MTSS - The Unfulfilled Promise

MTSS - Multi Tiered Systems of Support - is a fancy way of describing this practice:
  1. Try the standard curriculum with the kids. It will work for most of them. Check to make sure.
  2. It won't work for some, so, just for them, try something else that's more their speed. Check to see if that works.
  3. If that doesn't work then try something more. Check to see if that works.

So why is Seattle Public Schools having such a hard time implementing it?

It turns out that every part of this is hard.

Try the standard curriculum with the kids. Teachers do not have any kind of standard practice. Ever since the introduction of the state standards over fifteen years ago the District has been working, without success, to get the teachers to teach to the Standards. There are a number of excellent reasons for this failure, but don't ask the District. They have chosen not to think about the root causes, therefore they have never been able to adequately address them. A lot of it has to do with the fact that the teachers are creative professionals, so they are exercising their initiative. People like that typically don't respond well to top down direction on how to do their job, which is how a lot of them see this step. Also the teachers naturally adjust their instruction down to meet their students. Some of them can also adjust their instruction up to meet their students, but the system is failure-focused, so it doesn't encourage them to do this. So the District is failing in the first step. They would do better to engage the teachers and earn their buy in. Some of the leadership gets that and does it, some don't.

Check to make sure. This calls for frequent assessment. I don't mean MAP tests three times a year. This is more like a chapter quiz every week and lots of examples of student work all through the week. This will, of course, generate a lot of data that will have to be interpreted. Moreover, it means teachers collaborating in the review of this data to keep everything calibrated. This takes time, which are teachers' most precious resource.

It won't work for some, so, just for them, try something else that's more their speed. This is going to require a lot from teachers, schools, and the district. From the teachers it means delivering multiple curricula in a single classroom - not easy. It means some kids will be using one book while a few kids will be using a different book and, maybe, a few other kids will be using a third book. For the school it means that they have to have these books on the shelf. This might also mean Walk to Math, which will require a degree of coordination within the school. The District, for their part, will have to identify and approve not just one curriculum, but three or five. Please don't anyone pretend this is easy.

Check to see if that works. Now the teacher is not only doing a weekly quiz to see how well 20 kids are doing with curriculum A, they also have to assess how well 5 kids are doing with curriculum B and how 5 others are doing with curriculum C. Depending on the results, kids will be shifting from one curriculum to another. Some kids will need more support, some will need more acceleration, and some will be just right and that will change over time and from topic to topic. So there should be easy mobility forward and back.

If that doesn't work then try something more. This is a referral to Special Education for some kids and a referral to HC for others. Of course after getting that referral most of the kids will be returned to the general education classroom. Now the teacher has an even broader set of instructional strategies and materials to juggle. Remember, this is a teacher who wasn't that crazy about sticking to the standard curriculum back at the beginning.

Check to see if that work. And now the teacher has an even board set of assessments to deliver. And now there is even a broader range of mobility for all of the students. It has exploded into a nightmare of 30 kids doing 30 different things and the teacher trying to manage, deliver, track, assess, and interpret it all - plus document all of that work for their principals and the District. Oh, didn't I mention that they have to document it all?

Oh my gosh. I'm sure you're all thinking that teachers must love this idea so much and be so eager to do it that they are trying to wrestle it away from the District. Well, not really.

The MTSS process may sound simple or even just sound like good teaching practice, but it is not only really hard, it is a huge amount of work. While the district and the school have a part to play, the bulk of the work falls on the teacher. And that's a bit harder for the teachers to accept when the school and the district are trying to dictate how the work gets done, aren't listening to the teachers, aren't supporting the teachers, and aren't doing a very good job of holding up their end by prepping the inventions and acceleration pieces, providing the technical support, or coordinating the work.

Seattle Public Schools started in 2012 with a three-year plan to implement MTSS. See MTSS is the future (for now) from June 7, 2012 and Status of MTSS from September 3, 2012. It was supposed to be fully implemented by the 2014-2015 school year. It has been a Board Priority and an item on the Superintendent's To-Do list every year since, but this week Dr. Nyland is coming before the Board and talking about it as if they are just getting started on the work with no mention of the past four years' effort. Apparently the past four years' effort has not brought us any further than the starting line.


Anonymous said…
Despite the talk of meeting all kids where they are at, the reality is there are still three groups in the classroom. Moving faster, moving slower, and middle. There are two teacher-identified HC kids in our family. Our experience has been, when it gets to the point that a teacher is referring a kid to HC, they have realized that kid is significantly outside these three groups and is more work than they are willing or able to take on. At that point, that poor kid is out of scope.

Depending on whether the rec came before or after the October deadline (November conferences are not unusual timing for this conversation), it's the rest of that year plus maybe ANOTHER FULL YEAR before the kid can move to HC. And that's assuming he or she has a good testing day and gets the scores the teacher predicts. That's a very long time to be out of scope.

If the district made it a priority to serve the kids at the extremes in a more timely fashion, those kids within the bell curve would get more energetic, tailored, comprehensive teaching.

