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.

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.