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MTSS is More Important (and More Complicated) Than Ever

How Technology Can Help Create Efficiencies in MTSS Implementation

By Dr. Mary Eisele, VP of Intervention Products, McGraw Hill School

Many educators are already very familiar with Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RtI) models. You very well may teach in a school that has adopted the MTSS model. Both MTSS and RtI are not new. For years, districts have been successfully supporting students academically as well as socially and emotionally using an MTSS framework.

For a refresher, MTSS is a systems-change approach many school districts undertake to address the academic and behavioral performance of all students. MTSS is an umbrella that contains both RtI and Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports (PBIS).

MTSS involves three (or more) tiers of educational support, beginning with a foundation tier (Tier I) and extending to additional tiers to support smaller groups of students with more specific needs. Schools, networks, and the district use a data-driven problem-solving process to inform continuous improvement for each tier. Response to Intervention (RtI) is implemented through this multi-tier instructional model.

For a deeper review of MTSS and RtI models from a functional level, see this overview. For a look at MTSS from the perspective of an educator, see, What is MTSS, and Why Do We Need It?

MTSS is More Important Than Ever

As we work to mitigate pandemic-induced academic learning loss and social and emotional challenges after isolation, MTSS is more important than ever. MTSS enables educators to closely monitor students’ progress, respond to their growth with the exact supports they need when they need them, and focus efforts beyond academic measures of achievement. Here are a few key challenges many districts are facing that I believe MTSS will be critical in overcoming:

  • Learning loss has left little time to waste. While the next few years will inevitably be a time of at least some trial and error as district leaders work to identify approaches that best suit their students’ needs, the unprecedented effects of the pandemic call for proven, research-based approaches. More efficacy research needs to be done on MTSS implementation, but we do know that John Hattie assigned RtI, a core element of MTSS, an effect size of 1.29, and behavioral intervention programs an effect size of 0.62. We also know that learning loss has disproportionally affected low-income students and students of color. MTSS will by no means eliminate the need for active, committed, highly-prioritized equity work, but it is designed to support a strong district-wide equity plan.
  • As a result of isolation and interrupted school, students are displaying below-grade level social behaviors, anxiety, and other issues in class. Despite the attention that academic learning loss receives in media and research, these harder-to-measure social and emotional impacts are deeply apparent to educators. Educational leaders have to address these less quantifiable impacts of the pandemic and work with teachers to provide the necessary supports. Moving forward, we also need to better understand and address the impact of behavioral, social, emotional, and other contextual factors on academic learning — learning does not happen in a vacuum, and children do not develop in isolation from their experiences. MTSS could very well be a critical tool in helping us to implement a more holistic response to students’ complex needs.
  • Finally, the pandemic sharpened the need to recognize the individuality among learners and respond with personalized instruction and targeted interventions. It’s harder than ever for educators to identify students’ precise needs and respond with timely intervention. MTSS places data at the center of instructional strategies, and its focus on screening, progress monitoring, and targeted intervention will be invaluable to educators.

MTSS Implementation is More Complicated Than Ever

However, because there are no easy answers to the complex challenges educators face today, MTSS will likely present some complications in a post-COVID environment. MTSS requires a great deal of data management. To provide students with personalized support and to deliver high-quality instruction and targeted intervention at scale, districts need to manage massive amounts of data. Complex data management can be a burden on entire school systems when infrastructure isn’t in place to support fast data collection, coordination, and interpretation.

MTSS is notorious for its paperwork. At a time when teachers need support to stay in the profession, placing additional administrative work on an educator’s plate should be a concern for any school leader. Special education teachers in particular are subject to burnout and stress from overwhelming paperwork generated by RtI. The data and documentation required for MTSS programs help personalize instruction, but only if educators have the tools they need to be efficient and well-supported.

Further, the unique post-COVID environment presents challenges for interpreting student learning data. MTSS places a great deal of emphasis on Tier 1, or core instruction. Students shouldn’t receive Tier 2 instruction unless they truly have not responded to core. However, after a stretch of remote learning and attendance issues, it will be very difficult to determine if students truly need Tier 2 instruction because they haven’t responded to core, or if they simply haven’t received core instruction at all.

Technology Can Drive MTSS Efficiencies

The complications I listed above will not have simple answers, and each district will encounter obstacles in their MTSS journey specific to the effects COVID had on their communities. However, I would encourage school leaders to look to technology to support implementation, both for easing teachers’ workflow and for improving student outcomes.

Instructional technology can drive personalization and engagement across tiers. Strengthen instruction at all tiers with technology that boosts engagement and individualization and makes learning relevant, such as adaptive learning programs, augmented reality, or even gamification where applicable. This is even possible in core or Tier 1 and is critical for students who are feeling burnout as a result of remote learning.

Use technology to ease teachers’ workflow. This is perhaps the most important element: With data science, we can coordinate classroom mechanisms and automate some of the heavier paperwork burdens necessary to implement MTSS. Schools can’t adequately support learners when they’re asking too much of their educators and burning time on manual data collection and interpretation. Technology also has the potential to combine data sources, uniting the ever-increasing volume of available student learning data that’s relevant to instruction and progress monitoring.

The road to combating the complex challenges districts currently face will not be simple, but with an approach to MTSS that focuses closely on personalization and easing the teacher’s workflow, students are sure to find the support they need to thrive.

Dr. Mary Eisele serves as the VP of Product Management for Intervention at McGraw Hill. Driven by a desire for ALL students to succeed, her goal is to develop the highest quality educational solutions. For more than 30 years, Dr. Eisele has partnered with schools and districts to implement systemic change for student achievement.

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