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No Fear! No Mandates!

Kansas’ Intentional Use of Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) to Improve Results for Each Child

The origin of Kansas’ Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS) can be traced back to 1992 when the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) awarded innovation grants to local school districts in response to the growing dissatisfaction with the special education identification process and the desire to find alternative assessment practices for meeting the needs of struggling students. 


One year later, the KSDE began waiving the requirement—for selected local education agencies (LEAs)—to use an aptitude–achievement discrepancy model in the identification of students with suspected specific learning disabilities. In 2000 and 2001, Kansas removed the IQ–achievement discrepancy requirement from state statute and regulations and defined general education interventions (GEI) as the process to be used by LEAs in conducting child find. “We were missing a lot of kids and we were catching them way too late because we were waiting for them to fail before we identified them. And we don’t have to ‘catch’ kids; teachers have a great sense of the kids who are really struggling and who need extra assistance,” said Alexa Posny, then state director of special education in Kansas.1

kansas_01 Kansas’ adoption of response-to-intervention (RtI) practices in statute and regulation coincided with the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While the use of an IQ–achievement discrepancy continues to be permitted in Kansas, the new, intervention-based approach established by the state allowed districts to adopt a more integrated, intervention-based strategy.

From the early 1990s until about 2006, the evolution of a problem-solving approach (i.e., the Student Improvement Team [SIT] process) as an alternative to the traditional test and place identification model was supported through a variety of state-led professional development and training opportunities, communities of practice, and conferences. Principals, school psychologists, institutions of higher education, and others participated in training on the use of RtI and schoolwide positive behavioral supports (SWPBS), setting the stage for the statewide implementation of a framework supporting an MTSS for addressing students’ academic and behavioral needs.

 

The What and Why of MTSS in Kansas

 

Kansas Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS)
CORE BELIEFS
  • Every child learns and achieves to high standards.
  • Learning includes academic and social competencies.
  • Every member of the education community continues to grow, learn, and reflect.
  • Every leader at all levels is responsible for every student.
  • Change is intentional, coherent, and dynamic.

In 2007, the KSDE adopted the MTSS term to reflect its commitment to creating a “single system with the availability of a continuum of multiple supports for all students,” and to avoid the use of the term RtI to refer to a narrowly defined special education process for identifying students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) (KSDE, 2010, p. 1).

KSDE defines MTSS as a “coherent continuum of evidence based, system-wide practices to support a rapid response to academic and behavioral needs, with frequent data-based monitoring for instructional decision-making to empower each Kansas student to achieve to high standards” (KSDE, 2012, p. 1). The focus of MTSS in Kansas on systems-level change—construed as change across the classroom, school, district, and state—was supported by State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG) funds, as well as Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) school improvement grant funds. 

 

kansas_graph_01To support its use of MTSS, Kansas school leaders brought together expertise and resources from multiple offices within the KSDE. Returning to Kansas in 2007 as the state’s Commissioner of Education, Posny resumed leadership for the work she had started earlier in the decade. “We needed to put together a bigger and broader process that did more than identify children as students with SLD, that went beyond academics, and that brought RtI, positive behavioral interventions and supports, early intervening services, and universal design for learning together in a unified way to meet the instructional needs of each child,” explained Posny. “I believe we over-identified children as children with SLD by as much as 50 percent…. A lot of those children had a learning deprivation, not a learning disability. As we began to implement effective intervention at each tier, we began to see fewer children being referred to special education,” she added.

"I believe we over-identified children as children with SLD by as much as 50 percent; we waited for them to fail.  A lot of those children had a learning deprivation, not a learning disability.  As we began to implement effective intervention at each tier, we began to see fewer children being referred to special education."

Alexa Posny, Ph.D.
Former Commissioner of Education, KSDE

Intervening before children fail and intervening quickly and systematically are cornerstones of Kansas’ MTSS framework. This perspective rests on the following assumptions:

  • the earlier a school staff can assess students and identify those who are having difficulties, the quicker and less expensive it is to help struggling learners catch up;

  • the longer a student goes without assistance, the longer the remediation time and the more intense the services must be; and

  • emerging evidence shows that many students who struggle in the early grades cannot catch up if we wait until they are 9 years of age to deliver intensive remediation (Posny, 2014, p. 1)

 

Backing up words with actions.

