John O’Connor leads the multitiered-system-of-supports efforts in the 52,000-student Henry County, Ga., school system. He answered questions during aabout how an MTSS has operated in the suburban Atlanta district. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of an MTSS process. How did you break it down for the teachers and administrators you work with?
When I provide initial training, I often start with this analogy: Let’s say you take your child to the dentist. After sitting in the waiting room, the dentist approaches you and says, “Johnny is a great boy. We enjoyed spending time with him. Unfortunately, he has a cavity. We are going to hold a meeting to decide what to do. I’ll be there and bring some ideas. Several dental hygienists will bring some ideas, and we want you to do the same. Then, we’ll decide what to do.”
What do you think about this scenario? It is crazy, right?
Unfortunately, tiers of interventions in schools often come off the same way. Practically every high school across the country has 9th graders every year that are not fully prepared for that first math class.
It happens every year, and yet we treat it like a surprise. Each teacher tries to figure it out on their own. Shouldn’t we have standard intervention protocols in place, just like that dentist should have standard treatment protocols in place?
What do you suggest for schools that want support with specific interventions when the entire staff does not have a solid understanding of MTSS, an identified leadership team, or a data-based problem-solving process in place?
I would meet the schools where they are. If their top priority is interventions, then start there. It will eventually get back to a reflection of the Tier 1 instruction.
My biggest question is where to begin. We have six schools that have had their own processes and we are trying to develop a systematic process for the district.
I would start with meeting with principals. I was lucky to train all principals in our district four times during the first year of implementation. I would ask the principals what common learning needs they see across students. In 4th grade, are there consistent problems with oral reading fluency, computing fractions, etc. Then, build standard intervention protocols around those.
Have you faced some barriers to implementation at the schools you’ve worked with? If so, how did you get past them?
Yes. One challenge is keeping this work a main priority throughout the school year. That takes simple and continuous messaging and lots of communication, mostly with principals, but many others also.
How should RTI look different at the high school level? Does it even work at those grades?
We stole a play out of the Georgia department of education playbook. For several years, they have led an initiative to increase the graduation rate for students with disabilities, in partnership with the National Dropout Prevention Center. Each of our high schools identifies a specific group of students who are at risk of not graduating. Then, we support them as they brainstorm the ongoing needs of those students. It is less skill-specific and in some ways a little more holistic.
Sometimes, it is hard to keep an initiative going, even when there’s great enthusiasm for it. How is your district creating processes to sustain this work?
We are trying to build systems of change rather than focusing on the work of the few. I continuously mention that we want this work to continue even if we all win the lottery and move to Hawaii. By building Tier 2 teacher meetings for the high school initiative, for example, hopefully, we are building systems of support that will be sustained.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as MTSS: Ask an Expert