The key to using data effectively? Start with mindsets

IStock_000062236334_FullCollecting and sharing data is critical for schools and districts to pinpoint problems and craft solutions, but data alone doesn’t guarantee improvement. A number of factors affect data use—including getting data in time to make necessary changes, the skills of those analyzing the data, and, perhaps most importantly, the mindsets of those expected to act on the data.

In the November issue of Educational Leadership, McREL’s president and CEO, Bryan Goodwin, dives into the power of mindsets and school culture in using data to guide improvements. He cites examples of both effective and ineffective data use among teachers and leadership teams—noting that “what teams see in data says a lot about their mindsets about students and schooling.”

For example, in a school where the mindset is “We’re okay; our students are the problem,” data might be used to determine which kids need tutoring or to go to afterschool programs. In another school, teachers may dig deeper into the data, questioning each other and their own practices to figure out how best to help struggling students.

Such self-reflection, Goodwin asserts, only happens when school leaders create safe environments for their teachers to recognize and learn from their strengths and their shortcomings. Without this kind of environment, all the data in the world won’t make a difference.

Read the entire column here.


ALL for all: Reviving academic language in classroom conversation

IStock_000025295030_Medium“I times’ed 12 and 140 and I got 1680.”

Sound familiar? While visiting a middle school math class recently, I heard more than a few students use language like this when explaining their work to their peers and to their teacher.

While their answers showed they understood the academic concepts they were learning, the way they expressed their ideas revealed a need for academic language development.

I’m an English language acquisition teacher, consultant, and author who has spent my entire professional career studying the phases of second language acquisition and identifying best teaching strategies for helping ELL students progress toward fluency. But over the last few years, I’ve become convinced that a missing component in mainstream instruction is academic language learning, or ALL™.

Academic language learning helps all students—both native speakers and second language learners—present ideas, explain their reasoning, argue from evidence, critique reasoning, and ask questions while using the vocabulary and syntax they need to thrive and flourish in school and in their careers.

And let me repeat: It is all students who are academic language learners. As Lily Wong-Fillmore said in a webinar on Common Core and English language acquisition, “There are no native speakers of academic language.”

So how do we help students build up their academic language skills? Conversation is a key.

One of my gurus, Kenji Hakuta, Co-Chair of Stanford University's Understanding Language initiative, calls attention to the need for teacher-student discourse as well as student-student discourse during specific subject-matter instruction. That focus on oral discourse, on speaking academic language while learning subject-matter content, resonates with me because for a long time I’ve noticed that in our collective urgency to get students to read and write proficiently, we tend to focus our instruction almost exclusively on written language. Along the way, we’ve forgotten the foundation for improved literacy: rich academic language used in constructive conversations.

It’s easy to overlook discourse as an instructional strategy, because as teachers we assume students can talk by the time they get to school, and that they have a firm foundation in oral language on which we can build the structures of reading, writing, and spelling. Most teachers tell me that their students talk just fine (and abundantly!), and, therefore, they don’t have to teach conversation skills. But if you listen carefully when students are talking with each other in small groups, they are more often using social conversational language (“I times’ed 12 and 140 and I got 1680”) and not academic language: “I multiplied the factors of 12 and 140, computing the product to be 1680.”

Along with teaching the content and concepts, we should teach all students, ELLs and native English speakers, to “sound like a book," to talk and write like authors, mathematicians, scientists, and historians. ALL for all.


2008_HillJane Hill is a managing consultant at McREL who specializes in helping teachers and school leaders develop and adopt great instructional practices and effective system supports for English language learners, academic language learners, and culturally diverse learners. She is the lead author of Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners.


Should we teach kids to be more mindful?

Mindfulness-01Kids come to school with all kinds of emotions—and the school environment can supercharge those emotions, whether they are positive or negative. To head off negative behaviors and instead foster optimism and self-determination, more and more schools are incorporating mindfulness practices and programs into their already-full school days.

In the latest issue of Educational Leadership, Bryan Goodwin, McREL’s president and CEO, takes a closer look at these practices and programs to determine what effects they have on student behavior and, ultimately, achievement.