The phrase “put your money where your mouth is” aptly describes Posny’s unwavering commitment to statewide implementation of MTSS. KSDE undertook several key actions to support LEAs across the state in effectively using MTSS to improve results for each student:

 

  • KSDE operationally defined the practices that made up MTSS in Kansas as a system of prevention and intervention for all learners through the development of an innovation configuration (IC) matrix. The IC matrix, which delineates the principles and practices of MTSS across essential system components (e.g., instruction, leadership and empowerment, integration and sustainability), describes what implementation “looks like” across four levels (i.e., not implementing, implementing, transitioning, and modeling). Districts and schools use the matrix to guide discussion and decision- making.

 

  • KSDE created the Technical Assistance System Network (TASN) as a mechanism for providing high-quality, consistent support to districts and schools in the effective use of MTSS as an instructional improvement framework, coupled with an array of universally accessible and available resources. A cadre of state-recognized MTSS facilitators and trainers works with and through TASN to support districts and schools in all parts of the state.

 

  • KSDE involved parents and families in the development of MTSS in a number of ways: (1) working closely with the state’s parent training and technical assistance center, (2) making issues related to MTSS a primary discussion for all parent advisory committees and groups, such as the state’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC), and the Title I parent advisory group, and (3) working with other groups like the Kansas Association of School Boards. “Parents need to be part and parcel of the conversation,” said Posny.

 

  • KSDE made explicit connections between MTSS as “an overarching framework that guides schools through a process of needs assessment and decision-making that assists in not only selecting effective practices, but also creating a sustainable aligned system … and MTSS as the framework for the school improvement process to address the academic and behavioral achievement of all students” (KSDE, 2012, p. 2).

 

  • KSDE took advantage of areas of flexibility in the law, such as provisions under Title I to become a schoolwide project and allowing for the pooling of funds and the intentional use of various sources of funding to support MTSS implementation.

 

  • KSDE commissioned an evaluation of MTSS to provide formative and summative information to KSDE about the degree to which the state was achieving its main goal of “creating a statewide system of support to local schools and districts in order to increase school capacity to use resources in ways that enable every child to be successful” (Lacireno-Paquet & Reedy, 2011, p. i).

 

When Posny returned from Washington, DC, to accept the Commissioner of Education position, she invited district teams with representatives from general education, special education, Title I, and other areas to participate in state-sponsored professional development with a focus on MTSS. Even though—or maybe because—the use of MTSS was not and has never been mandated by the state, districts expressed a high level of interest in having their teams attend the training. In fact, so many districts registered for the first round of professional development that some had to be placed on a waiting list. “It was fascinating; we anticipated having 12 to 15 districts send teams and we had to stop when we reached the limit of 600 district representatives with 600 more on a waiting list. And, it was all discretionary!” recalled Posny.

 

ks_graph_reading_impact_influenceKSDE’s commitment to developing an approach that provides aligned support to both students and staff—all as part of continuous improvement—is paying off. A case in point is USD 475 located in Junction City—a district that serves Fort Riley, home of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. Posny notes that, “the mobility of the district is higher than most people realize; there are often 10 different children moving in and out every day.”

 

Despite the high mobility rate, USD 475—the 10th largest district in Kansas with almost 40% of its students receiving free or reduced lunch and 44% living in military families—is regarded as having implemented MTSS with fidelity. In Junction City High School, for example, reading and math performance on state assessments over a 5-year period improved for all student groups. The jump in the percentage of students meeting the target was dramatic: from approximately 35% of all students meeting the target in 2003 to over 90% of all students meeting the target in 2008.

 

At the state level, reading and math performance from 2000 until 2011 has increased dramatically for all students, including those identified as students with disabilities and students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Specifically, Kansas’ reading scores on state assessment increased from 40% to 80% proficient for students on free or reduced lunch and from 18% to 71% proficient for students with disabilities. In mathematics, during the same time period, the percent proficient increased from 40% to 78% for all students on free or reduced lunch and from 18% to 69% for students with disabilities (KSDE, 2013).

A Bird’s Eye View: MTSS at the Local Level

 

In the Wichita Public Schools (WPS) —the largest school district in Kansas—more than 51,000 students are educated in 97 schools. Approximately 78% of the district’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and about 13% are identified as students with disabilities.

