It’s Not Too Late to Change: The School Year’s Not Even Half Over

Why Schools Fail to Act When their Students Fail to Learn

Dear Colleagues,


   In the past few weeks (or months), a number of professional and college coaches (especially in football, basketball, and hockey) have lost their jobs—some in the first few weeks of their seasons.  Typically, their teams have “gotten off on the wrong foot” by losing a series of games, and fans (and alumni) are clamoring for a change and beginning to boycott games.

   Given the “bad press”—but more often because of the economic implications, owners and College Presidents know that they need to act quickly and decisively.

   As we all know by now, professional and college sports are big, multi-million dollars businesses.  And when business is not going well, the business must reorganize so that it can return to profitability.

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   Education is a big business also.  But the “profit” in education (some charter schools aside) is about human capital—the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral success of our preschool through high school students.

   And yet, when the school and schooling process is not going well—that is, when large numbers of students are failing, underperforming, or not mastering essential skills—why do our educational CEOs not move with the same strategic speed as their business counterparts?

   And while I know that you “can’t fire the team,” I also know that when the team is failing, it may need to be reorganized and the coaching may need to be changed.

   More about this later. . . .

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Why Do Students (and Schools) Fail?

   As usual, I am consulting across the country right now with ten or twelve different school districts—from traditional preschool through high school districts, to a high school-only district, to an inner-city charter school district.

   And while the descriptions below are occurring in a number of these current districts, the issues are common to districts I have worked with for almost 40 years.

   Many of my districts are working on upgrading their multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) practices.  Based on my work—especially in designing this system for thirteen years as the Director of the Arkansas Department of Education’s State Personnel Development Grant (funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs), the first component of an effective MTSS system is an effective general education classroom with effective differentiated instruction and effective classroom management led by an effective teacher.

   As students present with frequent or significant academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral challenges, the next components of an effective MTSS system involve “layers” of support or multidisciplinary teams.

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   In analyzing their students in preparation for the MTSS upgrade, many of my districts are discovering five themes.

  • Theme 1: Teachers Don’t Know Students’ Mastered Skills.  General education teachers do not know the functional literacy, math, oral, and written expression skills of all of the students they are teaching.  That is, they do not know what (above, below, or at) grade-level skills their students have mastered, not mastered, been taught, or have never been taught.

Thus, they do not know what instructional skill levels they need to differentiate for in every class every day.

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  • Theme 2: Teachers Have Too Many Discrepant Skills Levels of Students to Teach.  General education teachers have too many skill levels in their classroom for differentiated instruction.  A rule-of-thumb here is that teachers can successfully differentiate for only three or four different functional skill levels in any class.

Thus, given that most elementary and secondary classes have five or more skill levels at a time to provide differentiation for, there is no way that teachers can prepare for or provide the instructional materials, attention, and effectiveness to all of their students. 

This, then, undercuts instructional “equity and excellence,” and potentially produces instructional student casualties that look like they are student-specific casualties.

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  • Theme 3: Teachers Don’t Have, Understand, and Follow Curricular Scope and Sequences.  Many general education teachers (especially at the elementary level) are not guided by scaffolded scope and sequence matrices that guide the instruction in their different academic areas, and that are aligned to the Common Core (or other) standards. 

Moreover, they do not know (a) how to assess students’ prerequisite skills for the next planned lesson or unit, (b) what objective criteria represent skill mastery, or (c) how to progress monitor students’ learning, mastery, and skill application.

At the secondary level, many middle and high schools also are not aligning and coordinating their literacy, math, oral, and written expression instruction—in a trans-disciplinary fashion—with their science, social studies/civics, business, arts, and other elective courses.

In this context, most academic departments at the secondary level are functioning as feudal states. . . most staff are teaching “their” academic courses in silos. . . and most teachers do not recognize that they (and all of their peers) are responsible for expertly teaching (once again) literacy, math, oral, and written expression continually in their classrooms and as applied to their course content.

Thus, at both the elementary and secondary levels, many students are failing—or, at least, not succeeding at their level of potential—because the curricula, courses, units, or skills/content they are “learning” are poorly scaffolded, aligned, evaluated, shared, and coordinated both within and across disciplines.

This, then, potentially produces curricular casualties that look like they are student casualties.

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  • Theme 4: School-level MTSS Teams Need to Refocus.  Moving further into the MTSS process, most schools have an MTSS (or Child Study, Student Assistance, School Intervention, or comparably-titled) team that is responsible for helping their general education colleagues address the academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral needs of at-risk, unsuccessful, underachieving, unresponsive, or failing students.

But these Teams need to refocus their membership and meetings, and their mission, roles, and function.

