education’s professionals—some who “don’t know what they don’t know,” because they have not been educated or are not experienced in the psychometric, implementation science, and systems scale-up principles we are discussing today.

Parenthetically. . . (and with all due respect to those who do not “fit” this characterization), some department of education staff (as well as some working in regional resource centers, universities, and in other settings that provide “consultation” to districts and schools) are providing “professional development” using “paint by number approaches.”

That is, they recommend and/or try to implement practices using faulty frameworks or protocols that they have been “trained” on by “national experts.”

But they do not have:

  • The knowledge to know when the training or practices are unsound;
  •  The experience or expertise to know how to effectively tailor or modify their practices to individual districts and schools; and
  • They sometimes (arrogantly) reject more effective models and practices because, for example, they do not “fit” their protocols, they have been told to rigidly adhere to their protocols, or they have been told not to use someone else’s (even if effective) models or practices.

Today’s Part II

Today’s Part II completes this Blog series by discussing Ten Resulting Practices that Need Inclusion in a Multi-Tiered Services Re-Design, and making some concluding comments.

The “Ten Practices” are inextricably linked to the “Seven Flaws” discussed in Part I. Thus, a review or re-review of these in Part I might be helpful now.

[CLICK HERE to read or re-read Part I of this two-part Blog discussion.]

From the Grant Proposal: Ten Resulting Practices that Need Inclusion in a Multi-Tiered Services Re-Design

State RtI or multi-tiered services guidebooks need to provide blueprints, guidance, and procedures that are (a) supported by sound (not self-selected) research; (b) based on effective and diverse (not limited-trial) field tests; and that (c) result in demonstrable (not hypothetical) student outcomes that are sustained over time. Rigid, one-size-fits-all approaches do not work.

Unfortunately. . . especially when states adopt the MTSS/RtI framework from OSEP, they (inadvertently? Not that this is a defensible excuse). . . have not accomplished this.

Beyond this: Districts and schools need to be given the flexibility, within the context of mandated federal and state laws and regulations, to implement the best problem-solving, progress monitoring, and multi-tiered system of support approaches for their academically struggling and behaviorally challenging students.

To this end, below are ten multi-tiered system of support, response to instruction and intervention, and positive behavioral intervention and support practices that address and/or alleviate the Seven Flaws discuss in Part I of this series, and that either have been ignored by the frameworks advocated by OSEP (and/or its tax-funded National Technical Assistance Centers), or have been mistakenly recommended for use by policy and/or practice “experts.”

While it is strongly recommended that these practices be infused into any state’s reconceptualization of its multi-tiered approaches, they are recommended here so that districts and schools can increase their students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success.

Practice 1.

Multiple gating procedures need to be used during all academic or behavioral universal screening activities so that the screening results are based on (a) reliable and valid data that (b) factor in false-positive and false-negative student outcomes.

Too many screening procedures go from screening to intervention— without considering whether any derived results are accurate. Part of this process is determining if the screening procedures have “identified” students who do not have any problems (i.e., “false-positive” results), or have not identified students who actually do have problems (i.e., “false-negative” results).

Practice 2.

After including false-negative and eliminating false-positive students, identified students (who have been “red-flagged” by a screening procedure) receive additional diagnostic or functional assessments to determine their strengths, weaknesses, content and skill gaps, and the underlying reasons for those gaps.

When screening procedures do not exist or are not accurate, Practices 5 and 6 below should occur with all students who are academically struggling in the classroom or demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral concerns (in any school setting).

Practice 3.

When focusing—especially at the elementary school level—on helping students to learn and master foundational academic skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonetic decoding, numeracy, calculation skills), students should be taught at their functional, instructional levels—regardless of their age or grade level.

When focusing—at the secondary level—on academic content, comprehension, and application skills, teachers need to be sure that students have mastered the foundational and prerequisite literacy, math, written expression, and oral expression skills needed to be successful.

Practice 4.

All students should be taught—every year and continuously across each year—social, emotional, and behavioral skills as an explicit part of the district’s formal Health, Mental Health, and Wellness standards.