 

Dr. Denise Seguine, Assistant Superintendent of Learning Services, is responsible for ensuring the effective use of MTSS across the district. “We don’t have 100 years to move from school to school; we need it (MTSS) in every school,” she said in explaining the district’s decision 6 years ago to embark on whole-district MTSS implementation.

 

wichita-5Wichita’s overall mission is to ensure that “every single student gets served as they need to in order to meet the highest level of criteria possible,” explained Seguine. “In particular, we have made literacy our focus and we want to make sure that every student graduates a reader,” she added. Fulfilling this mission means that gaps in academic and social knowledge and skills among student groups are continually reduced until they are eliminated as measured by multiple assessments (WPS, 2009). It also means that, while change is acknowledged by the district as being “inevitable and necessary,” the district’s response must be intentional.

 

MTSS in Wichita follows the state’s model, focusing on the six key components of curriculum, instruction, assessment, leadership, professional development, and empowering culture. Over a 4-year period, professional development for school leadership teams was provided on a monthly basis using a model whereby schools were placed into one of six cohorts, with three cohorts focusing on literacy and the other three focusing on behavior supports. Each school spent 2 years improving either literacy or behavior supports by using tiered structures as the framework for implementation.

 

At the same time, MTSS facilitators served as instructional coaches, providing professional development and support to school leadership teams and contributing to the consistent use of MTSS across schools. All schools received this kind of coaching support; however, support was differentiated to provide more assistance to schools in need of improvement. “Priority and focus schools may have two coaches, whereas schools not in improvement status may share a coach,” explained Seguine.

 

wichita-7The district also provided professional development in literacy acquisition and using tiered supports to related services personnel (e.g., school psychologists, speech-language pathologists) to help them make the transition to a consultancy model involving more direct work with students. Similarly, principal academies and monthly “STAT” (i.e., data analysis) sessions were held to support principals in performing their work as instructional leaders. Organized into 10 groups, principals from across the district worked together to support a data-based improvement process in all of their schools. Through this process, the principals reviewed data, shared information about their schools’ progress, identified goals for their schools and strategies for accomplishing their goals, returned to their schools to put newly identified strategies into place, and reported on progress at the next monthly session. “It provides a sort of progress monitoring for our school implementation,” said Seguine.

 

wichita-3Like WPS, the Shawnee Mission School District (SMSD) uses a comprehensive assessment system aligned with MTSS. Universal screening, progress monitoring, diagnostics, and outcome assessments are used continually to assess student progress and performance. And, like WPS, Shawnee Mission uses MTSS to guide schools in meeting the needs of all students, and to “describe how schools across the district provide an integrated, systematic approach to enhancing school success for all children” (SMSD, 2014a).

SMSD elementary schools follow a district-wide protocol for addressing student needs in the area of reading. Protocols for addressing other academic areas and for promoting social competence are being finalized.

 

In Shawnee Mission, all such protocols support the foundational principles of MTSS, which include: (1) providing early intervention, (2) offering a flexible model of support, (3) using evidence-based practices, (4) engaging in data-based decision making, and (5) making use of a problem-solving process (SMSD, 2014b, p. 1). Located in suburban northeast Johnson County—about 10 miles from downtown Kansas City, MO, SMSD serves more than 27,000 students in 43 schools. It is the third largest school district in Kansas. Approximately 37% of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 11% are English language learners.

 

wichita-2The district’s mission statement reads as follows: The educational community will relentlessly empower each student to succeed through an intentional multi-tiered system of support. “Part of our mission is individual and collective responsibility and no one department works in isolation; instead, we work hard to promote the belief that the classroom teacher is the frontline teacher for each student in each class,” said Dr. Dawn Miller, Innovative Project Facilitator for SMSD. Consistency in implementation is promoted by the use of protocols. Unlike WPS, SMSD uses a less formalized structure at the secondary level, but the district is working to systematize MTSS use in all schools across the district.