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Among the common MTSS problems here is that this Team typically:

  • Does not include the best academic and behavioral assessment, instructional, and intervention experts in or available to the school;
  • Does not meet as a team (regardless of the referred case) on a regularly (weekly) scheduled basis with all of these professionals (physically or remotely) present—including a school administrator;
  • Does not include the teacher(s) (or a representative of the teaching team) who has/(have) the student of concern as part of the team, requiring them to attend all meetings to present and discuss the case;
  • Does not have all of the relevant and known (a) academic, (b) behavioral, (c) situational (e.g., school moves, school attendance, home or family), (d) medical and psychological/developmental (as relevant), (e) assessment and intervention (and their outcomes), and (f) other relevant information collected and analyzed prior to the meeting and presented at the beginning of the meeting (most often by the classroom teacher); and
  • Believes that its goal is to “solve the problem” at the meeting and around the table—rather than identify the best consultant to work with the teacher(s), student, and (perhaps) family after the meeting to (a) validate the root causes of the problem and (b) link these causes to classroom, strategic, or intensive instruction or intervention.

Thus, when MTSS Teams convene, they often (a) do not include the teacher(s) who are actually experiencing and are concerned about the student challenges in their classrooms; (b) have multi-disciplinary gaps, because not enough professional diversity is “at the table;” (c) have unrealistic goals and insufficient student information; and (d) meet in “MTSS marathons” where too many cases are scheduled and are given too little discussion time—because the team meets too infrequently or on a “case-to-case” basis.

All of this results in (a) meetings and group interactions that are both ineffective and inefficient; (b) student analyses based on invalid or incomplete information’ (c) intervention decisions that are premature or are directed to student symptoms and not “real” problems; and (d) outcomes that not only are unsuccessful (in changing the real problems), but often exacerbate the problem, or at least make it more resistant to change (because they have failed).

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  • Theme 5: Schools have Too Many “Tier II” and “Tier III” Students.  Many schools are finding that they have “too many” students who need more strategic or intensive multi-tiered instruction or intervention, and that they do not have the resources or time to deliver these more specialized or intensive approaches— especially when they involve outside-the-classroom supplemental services or personnel.

There are three issues even here.

  • Issue 1: Too Little Time and Expertise.  First, many schools don’t have advanced certified professionals with the specialized instructional and intervention skills needed to address the more strategic or intensive academic or behavioral challenges of certain students. 

Some schools have these professionals available—but only in literacy, and not in mathematics, and especially not in behavior.

Some schools are using paraprofessionals to deliver these services—but these good people are usually not well supervised and observed, and they don’t have the deep pedagogical knowledge to deliver the specialized approaches needed.

Some schools are driven by schedules and logistics, rather than student needs. . . and the specialized approaches are not coordinated with the general education teachers and their core instruction.

Some of the schools too quickly assume that supplemental “pull-out” approaches are needed because they are not first assessing why the problem is occurring.  Here, they often miss the fact that skill remediation, learning approach accommodations, and/or curricular modifications—that should be implemented in the general education classroom by general education teachers—are what are really needed.

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  • Issue 2: Schools Need to Focus on Student Needs and Not the Percentages of Student Needs.  Second, there is an invalid, unsubstantiated “numbers game”—advocated by the U.S. Department of Education—left-over from the “national-advocated” RtI framework of the recent past.

The “game” is embodied in the principle that, in a typical or “effective” school, 80% of the students should receive Tier I universal instruction and attention, 15% should receive Tier II strategic services, and 5% should receive Tier III intensive supports.

Critically, this principle has never been valid or validated

It literally was made up (by their own admission) by some “national experts” who were trying to apply epidemiological, public health-related research to schools and psychoeducational practice.

But more significant than this erroneous fabrication is the panic that schools feel when 25, 35, or 45 percent of their students have strategic or intensive academic or social, emotional, or behavioral needs. 

The panic occurs both because schools (a) feel that the large “Tier II” numbers indicate that they must be “doing MTSS/RtI incorrectly,” and they (b) have no recourse but to provide the more intensive tiered services to these students (even though they don’t have the resources—see above).

Critically, we need to stop the panic, look at the reality, and take action.

Aside from the ill-conceived “numbers game,” when schools have large numbers of students who appear to need more intensive multi-tiered interventions, we recommend the following steps: 

Step 1.  Analyze all of the students’ skill gaps to determine how many of the students are instructional casualties, how many are curricular casualties, and how many (as above) have skill gaps that should be addressed through classroom-based, small-group remediations, accommodations, and/or modifications.

Step 2.  Pool elementary students who are at the same grade-level, who need these small group approaches, but who have different “homeroom” teachers—into small, cross-teacher intervention groups.  (Re)organize the schedule so that there is a common grade-level intervention time, and let students who are in different skill-focused groups “walk” to an intervention group taught by a teacher from their grade level.

For example, if a grade level has four teachers, students can walk to one or four (or more—if other intervention specialists are involved) different intervention groups.                                  

