MTSS and Alternative Education

Is there a comprehensive understanding of the Multi-Tiered System of Supports, (MTSS), in your alternative education program? Simply asking that question may be more common than you’d imagine, but it’s hardly going to give you a truly valid answer. Unfortunately, digging deeper for the truth is frequently trumped by a strong desire to avoid discomfort. To find out if an alternative ed program is effectively using the MTSS framework, you have to endure a high-stress process in an already high-stress environment. It may not be fun in the short-term, but all of us should be playing our best long-game.

Get serious about evaluating staff understanding of MTSS

“If you want to find out if your Marines understand something, ask probing questions in private, then compare answers.” – Old Marine leadership trick

In the case of MTSS process knowledge, I highly recommend informally polling teachers during one-on-one conversations and then looking for the presence of patters. Those patterns may reveal diverse – and incorrect – responses. It’s important that these interviews be anonymous. Our colleagues are already weary of data being used against all of us for all the wrong reasons. There’s a time to individualize remediation of MTSS knowledge, but when that time comes, it’s critical that a teacher is intrinsically motivated to learn how the process works.

A comprehensive approach is key

Is your school/program’s MTSS an event or an integral part of each and every component of your operation?  Use these questions to find out whether or not you have a monthly committee meeting or a real process.

  • Do the referring schools provide MTSS data for students assigned to your alternative education program?
  • Does your onboarding/orientation of new students result in the identification of both behavioral and academic supports for the individual student?
  • Does your master schedule include dedicated counseling resources, e.g. support groups with assigned staff?
  • Do individual teachers know how to document observations and other data relevant to the MTSS process?
  • Do weekly Professional Learning Communities, (PLCs), produce actionable data about a student’s behavioral or academic support needs?
  • Are supports assigned and coordinated by the MTSS Committee, (as opposed to individuals acting with good intentions, but without group consensus)?
  • Are all forms for recording and tracking data standardized?
  • Is your MTSS Committee staffed with special-education, administrators, counselors, social workers, and behavioral specialists?
  • Does the MTSS Committee meet at least weekly to act upon referrals?
  • Is there a scheduling mechanism in place for providing supports for students identified as needing Tier 2 supports?
  • When your students return to their boundary schools or a new location, is there a mutually agreed upon and coordinated transition?

Of course, this list of questions is hardly all-inclusive, but there are two essential questions that still need to be answered to determine if your program has a high-speed MTSS operation.

  • Are students routinely provided with supporting activities as a direct result of your MTSS Committee’s recommendation?
  • Is there a written plan in place detailing the corrective action taken if any of the previous questions can’t be answered with a truthful yes?

What to do with all that bad news

If your inquiries were honest, you’re probably looking at a disturbingly high number of NOs. However, don’t despair. Many schools never go through the discomforting process necessary to produce a valid picture of where you are with your MTSS process.

Start from the beginning.

  • Identify and gather all of the stakeholders.
  • Conduct a more formal assessment of knowledge about the MTSS process.
  • Train to instill in all parties a common understanding of the academic and behavioral components of MTSS.
  • Use reverse planning techniques to rework problem areas.
  • Fix problems, not blame.

One final word. The Multi-Tiered System of Supports, when done well, is an iterative process. Each school or program should have built-in to that process a cycle of self-evaluation. Many a program goes sour when too many people become sure that a lack of complaints equates to a trouble-free process.  Truth is, hear no evil, see no evil, say no evil probably means you’ve gotten good at the very human habit of avoidance.

Columbus Day and why historians revise

Columbus Day and why historians revise

All history is nuanced, and therefore, all history is revisionism. For many Americans, though, particularly those whose livings aren’t made researching, studying, and teaching about the past, updates to the understanding of an existing historical narrative is often seen as less-than-legitimate. Take, for example, the contemporary wave of scrapping Columbus Day for the honoring of indigenous peoples. Isn’t this cultural phenomenon just another example of political correctness and historical revisionism?

Yes. On both accounts.

