The Long and Short of It

Chris Joseph explains on golfsmith.com, “The game of golf can be broken down into two elements: the long game and the short game….In order to be a successful golfer, a player must master both aspects of the game.”  If all students are to learn at grade level standards or above, Iowa’s school professionals must master decision-making simultaneously in the long and the short game in their MTSS system.  Despite the overwhelming learning curve involved in addressing both the long term and the short term needs of the system, the inertia of the existing system will not be overcome by solitary focus on one or the other.

The objective of the long game in golf is to approach the green with efficiency of strokes. The world’s greatest putter will not win a single tournament if they blow par in the fairway. Similarly, educators’ need to get to par in universal instruction serving minimally 80% of their students with no further need for intervention.  Schools are prone to attempting to intervene their way out of underachievement by allocating more time, personnel, and finances to their interventions. Alternatively, leaders need to keep their eyes on the universal instruction healthy indicators such as % of students meeting benchmark on the screener and % of students remaining above benchmark over subsequent screenings.  

As long as the universal core produces less than 80% of students at benchmark or fails to continue to support sufficient growth to stay above benchmark, then the school will continue to see the exhaustion of its intervention resources and the typical student achievement decline from kindergarten to 12th grade.  So schools need to examine and continuously improve the use instructional time, clarity around standards, use of effective instructional practices, selection of quality materials, decisions around formative assessment, and effective collaboration with parents and colleagues.  While none of these are quick fixes and require consistent quality professional development and coaching, neglecting these fundamental aspects by overemphasizing and over allocating resources to interventions will result in the system remaining “in the rough” indefinitely.

A great long game, however, without the finesse and accuracy of the short game on the green also leads to failure on the golfer’s scorecard.  Intervention is education’s short game that targets providing additional support to students performing below the grade level standards.  A sufficient universal instruction alone moves the vast majority of students, yet without interventions, leaves marginal students with increasing discrepancy to their peers over their school careers.    As MTSS has become more formally applied, a common insight regarding intervention has been the casual approach schools have taken with intervention.  With a staggering number of students currently in need of intervention, schools can’t afford to apply time, personnel and finances to intervention system unless it is organized for predictable success.  

According to Terri Metcalf’s article, “What’s Your Plan? Accurate Decision Making within a Multi-Tier System of Supports: Critical Areas in Tier 2” on the RTI Action Network,  schools wanting more out of the intervention system should focus on five critical decisions: intervention selection; matching students to interventions; monitoring student progress; managing interventions; and tracking intervention effectiveness.

Selection of effective research based interventions should be based around the predictable areas of need in specific clusters of grades and should be easily replicated. Consideration should address the availability of classwide interventions, as well as, tier 2 and 3 interventions.  Particularly, while working on improving universal instruction, effective classwide intervention helps the system compensate for students who are in the pipeline so we don’t continue to simply perpetuate the problem for the next grade.  

Matching students to interventions should utilize data, appropriate diagnosis and professional judgment.  Many times matching processes can be excessive in any of these areas.  Exaggerated reliance on either data or professional judgment can result in overlooking students.  Extensive diagnosis can waste time only to produce information confirming what we would have done if we would have stopped on a more basic diagnostic step.  

Monitoring student progress is critical to prevent the lingering of a student too long on an intervention that is not or is no longer producing significant growth.  Schools should pay attention to the frequency that students are progressed monitored and if decisions are being made with the data collected.

Just as important as monitoring the students, is managing the adult behaviors with interventions.  Critical aspects of each intervention should be explicitly identified, explicitly taught to all teachers using the intervention and periodically monitored for fidelity of implementation. Failure to monitor the adult practices may lead to drift from fidelity over time with declining results for students.

Lastly, the school needs to track over time that which interventions are most effective and ineffective.  If ineffective, the school should determine if its implementation has been with fidelity.  If an intervention has been used with fidelity and remains ineffective, then the intervention should be removed from the choices of interventions.

Stress on the school resources remains high because of the current state of universal instruction.  Consequently, the demand to provide the additional support for a large number of learners stretches the limit of the financial, human and time resources .  With political winds showing no indication of blowing in additional resources (and maybe not even as many), we must perfect the strokes in the long  and the short game of MTSS.  We don’t have the luxury to apply a singular focus on either the universal instruction or intervention.  The balance of the MTSS system relies on making progress by universal instruction reducing the overall number of students needing further support over the next few years AND selection and use of interventions effective at accelerating learning for students in our current pipeline.  

-Paul Beatty