Goodwin’s review of the research reveals a limited number of rigorous studies on mindfulness programs in school. The studies that exist show positive effects on a variety of outcomes, including student attention, focus, behavior, test anxiety, executive function, and even sleep patterns—but no link to student achievement.

This makes it a harder sell to some parents and educators, Goodwin writes, but it doesn’t mean schools should abandon the idea. Anecdotally, schools report positive effects on learning, and many of the already demonstrated outcomes of mindfulness are linked to student achievement. So it’s quite possible a link will be proven someday—and, in the meantime, practices like a few minutes of daily meditation are a simple way to get all students more ready to learn.   

Read the entire column here.


RtI, PBIS, and MTSS: An evolution, a revolution, or roses by other names?

If your state is anything like Colorado, Florida, or Michigan, an educational revolution is occurring—or perhaps it would be more apt to say, an evolution is occurring—with districts making the shift from using Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), to using Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).  

If you’ve been in education for any length of time, you’ve seen many innovations and initiatives come and go. In the book Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success, Bryan Goodwin compares the amount of information bombarding teachers to signal noise, the static crackles that interfere with clear reception on your radio. He writes, “…the preponderance of reports, information and ideas in the field of education may have the effect of drowning out the big ideas—the key underlying principles of what’s most important when it comes to improving the odds for life success for all students.”

So, is this shift from RtI and PBIS to MTSS simply static leading to more confusion, or is it more significant than that? To gain some insight, let’s take a look at the traditional use of the terms and the implications for educators today.

RtI gained popularity after the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 2004, which prompted educators to identify students with specific learning disabilities by measuring their response to scientific, research-based instruction. While there’s no commonly agreed upon definition of RtI, there is general consensus that the framework should include a multiple tiers of instruction and interventions, and the use of data and assessment to inform decisions and problem-solving at each tier. Ideally, RtI is a preventative, proactive, school-wide framework designed to address efficiently the needs of all students with an appropriate level of intensity to ensure strong outcomes.

McREL_MTSS Blog Pull Quote-01PBIS has been around a bit longer than RtI, and there is more consensus regarding its definition and characteristics. PBIS is defined as a framework for enhancing the adoption and implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to achieve academically and behaviorally important outcomes for all students. Key characteristics include using research-based practices to support students across all school settings  (school-wide, non-classroom, classroom); establishing a continuum of behavior support practices and systems including universal screening, progress monitoring, team-based decision-making rules and procedures, and monitoring implementation fidelity; and using relevant data to guide decision-making.

Both RtI and PBIS have great strengths and research to support their use, but each also suffers from serious misconceptions. Because of the emphasis on using RtI for identifying students with learning disabilities, in many places it has become a set of hoops to jump through to get kids into special education, rather than a framework for addressing the needs of all learners. PBIS, on the other hand, is often misunderstood to be a ‘token economy’ with the use of tangible rewards for motivating students to do what they should be intrinsically motivated to do, rather than the direct instruction of behavioral expectations and providing students with descriptive feedback on how they are doing.

Another common point of confusion is whether RtI is inclusive of behavior and social-emotional interventions, or if those are a part of a separate system. In schools that problem-solve academics separately from behavior, students are sometime discussed in great depth by two different groups of people, both with great intentions, but not communicating and collaborating effectively. The end result: two sets of interventions not leveraging the benefits of each other (and sometimes working at odds with each other).

And that’s where MTSS comes in. Proponents like the name better than RtI, because it describes what the framework really is about—a multi-tiered system designed to support student outcomes; it’s what we should have called it from the start. Additionally, MTSS integrates academic and behavioral supports. In other words, rather than problem-solving academics in one room and behavior in another, teams work together to consider how academic challenges may influence observed behaviors, and vice-versa (whether for the whole school, small groups, or individuals). Other than that, the key characteristics of RtI and MTSS are the same: use of a continuum of evidence and research-based instruction and intervention practices to support students across all school settings; using relevant data or information to effectively and efficiently problem-solve; and establishing a continuum of practices and systems.