Defining terms

Let’s start by understanding that knowledge of the past grows as new information is uncovered, or in the case of Christopher Columbus, his Spanish crews, settlers, soldiers, and those who’d already discovered the Bahamas and Hispaniola, given a voice.

While what’s known about Columbus’ most famous of his four voyages to the New World has been available to researchers for most of the past five centuries, several reasons hindered its distribution throughout those years. I’ll comment only on those most relative to what some still call a controversy.

While nativism likely played some role in Columbus Day only becoming an official federal-holiday in 1934, (there were celebrations in the U.S., usually during centennial years, and including one world’s exposition), the account was almost entirely a celebration of European conquest. That the explorers were Eastern European as well as Catholic was not honorific except in certain immigrant enclaves. Still, public accounts of how the Tainos who resided in the Carribean region explored by Columbus was, at best, overlooked, and most often what I’d call Disneyfied. Again, records attesting to Columbus’ policies of lopping off hands of 14-year-old Tainos who failed to fetch a specified amount of gold for Ferdinand and Isabella existed and were well enough known in academic circles, but these didn’t fit into the hero mythology of Christopher Columbus.

As for the boorishly trite label of political correctness leveled at teaching the past through multiple perspectives of those involved, we need to understand the term political correctness. A Thought Company article attempts this challenge.

 

The term political correctness describes written or spoken language that’s intentionally phrased to avoid offending or marginalizing groups identified by certain social characteristics, such as race, gendersexual orientation, or ability. Beyond the obvious avoidance of overt slurs, political correctness also includes the avoidance of terms that reinforce preconceived negative stereotypes. The elimination of verbal discrimination is often considered one of the main goals of political correctness.

It’s hard to argue that honoring a man who rewarded other Europeans with Tainos women for the purpose of becoming rape victims is offensive to marginalized groups; you know, indigenous peoples, women, men, decent human beings. By no longer omitting material facts about Columbus’ overt cruelty certainly qualifies as politically correct.

Why historians revise

The nature of the discipline history, the systematic study and scholarly interpretation of past events demands that each generation revisit the account of historic events. It is foolish to accept that each generation is free from its own blind spots, or more accurately, biases and prejudices. For that reason, the study of history must include a healthy dose of revision as these predispositions favoring power are recognized and mitigated.

When teaching new generations about the past, especially generations whose makeup is increasingly more diverse than that of the current and past generations, having a good explanation for why historians revise is essential. Students need to understand that historic revision doesn’t mean changing facts, but rather including once omitted details and perspectives while weeding out even cherished myths.

One of my personal favorites among the many new ways of teaching about the past is the Zinn Education Project. Specific to teaching about Columbus is the activity that puts Columbus and associated practices and persons on trial. The People vs. Columbus, et al has been one of the most engaging lessons I’ve used to tell the full story of European contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

If you happen to have today off from work, (or even if you don’t), I hope you’ll take the time to think about what this day means for more than just Europeans. More to the point, I hope you’ll take the time to think if Columbus’ record really reflects your values.

Meeting the student

A large group of cheerful diverse young adults looking up and smiling at the camera. The group includes male and female African American, Hispanic and Caucasian ethnicities.

As the fleeting days of summer break take their toll on my anxiety level, most days see quite a bit of course planning. After all, one of the luxuries of this seasonal respite from teaching is time. My transition from high school to middle school social studies a whole new set of lessons. This means beginning with a final set of expectations from which all other activities derive.

There’s something that seems to get lost when planning for students assigned to alternative education programs. Does our reverse planning really meet the students where they are academically or do we plan for where we think our students should be?

Building a scaffold around the standards

The easy part of reverse planning is organizing the district’s academic standards for each course. But what if your students don’t have a good handle on the vocabulary that makes up those standards?

Long before you pre-teach the vocabulary for a lesson, it is critical that students, particularly those from poor households, really understand the terms of the course’s expectations.

I’ve taken key terms from Indiana’s 7th and 8th-grade social studies standards and broken them down into three groups.

