Monthly Archives: April 2013

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When Do Teachers Get to Practice?

By Dr. Sandra D. Jones

As developing a teacher evaluation system becomes a mandate at the state level, administrators who are also conscientious educators strive to comply. It is, however, proving to be quite a challenge for them.

I’m a literacy consultant and, for the past three years, I have been working in a district that just became a recipient of its state’s Race to the Top funds. District administrators are getting ready for the next school year by reviewing the teacher evaluation system designed by their state, which provides both formative and summative information on teacher performance.

There was a momentous shift in the administrators’ focus from the end of last school year to the beginning of this school year. For the first two years of the district initiative, I worked with the leadership team on how to conduct “learning walks” geared toward helping teachers develop the skills necessary to provide high-quality literacy instruction to all of their students.

We watched videos demonstrating effective literacy instruction, conducted countless walks and debriefings, worked as a team to achieve inter-rater reliability across the district, reviewed trend analyses, identified professional development needs—all the while assuring teachers that these “learning walks” were not evaluative.

While not completely won over, teachers were beginning to believe that the “learning walks” were instructional rather than evaluative in nature and increasingly welcomed observers into their classrooms.

At the beginning of this year, I was earnestly and politely informed by one of the principals that he was no longer going to conduct “learning walks” because he had to conduct teacher evaluation walks. Mind you, this comment was said in the presence of the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

He explained that the state-mandated evaluation walks had to be at least 15 minutes in length and had to be conducted a large number of times over the course of the school year. He said that there was “no way” he could conduct the teacher evaluation observations and provide instructional leadership “learning walks” at the same time. Furthermore, he added that at the previous state-sponsored principal training, his colleagues expressed the same thoughts. He and his colleagues all agreed that the new teacher evaluation mandates took precedence over other time-consuming observations. His declaration stopped me “dead in my tracks.” A multitude of questions were running through my mind as I listened to this educator, whom I respected.

Teaching is hard work! Changing how we teach is even more difficult and stressful. I recently re-entered the classroom to learn how to teach a strategy that was new to me. The resource teacher graciously allowed me to learn and practice in her classroom. Her pay-off was learning along with me; the students gained expertise and made significant progress. Despite my nervousness at being observed by the resource teacher and some of her colleagues, I felt “safe” trying out this new way to teach. After every lesson, we debriefed and discussed what went well and what didn’t. This was instructional collaboration at its finest, and it made me wonder, “When do teachers get to practice?”

If teacher observations are always evaluative in nature, teachers either do not get to practice new strategies in a safe and instructionally focused environment or their environment could inhibit the very fundamentals of effective embedded professional development.

Federal policy regarding teacher accountability has filtered down to the states, and from there to districts and schools. Educators are scrambling to figure out how to implement these policies. My plea is that, as we figure out how to conduct evaluative observations, we take care not to undo the gains we have made in helping teachers learn new data-based instructional practices.

If principals do not have time for instructional leadership because they have to collect a specified number of 15-minute evaluation segments over the course of a year, then we have a problem. Nowhere in the numerous Multitier System of Supports (MTSS) explanatory documents, the multitude of rubrics, or the many forms for collecting evidence is there a discussion of how to help teachers progress from one level to the next.

I’m not opposed to evaluation and teacher accountability, but I am insisting—begging, really—that we balance the new teacher evaluation mandates and accompanying time drains with the time required for effective instructional leadership. How do we help teachers make changes in their teaching or learn how to teach a new strategy if they don’t have opportunities to practice their craft? Time to practice new strategies with students in a “safe” environment must be part of the equation as we move forward with teacher evaluation.

Sandra D. Jones, Ph.D., is president of HILL for Literacy, Inc., and has been a school educator for 40 years, serving as a teacher, professional development coordinator, principal, and academic dean. She is a coauthor of Leading Literacy Change: Strategies and Tools for Administrators, Teachers and Coaches and a national presenter and consultant in literacy. Dr. Jones served as the professional development coordinator for the State of Massachusetts’ Reading First Initiative for six years. She was also the academic dean at The Carroll School, a nationally recognized school for children with language-based learning disabilities, and was an associate professor in the MGH Institute of Health Professions’ Communication Sciences and Disorders graduate program.

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RtI Reality: Practical Application of Research (Part II)

The RtI/MTSS Triangle: Step Away from the Silo to Meet All Students’ Needs

By Joanne Allain, M.A.

In Part 1 of this blog entry, we explored RtI/MTSS as an instructional system or philosophy of education and the importance of its sustainability. Once the decision is made to move forward, we begin to build a structure for implementation.

Mysteries of the Pyramid

In this installment, we will discuss the interpretation and sometimes misinterpretation of the RtI triangle or pyramid. Researchers and writers commonly use a three-tier triangle to illustrate the degrees of intensity and services available to students in a multitier instructional system.

