Special Report
School & District Management

Can Michigan Sustain Its Multitiered Supports?

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 13, 2016 8 min read
Academic interventionist Pamela Westfall helps a group of 1st graders improve their reading skills at Elliott Elementary School in Holt, Mich.

Through a statewide initiative, Michigan has launched multitiered systems of supports as a framework to improve academics and behavior in more than half the state’s 900 elementary and secondary schools. But educators and researchers have found that initial buy-in, financial incentives, and even early success don’t guarantee schools will sustain the model for the long haul.

Multitiered systems of supports, or MTSS, are intended to address all students’ academic progress and behavior in schools by providing research-backed instruction for all students in academics and social-emotional development. Students who do not progress based only on this core instruction, known as Tier 1, are assessed regularly and provided increasingly intense interventions, called Tiers 2 and 3. The framework is intended to combine elements of similar models, like response to intervention for academics or positive behavior interventions and supports for behavior.

The model “is a recipe, it’s not a McDonald’s ‘value menu’ where you go, ‘I like this part and this part and this part,’” said Steve Netzel, the executive director of curriculum and staff development for the Holt public schools, a 5,600-student district south of Lansing. “It takes a while to understand it’s a system and it all interacts with each other. You can’t pick and choose.”

As similar models are tried out in districts nationwide, Michigan’s experience exemplifies the challenges of implementing systems of supports for general education students across grades, subjects, and schools.

More than 500 elementary and middle schools adopted the tiered-support-systems model between 2004, when the program started, and 2013. Schools saw the percentage of students meeting state reading benchmarks rise from 52 percent to more than 60 percent in the first three years, and behavior problems also fell. But Steve Goodman, the project director of Michigan’s multitiered-systems initiative, found that after that initial strong beginning, implementation dropped off rapidly after the third year, when start-up funding from the federal economic stimulus dried up. Fewer than one-third of schools met state implementation benchmarks, according to a study in 2014. More than 4 in 5 schools simply stopped reporting student data by the fourth year of the program. That was a disappointment, Goodman said, since the schools that did fully implement the framework saw much bigger gains, particularly in student behavior.

“What we learned is we could get good outcomes from behavior and reading—when staff implemented it with fidelity,” Goodman said.

Study of Implementation

Michigan’s results mirror other studies also finding mixed results for schools trying to use the framework.

“There’s this idea that a tiered framework can be applied in many different domains and that those can complement each other,” said Rekha Balu, who studies response-to-intervention models for the research group MDRC. But, she added, “thinking of next-generation support systems, I see huge coordination challenges ahead.”

For example, this September, the Tennessee education department found fewer than 1 in 4 schools involved in the state’s mutltitiered-systems initiative actually had most teachers implementing all its core pieces.

Michigan's Model: Effects on Reading, Discipline


Source: Michigan’s Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative

Moreover, even among the so-called “high implementer” schools—those that showed the most improvement for students—implemented the framework differently from those with smaller student gains. The schools that improved the most had strong leaders and specialized staff who prioritized the model. The schools also used several different data sources to make decisions about students, rather than relying on one screening test. Perhaps most importantly, the Tennessee study found, the schools arrange staggered schedules, so that teacher planning and student interventions don’t interfere with core instruction.

“In some of our small schools, there’s an assumption that communication will just happen,” said Lynnette Borree, the director of response to intervention in the Copper Country Intermediate district, which serves three rural districts in the state’s Upper Peninsula. “But you need to be intentional about it. If you just assume it will happen without giving and dedicating time for those buildings to communicate, it just doesn’t happen.”

Superintendent David G. Hornak said the Holt district “had some false starts.” He was a building principal when Holt adopted the multitiered-supports system, and saw that implementation varied significantly from school to school, and changed when new principals came in. “At a building level, you get a little possessive of your space and time and resources. You try to pivot and protect what you are already doing,” Hornak said.

Whole-District Supports

The results in Michigan persuaded Goodman and other state-level experts to broaden the initiative’s implementation targets from schools to districts.

“We could only get so far with a school-based model” of the MTSS, Goodman said. “Working with schools, we [at the state level] provided training, coaching, evaluation, expertise. That is not scalable; you can only do it in small projects with outside resources coming in. To sustain it, you have to develop local capacity.