  • Measurable action verbs
  • Vocabulary possibly unfamiliar or with more than one meaning
  • Domain-specific terms
Action Verbs by Bloom’s Cognitive Domains
Survey – Standards Vocabulary

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meeting the students where they are

During that first week of school, (or soon after the student arrives during the semester), I’ll give the survey of words found in the standards that may be unfamiliar. Already on an interactive word wall will be the action verbs. Revealed when the term is lifted will be the applicable definition. The domain-specific terms will be introduced throughout the course as content requires.

By ensuring the students receive a good grounding on the terms that set the expectations for the semester, we can take some of the shock out of returning to school in August. More importantly, by meeting the student’s academic needs early in the year, we’re mitigating a source of stress that could be an obstacle for real growth.

 

Teaching student skills

Disheartening as it may be, many at-risk students arrive in high school alternative programs as a consequence of being – at-risk students.  For those new to alternative education, teaching student skills most learn by their late primary school years is a necessity that often goes unrecognized.

Without the skills for being a student, behavior problems are almost guaranteed.

Without an egg, there is no chicken

There exists what I believe to be a misconception about why students are placed in alternative education programs. Conventional wisdom has behavior as the root cause of why placements into alternative schools are made. Flowing from this popular belief is the assumption that poor grades and a lack of academic skills are the consequences of bad behavior. This particular narrative is both popular and pervasive, but I argue that it’s acceptance has more to do with the expedient convenience of letting teachers off the hook.

To look at this cause and effect premise a bit more objectively, we can begin by examining the one skill at which nearly all students assigned to an alternative program excel – avoidance strategies.

While passively dodging work isn’t an exclusive behavior of at-risk youth, it very often coincides with some deficit the student finds embarrassing. By high school age, the student lacking in basic student skills has learned at least one thing; for years, trained professionals have failed to remediate these strategies. If the vagaries of life spent in poverty haven’t produced enough frustration, distrust, and socially inappropriate behaviors, a system that demands levels of performance from teens without the basic skills to meet those expectations often proves to be the last straw.

Alternative education students intrinsically understand this. It’s time we practitioners not only understand this but change how we teach as a result.  Our first responsibility as teachers in alternative education settings is to remediate the skills our general ed counterparts failed to impart.

Implications for teaching student skills

To successfully teach students in an alternative setting, one has to master the fine art of differentiation. Often times this means, not so much throwing out the book on how to teach, but rather cutting the book apart and reordering the pages.

Pacing guides. As written, pacing guides are the antithesis of the differentiated classroom. They are the one-size-fits-all plan to which many neophytes desperately cling, and yet are highly impractical for students with the learning profiles common among at-risk youth. Still, the concept of having a set of milestones for teaching standards over a grading period, semester, and school year is still quite sound. What this means for the alt-ed teacher is that you must create your own pacing guide that includes, but isn’t based upon standards. To do this, go back to what we know about differentiating process.

Student skills – Standards – Thematic Blocks

Though much of my career was spent outside my role as a social studies teacher, I’ll limit the scope of my recommendation to that domain.

Also, for this post, I’ll omit my own views on around what specific student skills a teacher should teach. You, the reader, already know.

To create your own pacing guide, start with the student skills as informed by your experiences. I recommend no more than eight of these, though your student’s needs should drive that number.

A great teacher tool, post-it-notes with your content standards written one to a sheet make for a good way to group standards. As we’re reconstructing the book, I suggest you begin with the higher order standards that can be applied more appropriately to thematic blocks or units of instruction.

Finally, create thematic units. In the case of history courses, you can use these blocks of learning to teach students how to construct meaning by making connections among similar events.

Most importantly, build the type of relationship with your individual students so that they feel safe in letting you know which skills they’re trusting you to teach.

 

First step obstacles in standards-based grading

I’ve more or less recovered from the shock to my system that comes when teachers return to school after a break. Those first three days necessitated some serious napping and an extra few doses of coffee.

More importantly, My initial plans for changing the way I grade have run into the first line of obstacles. My first disappointment came during Spring Break when I began to make the necessary changes to the district’s online grading program. To my delight, I found settings for standards-based grading co-located with the traditional grading setting. Better yet, I found well-organized YouTube videos with clear instructions for setting up my online grade book.