Now, we find ourselves back at the original question: Is this a revolution or an evolution? I think the answer is: It depends on how RtI and PBIS have been used in your school or system. If your educators see RtI as a means for getting students into special education, or if your teams consider behavior in isolation from academics, then this shift to MTSS is probably significant. However, if your implementation looks a lot like the definition of MTSS (integrated, preventative, problem-solving approach), then the shift is likely mere semantics.

Either way, what matters most in the end is not what we call it, but what we actually do and the results we achieve for our students.


Miller_Adena_2015_2070Drawing on her experience as an MTSS/RtI manager at both the state and district level, Dr. Adena Miller helps McREL’s client schools and districts develop their vision and strategies for implementing, monitoring, and improving systems for student supports and interventions. You can reach Dr. Miller at amiller@mcrel.org or 800.858.6830.


Righting your RtI/MTSS triangle

“How can we implement MTSS/RtI when we have an upside-down triangle?”

RTI Triangle_OT-01I hear this refrain from schools across the U.S. that do not have the perfectly distributed groups of students just like that perfectly illustrated Response-to-Instruction/Intervention triangle which shows 80 percent of students receiving and succeeding with core instruction (tier 1), 15 percent needing moderate interventions and support (tier 2), and 5 percent needing significant interventions and support (tier 3).

The unfortunate reality in many schools is that far less than 80 percent of students are mastering academic standards through tier 1 instruction alone. Given this predicament, how can school leaders tackle RtI implementation?  

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which include RtI, are built on the idea that general education instruction should meet the needs of the majority of students. When that isn’t the case, the first place to look is at the curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is happening in general education classrooms and how well these systems align with each other and with state academic standards. The next step is to review the performance and preparedness of the student body.

Disaggregating data is particularly helpful—but don’t just look at overall proficiency rates. Dig into the assessments. Can you look at subtests or subsections diagnostically to break down reading skills into decoding, fluency, identifying key ideas and details, or determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in text? Understanding at this level helps teachers to know that they are not responsible for re-teaching all of the previous grade level’s content; rather, they can and should focus on specific, targeted areas of need. The data should also show at what scale to design the lessons: whole class, small group, or individual level.

We know that not all students come to school with equal levels of preparation. Consider your data carefully—what does it say about your students? Do all of your kindergarteners come to school knowing their letters, numbers, and colors? Do your middle school students understand the concepts of mass, force, and motion? Can all of your 9th graders simplify quadratic equations? If not, what percentage need to learn this? If it’s greater than 20–25 percent, focus on improving tier 1 general education. If 15–20 percent are struggling, consider what interventions are available to address those needs. If fewer than 5 percent of your students are struggling, this can be an area that’s best addressed through individual problem-solving.

RtI_Blog Pull Quote_OT-01Most schools don’t have the luxury of focusing on improving just one of the three tiers for an entire school year. As an assistant principal in Englewood, Colorado told me, “We knew that we needed to focus on our core instruction, but we also had students with significant tier 3 needs that we couldn’t ignore. We tackled both at the same time, and reconciled it by asking ourselves which kids really stand out against our own norms, even though 50 percent of our students are not proficient.” At this school, the general education teachers worked collaboratively during a PLC time to address their core instructional needs, while a smaller multi-disciplinary group tackled school-wide intervention needs.

Knowing where to start with RtI implementation when your triangle is upside-down can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Start with your data—let it guide where to focus your energies. Here are some questions to consider:

Tier 1:

  1. What aspects of your core curriculum and instructional practices are addressing the needs of about 80 percent of learners, and what aspects need adjustment?
  2. Who in your school is best suited to tackle improvements in this area (e.g. leadership team, grade level team, content area team)?

Tier 2/3:

  1. Do you have certain areas where every year you know you will need interventions available (e.g. attendance, reading decoding, problem-solving)?
  2. Are your interventions meeting the needs of about 85 percent of the students who receiving them? Do any of your interventions need adjustments (time, frequency, group size, content)?
  3. Who in your school is best suited to tackle this?


Miller_Adena_2015_2070Drawing on her experience as an MTSS/RtI manager at both the state and district level, Dr. Adena Miller helps McREL’s client schools and districts develop their vision and scale-up strategies for implementing, monitoring, and improving systems for student supports and interventions. You can reach Dr. Miller at amiller@mcrel.org.