 

When a student is suspected of having a learning disability, the district follows guidance from the KSDE in making eligibility determinations. “I don’t see how people can still use a discrepancy formula because in making the determination, the team has to rely on what it has learned from instruction and the child’s response to instructional interventions,” observed Miller. SMSD considers progress-monitoring data no less frequently than every 6 weeks. If three consecutive data points indicate that the student is significantly above or below the target performance level, the team considers possible changes to core instruction or to the interventions that the student has been receiving.

 

Teams review student progress, not only in relationship to the progress of other students in their classrooms, but also in relation to the progress of students receiving similar interventions. The district assigns students to short-term, flexible “intervention groups” based on their instructional needs. “We added a level of review within the last 2 years that allowed teams to also review how students were progressing in relationship to their intervention group,” explained Miller. “This level of analysis is helpful in determining what our next instructional move for a student should be. If three out of four students in an intervention group are responding to instruction, and the fourth student is not, then customizing the intervention for the individual student is warranted. Within this process, if the team suspects the student may be a student with a disability, this information becomes a valuable part of the evaluation and eligibility determination,” she added.

"We bit off this whole systemic reform thing and wanted to make sure all schools were moving in the same direction."

Denise Seguine, Ph.D.
Assistant Superintendent, Learning Services
Wichita Public Schools

 

Both WPS and SMSD have aligned leadership-team structures that support the consistent use of MTSS in their respective districts. These structures support an ongoing inquiry process informed by the data that is generated and reported by the teams. In WPS, teacher teams (i.e., grade-level or subject-area teams), school leadership teams (SLTs), and the MTSS district leadership team support “two-way” communication across classroom, school, and district levels. Similarly, in the SMSD, student improvement teams (SITs), grade-level teams, building leadership teams, and the district leadership team work together to support instructional decision-making in an aligned, coherent, and data-driven fashion.

 

Facilitators for school-level teams may be either principals or teachers. “One of our strongest teams is facilitated by a general education teacher. It’s more about having a very good handle on where to go next with questioning or ideas in relation to instruction” explained Miller.

 

In both districts, MTSS is embedded as part of the work of overall district and school improvement. “We started with MTSS, not RtI and, in retrospect, that was a major benefit for us; it never was perceived as a special education initiative; everybody knew it was for every student,” said Seguine. “We bit off this whole systemic reform thing and wanted to make sure all schools were moving in the same direction. And, it has been fantastic!” said Seguine.

 

By No Means Done

 

Today, Kansas is known as a leader in the effective use of MTSS as an instructional improvement framework on a state and national level, having participated in cross-state collaborative efforts to refine MTSS implementation tools and resources in ways that benefit all Kansas LEAs, as well as other state education agencies and districts around the country.

 

But, the work is far from done. Posny, Seguine, and Miller cite implementation as the number one challenge. “Just because you believe something is right doesn’t mean it happens,” observed Seguine. Putting effective monitoring systems in place to gauge levels of MTSS implementation, and acting on that information by providing adequate support for principals and teachers (e.g., coaches, professional development in effective data use, etc.) is an ongoing challenge.

 

Posny notes that successful statewide implementation of MTSS means, “an overarching framework that guides improvement processes and planning; an integrated systemic approach that includes early identification and rapid response to the needs of all students; the establishment of positive, proactive environments as the norm; and the creation of strong, resourceful, empowered districts, schools, and staff.”

 

“When we implement with fidelity, when we get the system where it needs to be, it really requires less resources to sustain,” she said.

 

Moving beyond a compliance mentality that relies on checklists to having personnel use data effectively to identify and address student instructional needs requires ongoing work. It also requires helping staff get out of their programmatic boxes and share responsibility for the success of each child. “If teachers are prepared in silos, then it is extremely difficult to take that apart when they’re working in districts; we need to come together and teachers need to be taught together,” urged Posny.

 

wichita-1Overcoming a historically fragmented system is critical to helping develop the collective capacity of educators—whether they work at the state, district, or school level—to improve results for each child. “Systems were set up with good intent, but every time we added specialists, we moved the ownership for student learning further away from the classroom teacher,” stated Miller. “We need to keep coming back to a growth mindset1 and our belief that every student learns and continually achieves to high and challenging standards, and that the teacher is the most important influence on student achievement,” she said.

Accomplishments worth celebrating, next steps to come.