When I called our technology department inquiring how I could access the features necessary for using our program’s standards-based grading settings, the reply was prompt and to the point.

“You can’t.”

I found comfort in another teacher’s blog who described a similar technology obstacle.

The bad news is that many of those obstacles are needless. The good news is that I’m able to overcome them, albeit with the help of future naps and plenty of good coffee.

Making the grade

Making the grade

My blog posts are meant to be reflections on teaching, but sometimes they turn out to be nothing less than confessions. Several days ago, I dutifully entered my student’s mid-semester grades onto our district’s online program, but I can’t help feeling a sense of unease. Have I rationalized those grading choices still left within my purview, and if so, what am I going to do to improve how I give feedback on student progress?

Standards have improved instruction, so why haven’t grading systems improved?

When I began teaching, there were no state, (let alone national), standards for each discipline. If a pupil was fortunate, their social studies teacher shared with the class a well-defined list of ten paramount specifications to be met during the course. Soon, written standards became part of teaching, and again, the best teachers embraced those standards, but they also folded each into one of their top ten requirements. With these changes, it was at least implied that grades were to be tied to those standards.

I’ve been able to make the case that my student’s letter grades correspond with their mastery of state standards, but there’s still something missing. Do my students understand that relationship between grades and mastery? If I continue to use averages to determine letter grades, the truthful answer is no.

What about those zeros?

Zeros may be clues as to why a student didn’t attempt a learning activity, but they certainly never correspond to a rational determination as to how far a student’s journey towards mastery is. My confession would be incomplete if I didn’t reveal that I’ve justified using zeros as a so-called consequence of student effort. The flaw with my own thinking is that including zeros in grade averages is not about the student being lazy, but rather me. I’ve fallen prey to an expediency that, despite its wide use among far too many teachers, reveals a bias, a dubious assumption, rather than the totality of all the evidence available for any given student. This brings me to the idea of grades as feedback. Students are constantly giving us information, but is our part in the exchange of equal quality?

Grades as authentic feedback

We know that students provide us with clues about their emotional and academic needs. These breadcrumbs are seldom crystal clear – but they’re there for a trained eye to discern. We know avoidance is often about not wanting to have a weakness exposed, (especially to someone with whom a trusting relationship is still in the building stages), and so doing nothing and accepting a zero is an effective strategy to that end. But using a zero, (or another arbitrary number such as 50), bears no relationship to the student’s progress or potential. Where’s the validity in that?

In my next post, I’ll outline new resolutions, (or rather, long-established grading practices I’ve known full well to use but didn’t), to be implemented upon my return from a relaxing break.

The freedom to create my own curriculum

On my final day of Winter Break, I’m finalizing lesson plans for this soon-to-arrive, back-to-school week.

I’m fortunate that I can create my own curriculum and attendant pacing schedule, (as long as I teach the state standards).

This semester, I’m timing my lessons for the second semester US and World History classes so they cover The Great Migration during the month of February.

This year’s Black History Month theme is Black Migrations. My students will first research their own family histories in January and then, hopefully, make some great discoveries as they connect the past to their own lives.

It’s difficult for me to image having to “cover” an externally mandated set of lessons that may not have the same relevance, and therefore impact, as what I now enjoy. The initial workload is greater for my style of teaching, but I’m confident that my students will experience greater academic growth as a result.

Turning the Tables on Parent-Teacher Conferences

In the fad-crazed world of K-12 education, there is one ubiquitous practice that remains steadfast amid a changing world. That, of course, is the problem.

What if schools began each year by holding parent-teacher conferences? Taking this further, what if the parent or guardian were recognized as the expert on his or her own child, while the teacher assumed the role of the enthusiastic learner? Wouldn’t student achievement be improved, perhaps dramatically, if each teacher knew at the start of the year how a student best learns, what motivates him or her and what strengths could be supported by thoughtful instruction practices?

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is embarrassingly long overdue. Here’s how, and why, this arcane and self-defeating institution needs to evolve and do so with a committed sense of urgency.