Lynn said…
Did you see that the presentation for tomorrow's work session has been updated to show all the great progress the district has made since 2012? (See page 35.)
Ms206 said…
May I ask what the HC is? There is an article that touches on this issue called "learning to Teach Nothing in Particular" by David K. Cohen from the periodical Americal Educator. It is available for free online.

Does the MTSS have any relationship to Responsiveness to Intervention (RTI)?
Carol Simmons said…
Thank you to Lynn for posting the Presentation materials. The graph data for academic achievement by ethnicity once again illustrates that our Native students continue to be underserved. Including a Native program in another school is not the answer. Indian Heritage school should be resurrected.
Charlie Mas said…
@Ms206, MTSS is, essentially, RTI. That's what Seattle Public Schools called it before 2012. Let's remember that the District staff need to periodically revise and re-define all of the nomenclature so they can sneer at the public for not knowing the revised jargon.

What is HC? An excellent question. The District has been very conscientious about not defining it in any verifiable way.
Charlie Mas said…
With the revisions, the Superintendent and the staff are now showing that the MTSS implementation is currently in year four of a three-year process with just two years to go.

They appear proud of this.
Anonymous said…
Is MTSS just differentiation on steroids? To really do differentiation you need to first get a sense of where your students are at (formative assessment), then determine the appropriate instruction and/or curriculum for each student or group. Then you're obviously going to want to make sure that whatever you're doing is working, so you'll have summative assessments (e.g., chapter test). Depending on those results, you may see a need to modify your strategies with all or some.

Differentiation has proven to be a big challenge to implement effectively, particularly in large classes. Is MTSS going to come with so many more additional resources and supports that it will somehow be easier? Or am I missing how it's fundamentally different from differentiation?

Half Full
Charlie Mas said…
I think that MTSS is intended as a supporting framework for differentiation.

For it to work the district (or someone) would have to create all these little, tailored lessons like additional skill practice in a specific skill like long division. It could be a review of a concept that was missed. It could be the presentation of a lesson in an alternative way. The District has to build a catalog of interventions to address the range of problems. Likewise, the District will have to build a catalog of accelerated lessons that are nearly as tailored. It would be both an impossible task and a grotesque waste of effort for each and every teacher to develop their own lesson for each of these specific needs.

Imagine how much easier it will be for teachers to differentiate if they don't have to create any tailored lessons.

I think this may be one of the really big problems with the MTSS implementation: the district hasn't built the catalog of lessons. Instead, they are relying on the teachers to create them. Then the District will encourage teachers to share them (at least within each school) so they don't all have to make all of their own. This is a weak link in the implementation and the failure is all in the JSCEE.
Outsider said…
It's funny to hear everyone talk about differentiation as if it existed. My son's teacher is quite clear about refusing to do it.

Differentiating for bright students is not difficult and does not require an elaborate system. My teachers way back when did it easily, without the help of central control and laughable jargon. Differentiation doesn't happen in Seattle because SPS mostly doesn't want to do it.

It seems to me that MTSS is really an ed-reform contraption to figure out why students at the bottom are failing, and make them not fail. If we could only outfit every teacher with an AI-controlled exoskeleton that would control all their movements, then maybe struggling students would all succeed. Isn't that the theory? Meanwhile, MTSS yields exactly nothing for potential high achievers.
Charlie Mas said…
And this is the two pronged fail point for every single implementation that Seattle Public Schools has ever attempted:

1. They never get people outside the JSCEE to go along with what they want them to do.
Since the JSCEE never bothers to engage teachers in the planning, the teachers are never invested in the plan. So the teachers just ignore it. So far that has worked well for the teachers because there has never been much negative consequence for ignoring these sorts of plans. This is especially true given the amount of turnover in the district leadership.

2. The folks in the JSCEE don't know what's actually happening in the schools and, when push comes to shove, they can't control what teachers do in their classrooms. I am reminded of the elementary math materials adoption when the executive directors of schools had to reach out to their principals to ask them what math texts they were using - BECAUSE THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTORS DIDN'T KNOW. The folks in the JSCEE are so invested in the official truth that they have no interest in the actual truth.
Ms206 said…
Charlie, thanks for the reply. Do you know what HC stands for at least?
Ms206 said…
Half Full, you raise the issue of implementation. I teach a small number of students, 6 right now, but my class can have up to 8. I teach what is called Autistic Support (I teach in PA), which is self-contained, although I have 2 students who spend some time in the regular ed setting. Talking to my regular ed colleagues, many of whom have 30 or more students, including students with IEPS and ELLS, it is difficult to consistently differentiate. It takes a lot of time to make the different sets of copies, label the copies, explain the different directions. Then there is the issue of grading and making different rubrics. I thoroughly differentiate, including 3 or 4 different sets of homework. But I only have 6 to 8 students. In terms of the workload, it's too much to accurately differentiate when there are 30+ kids in a class. At minimum, there must be as assistant in the class. But really what is necessary is lower class size.
Anonymous said…
Ms206, HC is Highly Capable. Kids are recommended for testing in October and designated in early spring. Kids who qualify are guaranteed a spot at a different school with a self-contained cohort.