These standards should be operationalized across an articulated and scaffolded preschool through high school scope and sequence curriculum map with specific required courses, units, content, and activities. The social, emotional, and behavioral skills taught should especially be applied to facilitate students’ academic engagement and independence, and their ability to interact collaboratively in cooperative and project-based learning groups.

Practice 5.

Before conducting diagnostic or functional assessments (see Practice 2 above), comprehensive reviews of identified students’ cumulative and other records/history are conducted, along with (a) student observations; (b) interviews with parents/guardians and previous teachers/intervention specialists; (c) assessments investigating the presence of medical, drug, or other physiologically-based issues; and (d) evaluations of previous interventions.

Practice 6.

Diagnostic or functional assessments should evaluate students and their past and present instructional settings. These assessments evaluate the quality of past and present instruction, the integrity of past and present curricula, and interventions that have already been attempted. This helps determine whether a student’s difficulties are due to teacher/instruction, curricular, or student-specific factors (or a combination thereof).

Practice 7.

Diagnostic or functional assessments to determine why a student is not making progress or is exhibiting concerns should occur prior to any student-directed academic or social, emotional, or behavioral interventions.

These assessments should occur as soon as academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students are recognized (that is, during Tier 1).

These assessments should not be delayed until Tier 3 (unless the student’s case is immediately escalated to that level). In the absence of early assessment—and the initiation of (what typically are) global or random Tier 2 interventions—it is likely (as discussed above) that the Tier 1 and 2 interventions implemented (under the existing OSEP/state department of education frameworks) will not be successful, will make the student more resistant to later interventions, and may actually change the problem or make the original problem worse.

Practice 8.

Early intervention and early intervening services should be provided as soon as needed by students. Tier 3 intensive services should be provided as soon as needed by students. Students should not have to receive or “fail” in Tier 1 instruction, and then in Tier 2 services in order to “qualify” for Tier 3 services.

Multi-tiered service delivery should occur on a needs-based and intensity-driven basis.

Early intervention services may include—based on diagnostic or functional assessment results—the use of assistive supports, the remediation of specific skill gaps, accommodations within the instructional setting and process, and curricular modifications as needed and as identified through a data-based assessment process.

General education teachers and support staff need to be skilled in the different strategies that may be needed within these service and support areas (i.e., remediation, accommodation, and modification), and skilled in how to strategically choose these different strategies based on diagnostic or functional assessment results.

Tier 2 and 3 services include strategic or intensive curricular or skill-targeted strategies or interventions, other services or support programs (e.g., computer-assisted interventions, or more specialized assistive supports), student-tailored compensations (for academic problems), and crisis-management services (for social, emotional, or behavioral problems).

Practice 9.

When (Tier 1, 2, or 3) interventions do not work, the diagnostic or functional assessment process should be reinitiated, and it should be determined whether (a) the student’s problem was identified accurately, or has changed; (b) the assessment results correctly determined the underlying reasons for the problem; (c) the correct instructional or intervention approaches were selected; (d) the correct instructional or intervention approaches were implemented with the integrity and intensity needed; and/or (e) the student needs additional or different services, supports, strategies, or programs.

That is, it should NOT be assumed—without validation—that the interventions SHOULD have worked, and DID NOT work because the student has a MORE significant problem that will require MORE intensive and specialized services (although, based on data, that may be the case).

Practice 10.

The “tiers” in a multi-tiered system of supports reflect the intensity of services, supports, strategies, or programs needed by one or more students.

The tiers do not reflect the percentage of students receiving specific intensities or services, nor do they reflect the organization (i.e., small group or individual), the delivery setting or place, or the expertise of the primary providers of those services.

Moreover, the services and supports that are organized within a specific tier are generally idiosyncratic to each specific school or district. That is, these services and supports are related to and dependent on the available resources in each school or district—for example, the number, skill, and expertise of the existing core and related services/support staff.

For example, in a rural, poor school district, the absence of a Tier 1 social skills curriculum taught by the classroom teachers for all students might result in several students with social, emotional, and behavioral gaps that require the involvement of “Tier 2” counseling services, or (worse case scenario) “Tier 3” community mental health referrals and attention.