Research on student achievement

Being up front, there exists today no large body of validated research supporting any specific change in parent-teacher conferences. However, after decades of the practice, no field of studies exists remotely explaining why the tradition was ever seen as worthy of time invested. Research does exist, though, that makes clear what influences work best in education.

Educational researcher John Hattie is internationally recognized as having produced not only a ranking of practices that work but a measured accounting of which of these work significantly better than most. Among the top ten, at the far end of the statistical curve, feedback – meaning feedback to the teacher – appears. By comparison, class size, socio-economic status, teacher subject matter knowledge, and motivation are all of significantly lesser value.

Feedback.

In simplified terms, the more information a teacher receives about what a student knows, what he or she needs to acquire new skills and how best to instruct each student to exceed each new accomplishment, the greater the achievement.

Ask the experts

Consider this. At the elementary level, a student’s teacher sees that pupil roughly six hours each day for about 180 days during one year. The parents or guardians, for the most part, live with that student the balance of the time. By the time that child reaches middle school, the interaction between by any one of his or her teachers drops from 30 hours a week during the school year to five. However, at the beginning of each school year, the teacher usually has no direct prior knowledge or understanding of the student. That’s both a problem, but also an opportunity.

Think about it! For generations we’ve arrogantly assumed that those with a handful of hours in the same room with a child, know more about the learning needs of a student than do the persons who taught them to walk, speak, use the potty and scores of other fundamental lessons. By the time parent-teacher conferences are held at mid-semester, instructional issues resulting in poor performance and/or behavior are months old. That student-teacher relationship, recognized by educational researchers as among the top aspects of superior teaching, is damaged in many cases, needlessly so because of a tradition possessing no rational basis of existence.

At long last, define a measurable outcome

If you’d like to know the priorities of any organization, find out what it is that body painstakingly tracks. If it’s not tracked, it’s not important. With this in mind, have you ever heard of a state education department requiring district data on family participation at parent-teacher conferences? Of course, many schools do ask teachers for numbers of parents who attended conferences, but have those changes driven substantive change? I think you know the answer. The fact remains what should be obvious as unacceptably low participation, particularly in schools located in economically distressed neighborhoods, is routinely accepted.

Setting as a minimal goal 90 percent family participation at conferences, even at the high school level, is attainable. Participation must be accurately tracked by a valid accounting method in order to produce measurable outcomes. Currently, the outcomes beyond participation are non-existent. Curriculum and instruction seldom, if ever, are driven by feedback gained by conferences. That’s a problem.

Redirect the actors

Under the best of circumstances, change, even if embraced, involves a lead time of at least a full year. This is largely due to the need for extensive in-service training for teachers and a dynamic campaign beyond the school in the community served. For one, teachers will need not only instruction on how to productively listen to feedback from parents, but also training on how not to slip back into the role of the expert during a parent meeting. But then there’s an even bigger problem to overcome, one demanding not only time but trust.

Parents who’ve been intimidated, even humiliated, by the traditional parent-teacher conference experience don’t trust schools to do the right thing. After all, we’ve subjected whole communities to a practice underscoring a pervasive contempt of parent/guardian value. Nothing short of a well-executed campaign aimed at patiently restoring trust will produce acceptable results.

Well before the start of any transition in how parent-teacher conferences are conducted, the word needs to go out on no less than a weekly basis that parent/guardian feedback is highly valued. Nothing short of a public mea culpa will even begin to earn back a trust systematically thrown away for more than a half-century.

The observable, measurable outcome of this campaign is to achieve that 90 percent level of family participation, meaning active, informative contribution that produces actionable feedback resulting in much greater student achievement than ever before.

Putting it all together

Location! Location! Location!

This wise response to the question of what matters most in real estate has applications for parent-teacher conferences in general and gaining community trust and actionable feedback, specifically.

Holding a majority of conferences not in classrooms, but in locations within the communities ostensibly served by the school district is an indispensable component of turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences. The implications should be obvious. Lip service about change – and that’s what most families will initially conclude when they hear from school officials about a desire to value parent feedback – will always be trumped by action in the public’s eye.