At the secondary level, adapt the schedule to establish a common intervention time and assign specific teachers (as immediately above) to provide selected middle or high school students with the small group interventions needed. 

At the high school level, if these intervention periods do not result in course credit, then the students don’t earn graduation-qualifying credit.  The trade-off is that they learn and master skills that will help them to earn credits in future courses, because without these skills, they will likely fail those courses anyways.

Based on the analysis in Step A, recognize that some students will still need more specialized interventions that need to be delivered by intervention specialists.

Finally, recognize that some students have such significant skill gaps that another dated RtI principle will not hold.  This principle suggests that all students presenting with challenging behavior should receive core instruction plus remediation.

This principle also has never been validated.

Indeed, when students’ skill gaps are so large that they cannot benefit from (i.e., learn and master) core instruction and/or “catch up” with 30 minutes (or one period) of remediation per day, we need to “re-core the core.” 

That is, we need to change these students’ core instruction to instruction at their functional, instructional skill level, and then provide them the same additional 30 minutes of “remediation” at this same level.

In summary, when you have 25, 35, or 45 percent of your students with “strategic or intensive academic or social, emotional, or behavioral needs,” the likely source of the problem is a (past or present) instructional or curricular general education issue. 

Regardless of the source of the problem, its solutionmust occur in the general education classroom utilizing general education teachers.  This may require a realignment of the curriculum, the instruction, the student grouping patterns, and the schedule.  Moreover, this is likely to be unorthodox, challenging, and challenged. 

But it must be done.

This is not a Tier II issue.  It is, and it must be addressed as, a Tier I issue.

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  • Issue 3: Schools Need to Focus on Students’ Needs and Not on “Safe Harbors.”  The third issue—regarding schools having large numbers of students needing more strategic or intensive intervention—is that these large numbers may be occurring because there is less “statutory pressure” on schools to be more successful. 

More specifically, with the changes in the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the “proficiency pressure” on districts and schools has decreased.  This means that fewer schools will probably be identified as “needing improvement,” and more schools, therefore, will (mis)interpret this as representing “a successful school.”

Thus, schools where 45% of their students are Proficient or above (meaning that 55% of their students are Basic or below. . . and “in need of ‘Tier II or III’ services”), will nonetheless consider themselves “successful,” because they are not in state “improvement” status.

In addition to this, under ESEA, state departments of education (rather than the U.S. Department of Education) have more direct oversight and authority to act.

But even this oversight and authority has now been diluted.

Indeed, schools that are identified by their state departments of education for targeted support and intervention (based on the poor cumulative academic performance of specific student subgroups) will initially be allowed to develop district-supervised improvement plans and interventions. 

State departments of education also must identify the lowest performing 5% of Title I schools at least once every three years, as well as high schools with graduation rates at or below 67% for “comprehensive, locally-determined evidence-based intervention.”

But, according to ESEA, the state department of education can only actively step in after “a number of years” of continued poor performance.

The point here is that some schools may have “too many” students who need more strategic or intensive multi-tiered instruction or intervention, because there are fewer incentives or consequences to minimize these numbers.

Indeed, as reported by the74million on November 15, 2018, as it relates to states identifying and improving chronically underperforming schools—especially for low-income, students of color, and students with disabilities— “less than half of the 17 reviewed states’ plans ‘promote equity as a clear focus’ in their school turnaround plans, only two require districts to show how they’ll address the achievement gap, and just four ask districts to tackle inequitable distribution of key resources, such as challenging curriculum and well-qualified teachers.”

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   In summary, the five themes above represent the many common reasons why many schools are not succeeding with 85, 90, or 95 percent or more of their students.

   Because of ESEA, many school districts are (responsibly) upgrading their multi-tiered systems of support.  But to do this, districts and schools need to first look at the quality of their general education curriculum, instruction, assessment, schedules, and student grouping patterns.  Simultaneously, they need to evaluate their multi-tiered assessment-to-intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs for students with academic and/or social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges.

   As alluded to in the discussion above, this will necessitate a different approach to thinking, evaluation, strategic planning, capacity-building, and professional development.

   Many of the districts and schools that I am consulting with get this. . . but there is still another hurdle to address. . . .

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It’s Not Too Late to Change

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”    George Eliot

   I am writing this in late November.  For most August-start school districts, they have been “in session,” during this 2018-2019 school year, for approximately 65 school days.  For the September-start school districts, they have been in session for just over 50 days.

   This means—based on a 180-day school year, that all of these districts have at least two-thirds (approximately 120 days) of their school years remaining.

   And yet, in the face of the themes and issues discussed above, and having recognized that the educational processes they are implementing for and with their students is not working, many of these districts and their schools are still hesitant to act. . . boldly and now.

   Instead, many schools act as if decisive changes cannot be made “mid-year.” 