Terri Peters, a behavior interventionist at Elliott Elementary School in Holt, Mich., coaches a student on resolving a conflict.

“At the district level, you have people with the authority and resources to say this is a priority,” he added.

The Ingham Intermediate district was one of the districts that stepped up to help. A regional service agency representing 12 local school districts (including Holt) and 10 charter academies in and around Lansing, Ingham had been one of the original areas to pilot the framework. The district was quick to expand it using more than $11 million from the 2009 federal economic-stimulus money.

“I felt like all of us went back and got another master’s degree; it was a whole year of learning nonstop,” said Roberta Perconti, Ingham’s director of student instructional services. The regional district has worked to coordinate training, planning, and budgets to help local schools stay on track with the model.

“We’ve had districts who really embraced it, and then leadership changed, and they stopped,” Perconti said. “Anybody who says it isn’t a challenge probably isn’t doing it right.”

The federal money helped build some initial enthusiasm, but real understanding of the model took longer, Perconti said. Some school and district leaders thought of tiers as primarily a special education system, rather than for all students. Many schools did not implement the behavioral system at all at first, because they didn’t consider behavior something to teach.

“It all got rushed through at the end of the school year,” said Netzel, Holt’s curriculum director, who was a special education teacher when his district started to implement the multitiered system. “Nobody would say no to it because it sounded good, but that’s not the same as being committed to it. “

Schoolwide academic improvement targets are posted near the main entrance of Alaiedon Elementary School in Mason, Mich.

To keep schools on track, Ingham developed a detailed description of what implementation would look like—and cost—at different phases. The district began to meet regularly with superintendents, curriculum and other specialists, and business officers at each district.

“People get immobilized with there being so many things to work on and not knowing what to focus on. We needed to connect our implementation checklist to actual work,” Perconti said.

“We asked a lot more questions [like], ‘Do you have evidence of implementing this? Can you show you’ve allocated time and staff? Do all teachers have access to your data?’” she said. “In our districts, the offices didn’t always talk to each other. It was fascinating to see a superintendent hearing his staff report and saying, ‘What do you mean we’re not providing time for [professional development]?’ ”

Hornak, Holt’s superintendent, said he worked with Netzel to build up training for all school leaders and staff. “When you are building systems ... It has to be slow and methodical so everyone understands the ‘why’ of what’s happening,” Hornak said. “With strong systems in place, leaders can change positions without it all falling apart.”

Structuring Time

In the neighboring 3,200-student Mason, another of Ingham’s districts, Lisa Francisco, the principal of the Alaiedon Elementary School, said her team also struggled to make the model match reality. On paper, the response-to-intervention “pyramid” describes strong, research-backed core instruction that is effective for about 80 percent of students, with increasingly intense interventions for the rest. But in the 475-student Alaiedon school, “We had no real reading program, and our [RTI] ‘triangles’ were really out of whack, almost upside-down,” Francisco said. “We were intervening with too many kids.”

The district decided to bring in new reading, and later, math curricula to their schools, with training and data support from Ingham. Like the Tennessee researchers, they also found the need to provide more time and staff support to make sure interventions for students didn’t interfere with core instructional time. And Ronald Drzewicki, Mason’s superintendent, began regularly gathering school staff to compare data both within campuses and across the district.

“Strategic planning is not just Lisa [Francisco] talking about the plan to her teachers; it’s educating a lot of staff members about district goals,” Drzewicki said. “It ... gives Lisa the ability to say, everyone in the district is doing this.”

At Alaiedon Elementary, Francisco and her teachers agreed to shuffle all the students in each grade who needed extra practice in certain skills for a 30-minute literacy-intervention period each day, grouping students according to the specific reading skills that needed extra practice to avoid having to pull some students out of regular classes. As a district, Mason was also able to hire some retired teachers part time, to spread out students into smaller groups during intervention periods.

It seems to be working: In 2009, Holt and Mason were each referring 21 percent of their students for special education. Today, the special education rates have fallen to 9 percent at Mason and 11 percent at Holt, both below the national average of 12 percent.

“It’s still hard to be compared to other people, but we are seeing gains,” Francisco said. The school has improved enough to leave its status as a “focus” school since adopting multitiered supports. “It felt for a while that we are learning this, and this, and this, and this ... but now teachers are all starting to see it come together and make a difference for all students.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as Can This Initiative Be Sustained?


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