Finally, there’s no question that evolving from an accepted tradition to an ambitious level of professionalism poses a myriad of logistical challenges. Again, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and implementing the changes I suggest, (and necessity demands), is hardly comparable to planting a pair of flags on Mount Suribachi. The key is to identify ways to accomplish a worthy goal, not generate excuses supporting the status quo.

Turning the tables on parent-teacher conferences is a must-win challenge for public schools if they expect to remain relevant in these times of unprecedented changes in our communities. Demanding a sense of urgency in implementing the fleeting opportunity is the duty of all who also demand real progress in student achievement.

Why thematic units make sense for alt-ed programs

Teaching differently with thematic units

Why use thematic units when teaching social studies in an alternative education program? Here are three good reasons why I’m making the change.

Always begin with the student in mind

Many alternative education programs are established to give students a second chance at learning following an expulsion from his or her traditional school. For a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, the student newly assigned to an alt-ed program has spent several weeks, (or more), away from a classroom. Most often, this student has a long history of not being successful in a regular school setting and has significant gaps in both content and skill knowledge. Compounding his or her academic deficiencies, particularly in history courses, is the common practice of returning the student to a chronologically-based curriculum. This puts the student at a great disadvantage for learning concepts such as continuity and change over time without knowing what changed and what retained common patterns. But the placement of a student at some chance point of a chronological narrative robs the student of more than content knowledge.

Skill development requires repetition

Understandably, we teachers are expected to develop higher-order thinking skills in all of our students. One huge obstacle to this is having the dual opportunities to teach students critical learning skills and have those skills practiced multiple times until mastery is reached. However, when absences – enforced by policy, circumstances, or avoidance issues – are an issue with a student, chronological teaching of history further becomes problematic.

Most teachers I know really hit the various skills at the beginning of the semester. Summarizing, analyzing, comparing and contrasting all tend to be lessons generously incorporated into study topics during the first month or two of classes. While those skills are continuously used throughout the year, there’s an expectation that the student has had adequate time to internalize and apply them as a means to an end.  This isn’t the case in many alternative education circumstances.

Students returning from incarceration, absences from school during the due-process period of an expulsion process, as well as truancy all have young people arriving late in the grading period or semester. Their peers who were assigned early in the rotation have relearned and practiced skills to varying levels of proficiency and no longer need much scaffolding, let alone introductory examples.

Whether a student arrives in an alternative program early or even late in a semester, teaching thematic units allows more opportunity to differentiate process during every one of the multiple units taught during the grading period. This leads us to my final reason for teaching differently, which is student choice.

Give the kid a choice

Don’t get me wrong; the opportunities for student choice when teaching history chronologically are numerous. However, teaching social studies using thematic units provide even more ways for a student to follow his or her interests. I’ll use the period of Reconstruction and the larger theme of civil rights as an illustration.

Teaching the period of U.S. history generally dated as 1865-1877 affords many different avenues for students to explore as they attempt to make sense of Reconstruction. The period provides options such as studying the collection of larger-than-life figures from Thaddeus Stevens to Nathan Bedford Forrest and from Hiram Revels to Oliver Howard. The issues of the day, democracy, race, divided government, and back-room politics are also downright juicy topics into which students can dive and then share out in a swap meet of knowledge. But think about the dynamics of choice when Reconstruction is studied as part of a larger civil rights thematic.

Many contemporary students are, alas, not entirely sure when slavery ended in the United States, with more than a few reasonably sure that outcome was brought about by Dr. King. These are not poor students, but rather, students trying to find relevancy between the past and their own troubled times. I argue that there is an added benefit to teaching a thematic unit that includes current events of which the student has some knowledge in the context of related events and issues that predate our sixteenth president.

Of course, any competent teacher can make connections between the present and the past while teaching history chronologically. The difference is that with a thematic unit, the student can make that connection on his or her own by seeing multiple examples of events over time. The teacher’s challenge then becomes carefully planning a rich learning experience that exposes the student to interesting choices.