   It’s almost as if they are resigned to their students’ failure, even as they commit, “We will change and do better next year.”

   The two problems with this statement areFirst, the statement is a rationalization.  If any failing business waited two business quarters (i.e., 120 working days) to make crucial changes to its business practices, it would likely be out of business before the third quarter.

   Revisiting the Introduction to this Blog. . . when most sports teams begin the year in an exceptionally unsuccessful way, they do not resign themselves to a poor season.  Instead, their owners fire their coach and re-boot the process.

   The second problem with the statement above is that too many schools, despite their lip service, never really “change next year.”  Indeed, for most of these schools, “next year” looks remarkably like “this year.”

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   So. . . why do schools wait to change. . . when two-thirds of the school year remains, their students already are failing at unacceptable levels, and they know that waiting will simply strengthen the cycle of failure?

   If I want to be insensitive, boorish, or just an extremely assertive student advocate, I would answer the question above saying, “I don’t want to know.  There is no acceptable reason for these schools not to change now.  They should not and cannot wait.”

   But as an organizational consultant, this answer—and its accompanying attitude—will likely be counterproductive. . . consolidating peoples’ resistance to introspection and change, and resulting in an externalization of blame and a move for my dismissal.

   And so, in contrast, I need to (help the school to) analyze the underlying reasons that explain peoples’ reticence to change (now), and identify any legitimate barriers. 

   I also need to recruit those who recognize and support the need for change (now), and decide how to maximize the school’s assets and strengths.

   To start this process, we need to identify and validate the “high-hit” hypotheses that explain the reticence to change (now), so that we know the staff changes that will lead to the student changes.

   In my experience, these high-hit hypotheses include the following:

  • The majority (or all) of a school’s staff do not know or understand the student data, the magnitude of the problems, and how to prioritize the problems (Problem Identification).
  • The majority (or all) of a school’s staff do not know how to analyze the underlying root causes of the high-priority problems (Problem Analysis).
  • The majority (or all) of a school’s staff do not know how to link the results of the root cause analyses to multi-faceted, multi-layered, and multi-tiered universal, strategic, and intensive school, staff, and student, respectively, change strategies (Intervention).
  • A majority (or a powerful, vocal minority) of the staff do not support change because past change initiatives have not been supported or resourced (e.g., by the administration in ways desired by the faculty), have not included training and support, have been implemented unilaterally or without discussion, and/or have not been implemented fairly or consistently (Past History).
  • A majority (or a powerful, vocal minority) of the staff simply do not want to change their practices, or (e.g., due to union pressure) they want concessions “here,” in order to agree to a change “there” (Motivation).
  • The administration is afraid that change (now) will negatively affect the collegial climate in the school (even if that climate is not so hot right now anyways), and/or they have made a decision (consciously or subconsciously) to value staff feelings over student outcomes (Selectivity).
  • The administration is afraid that change (now) will have long-term implications, resulting—at an extreme level—in staff abdications, insubordinations, or resignations (Crisis Control).
  • The school or district (as discussed above) simply does not feel the internal or external urgency or accountability pressure to do something now (Expediency).

   As suggested above, after identifying and confirming the most valid hypothesis(es), a staff intervention plan must be organized and implemented. 

   Once successful, this then leads back to the student intervention plans that include the multi-tiered intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs needed by the students exhibiting academic and/or social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges (see the themes and issues described in the first section of this Blog).

   This brings the entire process “full circle.”

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   While I know that the staff and student analyses and interventions suggested above are “easier said than done,” the thesis of this discussion is that the process and the changes need to be done now. . . even if the required changes are uncommon, unorthodox, controversial, or risky.

   But I am not trying to be pushy or impractical here. 

   Indeed, if a school’s organizational and/or situational variables make it more advantageous to build an “infrastructure of success” at the end of the school year—in preparation for the beginning of the next school year—then so be it.

   But many of the high-hit reasons above exist to delay actions that are realistic, do-able, and that could be accomplished now. . . especially with 120 days left in the school year.

   And so. . . rather than “sacrifice the students to protect the staff, school, and system. . . tough decisions need to be made.

   In the final analysis, we all know that . . . “You can’t score if you don’t take the field.”

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   We do have at least 120 school days remaining in the current school year. 

   And all of our schools have student challenges that are serious, evident, and sometimes escalating.  And yet, many of these challenges could be solved if we confront the issues with courage, communication, commitment, and collaboration.

   Sometimes our districts and schools have the resources to take the steps needed for change.  At other times, it takes an outside expert to guide the process.

   If you need an outside expert, and would like to discuss your current concerns with an eye toward using the next 120 days to begin the change process, I would be happy to provide a free, one-hour consultation to discuss the possibilities.

   Regardless of who you choose, please begin now.  If you are not currently in a leadership position, feel free to share this Blog with your supervisor or administrator.

   Remember: “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”