Because the district is in a rural area, the “Tier 3” designation of the community mental health services occurs largely because the district does employ the more specialized mental health support staff to provide these services on-site, and, for example, at the Tier 2 level.

In a larger school district—that has purchased and trained (through formal professional development) teachers to implement a Tier 1 primary prevention social skills curriculum, there likely are fewer students who have social, emotional, and behavioral gaps. Moreover, because these districts can afford to employ counselors, school psychologists, and/or social workers, the “gap” students will receive the additional supports that they need at the “Tier 2” level.

In summary, we should not assume that the terms “Tier 1, 2, or 3” reflect the same thing across schools, districts, or states.

In many ways, we should discontinue the use of the term “Tier,” and replace it with the terms: “Preventative and Universal Instructional Services,” “Strategic and Specialized Services,” and “Intensive and Compensatory Services.”

From the Grant Proposal: Multi-Tiered Services in the Context of Continuous School Improvement

In order to be effective, a district or school’s multi-tier system of supports must be an inherent part of its continuous school improvement process. While the ultimate goal of this process is to graduate students who are academically proficient, and who demonstrate effective social, emotional, and behavioral skills and interactions, we have already noted that there are many students who are not demonstrating academic learning, mastery, and proficiency; and/or the social, emotional, and behavioral progress, mastery, and proficiency needed in the classroom—much less than when they graduate from high school.

Thus, a critical part of a school or district’s continuous improvement process involves its ability to provide students with the multi-tiered services, supports, strategies, and programs that they need to be successful in all academic and social, emotional, and behavioral areas.

The Take-away: A district and school’s multi-tiered system of supports is an inherent part of its continuous school improvement process, and hence, it should be strategically planned for and resourced as part of the district’s ongoing needs assessment, resource analysis, personnel management, and budgeting processes.

Summary and Next Steps

The remainder of the grant proposal (being paraphrased above) discussed the (a) evidence-based components, (b) training and implementation activities, (c) timelines and implementation steps, and (d) formative and summative outcome evaluations that we recommended to attain the desired improvements in the students’ academic and social-emotional and behavioral progress and proficiency within the RFP’s target schools.

These components, activities, and processes were based on our Project ACHIEVE, an evidence-based school improvement program that has been implemented in thousands of schools across the country over the past 30+ years (see

I hope that this discussion has been useful to you. In fact, to make it most useful, I recommend the following:

  1. (Re)Read Part I of this two-part series [CLICK HERE]
  2. (Re)Read your state’s multi-tiered system of academic and behavioral support laws, statutes, and implementation guides. Look for the flexibility (if present) in these documents where your state says, “This is recommended,” as opposed to “This is mandated.”

Many departments of education overstate what is actually required by law, by making their recommendations sound like they are mandated. More often than not, state department of education recommendations are actually advisory (the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs does this all the time). And even if they are mandated, districts can always apply for a waiver.

Said a different way: Find the multi-tiered areas of flexibility—where you can create your own procedures and approaches—as long as they are defensible, and result in definitive student outcomes.

3. Analyze your state’s multi-tiered academic and behavioral process, as well as your district’s process, against (a) the        Flaws in Part I (to determine if you are inadvertently following procedures or practices that are represented in one        or more of the Flaws; and (b) the Recommended Practices above (to ensure that you are using the best policies,            procedures, and practices on behalf of your students, staff, and schools).

    Remember, one of the only ways to change is to first acknowledge the presence of a problem.

4. Finally, initiate (or continue) a strategic review and planning process—at the district, school, and grade/instructional      levels to objectively look at what you are doing that is successful for all students, what needs to be discontinued or        changed, and what gaps exist. . . that need to be analyzed, resourced, and addressed.

In the end, we all want to implement programs in our schools that have the highest probability (and actuality) of success for all students.

But. . . we must use processes that have actually demonstrated successful science-to-practice outcomes—based on sound psychometric, implementation science, and systems scale-up principles and practices.

As always, I always look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail.

If I can help you in any of the multi-tiered areas discussed in this message, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students.