 

Both SMSD and WPS cite their district’s sustained use of MTSS as a major accomplishment. “Getting to this point and still having the wheels on, still moving forward, is exciting,” said Seguine. Overcoming the silo mentality is also seen as a major accomplishment. “The most rewarding shift at the district level is seeing more blurred lines between general and special education, developing a common language, and seeing people across departments become more comfortable in addressing issues that would have been automatically deferred to special education in the past,” said Miller. Maintaining their focus on MTSS, despite turnover in top leadership, is testament to the value of the process and its contribution to supporting higher adult and student learning.

 

Extending MTSS to all schools within SMSD, and moving to a sustainability phase of implementation for WPS are the immediate next steps for each district—what Miller calls “strengthening and stretching.” Both districts cite the support from KSDE as being instrumental in setting the stage for and supporting the continued use of MTSS.

Advice for Other States and Districts

Miller and Seguine offer similar advice to districts interested in implementing MTSS:

  1. Think and move carefully about infrastructure development by spending adequate time for discussion and decision-making, but start; don’t try to get every detail in place.

  1. Start with a framework and make sure it is districtwide; your kids are going to move and the framework must address the whole system.

  1. Think about what influences people and hit expectations head on and often.

  1. Promote an environment that is safe and honest, which will strengthen the district’s capacity for MTSS installation and adoption.

  1. Build in structured opportunities for feedback and review so modifications can be made on an annual basis.

 

Posny encourages state education agencies (SEAs) to identify what they want to do for each child in the state and a way to do it: “I will always say ‘we don’t need to regulate what’s good for kids; we just need to do it.’ Forget about what the system looks like right now, and have a different kind of dialogue and conversation with no fear and no mandates.”
 

rti_toolkit_callout_resources
  For additional information about MTSS in Kansas, contact:

Dawn Miller, Ph.D., Innovative Project Facilitator, Shawnee Mission School District, 4401 W. 103 St., Overland Park, KS 66207, at 913.993.9140 or via e-mail at dawnmiller@smsd.org

Alexa Posny, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of State and Federal Programs, Renaissance Learning, Inc., at Alexa.Posny@renaissance.com

Denise D. Seguine, Ph.D., Assistant Superintendent, Learning Services, Wichita Public Schools, 201 North Water, Wichita, KS 67202, at 316.973.4408, or via e-mail at dseguine@usd259.net


Readers are also directed to the Kansas Multi-Tier System of Supports website at http://www.kansasmtss.org/ for additional information and resources.

 



Endnotes

1 Alexa Posny served as a teacher, local director of special education, state director of special education, deputy commissioner of education, and commissioner of education in Kansas, and as director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the assistant secretary of education, U.S. Department of Education.
 
2 For additional information about growth mindsets, see Dweck (2006).

 

References

Kansas State Department of Education. (2012). Kansas MTSS fact sheet. Topeka, KS: Author.

 

Kansas State Department of Education Special Education Services. (2012). Kansas multi-tier system of supports: Innovation configuration matrix (Version 3.1). Topeka, KS: Kansas MTSS Project.

 

Kansas State Department of Education Special Education Services. (2011). Eligibility indicators (Version 5.0). Topeka, KS: Author.

 

Kansas State Department of Education. (2010). Kansas Multi-tier system of supports: The integration of MTSS and RtI. Topeka, KS: Author.

 

Kansas State Department of Education. (2009). Kansas multi-tier system of supports: Research base (Version 2.0). Topeka, KS: Kansas MTSS Core Team.

 

Lacireno-Paquet, N., & Reedy, K. (2011). Evaluability assessment for the evaluation of the Kansas multi-tier system of supports. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

 

Shawnee Mission School District. (2014). Interventions. Shawnee Mission, KS: Author; see askthedistrict@smsd.org.

 

Shawnee Mission School District. (2014). Multi-tier system of supports: A primer for parents. Shawnee Mission, KS: Author.

 

Posny, A. (2014). From possibility to probability. Renaissance Learning, Inc.

 

Posny, A., & Riley, C. (2008). Multi-tier system of supports (MTSS): The Kansas framework for response-to-intervention (RtI). (2008). Wichita, KS: Families Together, Inc.

 

Wichita Public Schools. (2009). The work of WPS. Wichita, KS: Author.


 

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