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The base of the triangle represents Tier I services, in which all students receive grade-level instruction through a system of teaching, differentiation, and reteaching. According to the literature, 80 percent of students will succeed with research-based first instruction, short-term differentiation, and reteaching.

The middle tier, or Tier II, represents short-term strategic services that some students (approximately 15 percent) will require to successfully negotiate grade-level work.

Tier III, the top tier of the triangle, depicts the intensive services that students who are significantly below grade level (approximately 3 to 5 percent of students) will need in order to increase their skill level to the point that they will be able to interact with grade-level material.

It is helpful to have a visual representation of services, and a triangle serves to reinforce the notion of increased focus and intensity from base to apex.  However, it also poses some problems through misinterpretation of the intent of the tiers when the model is taken too literally: (1) using the tiers to label children or assign a student population to a specific tier and (2) strict adherence to the percentages can result in denial of services to children in need.

The RtI/MTSS triangle represents the services across tiers that any and all students may need based on multiple data points. Data always determine the type of service designed to help students achieve at their full potential.

This is a critical point because the intent of RtI/MTSS is to provide instruction and intervention services to all students, not to exchange one label for another, resulting in “Tier I kids, Tier II kids, and Tier III kids.” The tiers represent the types of services that students need, not the students themselves. The tier services, from intervention to enrichment, are available to all students equally, based on data, not label.

In Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools, I emphasize that the service tiers are “fluid not finite” and that each tier comprises a range of services designed to meet the assessed needs of a diverse group of students whose needs will change over time.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published a triangle that exemplifies this position. We do not have separate triangles or tiers for special education, English learners, students who receive Title I services, gifted and talented, or any other student population. All students are served within the triangle based on data, not label.

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Notice the triangle within the triangle. OSEP understandably focused on students with special needs who can receive services at any tier of the triangle, but we could easily add gifted and talented, English learners, and students who receive Title I services. All means all.

If we begin to make other triangles or tier-specific student populations, then aren’t we saying that all students with special needs or all English learners are the same and have the same needs? If Tier III, for example, represents intensive academic intervention, and we call Tier III special education, then it must follow that every student with an IEP requires intensive academic intervention. How do we reconcile this practice with the belief that we should label the need and not the child? If, instead of students with special needs, we have “Tier III kids,” we have simply traded one label for another.

It is much more likely that a student with special needs, a student without special needs, and an English learner demonstrate the same assessed need. If this is the case, why, in this time of constrained budgets, would we provide redundant services simply because the labels, funding streams, and silos are different?

If we recognize that the triangle represents a variety of needs and the services needed to ameliorate them, then we understand that using data and problem solving to determine appropriate instruction and intervention is the best way to serve all students.

Whom the Pyramid Serves

The second contention of this entry is that the traditional RtI/MTSS pyramid range demonstrating 80 percent of students successful with Tier I services only, 15 percent requiring Tier II services, and 5 percent in need of Tier III services, is not meant as a literal application in every school and district.

Think of the 80-15-5 illustration as the goal or the optimal configuration if first instruction is efficient. In this model, approximately 20 percent of students would need additional instruction and intervention to reach grade-level targets. The 80-15-5 triangle is the target, but perhaps not the starting point for many districts and schools.

The percentages depicted in the triangle do not intend to convey that only 20 percent of students are eligible for intervention services. Yet, sometimes the triangle percentages are applied literally, resulting in denial of intervention for many students in need.

We cannot implement a one-size-fits-all RtI/MTSS plan. Each district and school  must start where they are, as defined by data, to develop a successful system. Districts within a state and schools within a district are unique. Even within the same school districts, it is common to find a range of performance from school to school.

Hopefully, we have progressed from the one-size-fits-all instructional models of the past. The following trio of triangles, from Logistics of Literacy Intervention, is more reflective of the variation in the degree of needs and services in schools across the country.

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The good news is that the optimum configuration can be realized if we embrace the philosophy of RtI and provide intervention to all who need it. All children mean all children—all of the time. We don’t have a fully operational system if only some needs are being met.

Ultimately, we must recognize that any visual representation is inadequate to represent the rich diversity among our students. The triangle is a guide, a way to help educators and parents understand the variation of services that may be needed to meet the needs of all our students.

We move forward with the knowledge that we are meeting those needs with standards and data-based instruction and intervention. Our end goal is that all students reach their full potential and are able to compete in a complex world.

In Part 3, we will discuss assessment in an RtI/MTSS system and how more is not always better.

Joanne Allain, M.A., works with states, districts, and schools across the country to develop, implement, and coach customized RtI systems. Her career experience at both the classroom and district level provides the perspective of a practitioner in real schools with real students. She is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention: A Planning Guide for Middle and High School and Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools as well as coauthor of RtI: The Forgotten Tier: A Practical Guide for Building a Data-Driven Tier I Instructional Process. You can contact Joanne at

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