Interestingly, in our experience in HC, classes are still too big to really differentiate.

Anonymous said…
Right, Ms206. And in middle or high school, teachers can have 150+ students, and get each for less than an hour a day. Can't really do much differentiation there, either--even if you have that TBD catalog of interventions that might theoretically accompany MTSS.

So my question remains, if differentiation is so hard now, what makes those in charge so sure that we'll be able to implement MTSS, if it requires teachers to not only do the differentiation they currently aren't doing, but to do a lot more in the way of documenting these interventions, sharing them, etc?

Or perhaps there's no interest in fully implementing MTSS? Perhaps the strategy has been, all along, to focus on those at the bottom only? Focus on that tier first, and then after enough wheel-spinning we'll give up on MTSS and never bother with other tiers? That seems to fit with the "targeted universalism" approach, which focuses on the lowest performers. People sometimes complain about "teaching to the middle", but are we shifting even more toward a "teach to the bottom" approach?

Half Full
Anonymous said…
Half Full, it's anecdotal, but we definitely felt a push from our child's teacher and principal to leave. Not encouragement, not certainty of how this was the best fit for the child yada yada, but "please make this not my problem anymore."

Anonymous said…
MTSS = raising the bottom. Zero effort elsewhere. Look for yourselves. It is about making sure kids meet standard as measured by the latest state test. Current flavor is SBAC. Administration cares about that school report card and that's it. Gen ed kid looking for challenge? Gifted looking for help? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Anonymous said…
If differentiation is unsuccessful within the classroom, why can't we differentiate entire classes? At my child's elementary school there are 100+ 4th graders. In math, that is enough for an advanced level working at 5th 6th grade level, a high level gen ed, a couple regular gen ed, and a remedial. Yet the school only uses 4th grade curriculum for all 100 students. Isn't this an easy solution?
SW Mom
Charlie Mas said…
Differentiation is the magic pixie dust that the District sprinkles on classrooms to fix all the problems. It is their cure-all. Whatever your problem - need advanced learning opportunities, need an IEP followed, need to accommodate a different learning style - the district claims that differentiation will fix it. There's just one problem: even where there is some differentiation there isn't much and in most of the district there is almost none at all.

Differentiation doesn't happen because it is incredibly difficult and labor intensive and all of the work falls on overburdened teachers. MTSS is a plan to make differentiation less difficult and labor intensive, by distributing a lot of the work among teachers. But some of the work cannot be distributed and the rest of the work still needs to get done by a teacher somewhere.

MTSS, like past promises of differentiation, is a commitment made in the JSCEE that has to be fulfilled in the classroom. It's not happening because the people making the commitment and the people with the duty to fulfill it are not the same people. Authority and responsibility are divided. As anyone who knows anything about management knows, When that happens, things don't get done.

MTSS has worked, but only when the commitment was made by the teachers in the school. We have examples of this in Seattle. Mercer was such a school at one time. They were able to do it thanks to charismatic leadership and a cadre of teachers who all committed to the strategy. This is not a scalable process, yet the District talks about taking it to scale.

I suppose that, theoretically, the District could implement MTSS in all schools, but if that were their intent they would have to go about it in a completely different way that they have tried to date. That's why their implementation is failing hard. That's why they have hit the wall. That's why they are in year four of a three-year implementation plan with six years to go. They cannot convince the teachers in the buildings to do the work. They cannot even convince the principals in the buildings to lead the work. And why not? Because they aren't even trying to convince anybody of anything - they are just telling them to do it without any ability to enforce the orders nor any ability to assess whether they have.

In the end I expect that the teachers and the principals will simply report that they are doing the work - even when they are not - the district staff will celebrate those reports - even though they know (or should know) that they are false. Then the district leadership will declare victory and drop the whole thing never to mention it again. When new leadership comes (3... 2... 1... ) they will acknowledge the lie but they will be selling some other brand of magic pixie dust so it will not be a topic worthy of discussion.
Anonymous said…
@ Charlie
My children's teachers spew the same empty rhetoric as JSCEE and resent it when I call them on their BS. Forget, the central office, how are teachers (save the few true saints) not the problem? I've witnessed many professionals do better with far less so I don't think "resources" can be wholly blamed.
SW Mom
"the problem?" All the poor outcomes of education are the teachers' faults? Not buying it.
Charlie Mas said…
SW Mom asked: "how are teachers... not the problem?"
Well, I guess that depends on how you define the problem. What problem are you having? If it's lack of differentiation, then I suspect that the problem is that differentiation requires an inordinate amount of work - more than teachers can legitimately be expected to do and far more than they are charged with or paid for.
Unknown said…
They would do better to engage the teachers and earn their buy in. Some of the leadership gets that and does it, some don't.

8th class result 2016

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