MTSS By Yourself … Because of COVID

Starting, Starting Over, or Revising MTSS

This post is by guest blogger, Dr. Chris Birr. Birr is a member of the ion Board of Directors, a School Psychologist, MTSS Coordinator, and deep thinker. Chris lives in suburban Columbus, Ohio with his wife, two daughters, and a dog.

School closure and now a fluid environment has resulted in many educators feeling challenged to meet the learning needs of students while keeping schools open (Fernando & Schleicher, 2020). However, as students attend part-time, full-time, or continue with remote instruction, it is logical to predict that losses in learning will occur for students due to lack of instructional time and lack of in-person instruction. MTSS has been a framework that many schools were developing and deploying with varying levels of success, fidelity, and completeness even prior to the pandemic. Now, I have heard that MTSS has been placed on the back-burner until the pandemic subsides a bit. This may not be true everywhere, but I fear we may revert to less than evidence-informed instruction and data-based decision-making.

Most districts will not have the bandwidth to dedicate teams of people to MTSS development and deployment at this time. However, there are likely individuals that are either charged with the development of MTSS frameworks or have a passion to nudge their school or district toward an evolved MTSS framework.

As a past MTSS coordinator, the following recommendations are provided if entering a developing MTSS framework or a framework that at one time had a robust framework that he devolved over time. The following recommendations are intended as suggestions to an individual who has influence or impact in the development or refinement of an MTSS framework. But, when uncertainty is the only consistent factor, it can be difficult to find entry points to improve a system.

1. Implementation Rubrics. Review or become familiar with the elements of “good” MTSS. The use of rubrics such as the SAM from the Florida MTSS Project or the NASDSE Blueprints of RtI are excellent resources, along with others. Take inventory of your current system and look for strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, this work is done in teams at the school level and action plans are created. However, these are not ideal times. At least, use a rubric to create a roadmap for yourself regarding how you could influence schools to improve in critical areas. Develop a plan for improvement that you reference without overwhelming others at this time.

2. Assessment Basics. There are different kinds of tests and tests have different purposes. Take inventory of your school or district assessment schedule. Then examine which tests are universal screeners, diagnostic, and progress monitoring. Also, which tests can be used for program evaluation to examine how students grew at the end of each year?

Efficiency and effectiveness can be less than adequate if a universal screening assessment doubles for progress monitoring and a student’s progress is only checked three times a year. Or, if a diagnostic assessment is used for screening, less precision about the student’s needs is provided from the results.

Consider reviewing basic psychometrics. Are the assessments used in your school or district, adequate, regarding reliability and validity? Not that you can make sweeping changes if things are less than ideal. However, looking for weaknesses and opportunities will help develop and order priorities. Use conversations at the school level to nudge the use of the data with the highest reliability and validity for decision-making.

3. Data Transparency. Can data be sorted by grade level, school, or classroom? Is it possible to drill down to a single student or group of students receiving the same intervention? Are administrators able to view the entire district relative to their school or does each school have a patchwork of online spreadsheets that move location or are deleted accidentally at times?

Transparency of data is critical for a high-functioning, efficient MTSS framework. However, robust and efficient student information systems are not cheap and require professional development and support to operate effectively. Look for ways to scale the use of efficient data retrieval to teachers and student services professionals. Access to data is one of the first steps to increasing data-based decision-making within systems. In my experience, it is ideal when teachers and administrators can access data to make decisions, in three clicks or less.

Formatting. One aspect that I found particularly useful was the use of consistent, conditional formatting of student assessment scores. The following was the system of formatting used to mirror the performance categories on our state tests.

Red= Below Basic; Yellow= Basic; Green= Proficient or above; Blue= Advanced

Each assessment had a district or publisher developed table with ranges of scores for each performance band. In this way, teachers or administrators could sort by score and get a quick visual of the number of students in each band. A bonus was that when norms changed, the formatted colors remained, and ranges could be changed behind the scenes within our student information system.

4. Observe Interventions. Schedule time a few times a week to observe a small group or individual interventions. Look for the key elements of explicit and systematic instruction, ample practice, frequent feedback, and monitoring. If you are fortunate to have the opportunity, watch the same intervention in multiple schools. Do practices look similar?

An eventual goal with interventions would be the creation of the district or school fidelity checklists. The purpose is to communicate critical elements of the intervention to the instructor. In my experience, checklists are not effective when used as “gotchas” or for evaluation. In a best-case scenario, the checklists are seen and known by interventionists and used to provide positive feedback that all elements were observed. In a perfect world, fidelity checklists are scored at 90-100% and student data is trending up on progress monitoring.

Summary. Schools are faced with unprecedented times and many are simply trying to keep up or do their job the best they can at this time. Safety and health are the primary concern and making sure students and staff can stay as mentally healthy as possible. If placed in a position where MTSS can be a focus, there is still a need to accelerate student growth and academic progress. Knowing where to start or even how to start can be a challenge when priorities appear to change daily. The recommendations above are not based on an exhaustive search of the literature on the deployment of MTSS but rather an experience of being one person in a system and looking for ways to nudge MTSS forward little by little.

Are you in a position where you are trying to further MTSS? What has worked in your school or district? I’d love to hear suggestions and experiences.