As I listened (two or three times!) to Amplify’s Science of Reading the Podcast, Season 5, Episode 5, I was reminded, yet again, of the importance of educators focusing on universal instruction first. For those outside of the education world, this may seem a bit strange. An outsider may think, “Of course teachers would focus on their “main” instruction first.” But as host Susan Lambert and guest Dr. Brittney Bills of Grand Island Public Schools point out: for far too long, educators have spent much time, energy, and money on intervention programs rather than on Tier I instruction. That is not to say that effective intervention programs do not have a place; they certainly do. We just need to be cautious of jumping to Tier 2 and Tier 3 before ensuring we have solid Tier 1 instruction in place first. I’ve referenced this Solution Tree quote many times, and it absolutely bears repeating:
Dr. Bills reminds us to keep taking educators back to Tier 1 by asking, “What can I do for all students at that Universal Tier first?” I love this question! It is a terrific invitation for all teachers to engage in self-reflection around their teaching practices as related to implementation of core instruction.
I am oh-so-fortunate to work in a district that has invested in high quality instructional materials for both math (four years ago) and English language arts (three-ish years ago). As I’ve said many times, the implementation of the EL Education curriculum has been tough. I forever beat myself up about not taking the time (a year?) to build staff knowledge around effective literacy instruction i.e. the Science of Reading before our purchase. Without that solid foundation and understanding among all staff, we created an uphill battle. As Dr. Bills reminds us: “…high quality instructional materials are necessary but they are not sufficient.” This is exactly what I told our school board in March of this year! Implementation requires knowledge-building and lots of support. We are getting there, slowly but surely. The proof is in the math pudding: ’tis the season for end-of-year testing and the math data is looking great! ELA scores… not so great.
I’m completely out of sorts about our ELA scores on those universal screeners. Our scores are rather dismal, as they have been for years. Self-reflection and self-degradation are in full gear for this district literacy coach right now. I’m trying to avoid excuses (impacts from Covid, “new” curriculum that is not yet full accepted by all staff, the screener is to blame, etc.), and trying to focus on the questions like, “Are we implementing core instruction with fidelity?” “Is that instruction systematic and explicit?” “Are we meeting the needs of the students in front of us? (Not students we wish we had, not the students we had last year)” “Are we jumping to intervention before focusing on quality core instruction first?” and finally: “Now what?”
The answers to those questions keep leading me back to Dr. Bills: look at the data. Use the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) to guide our work. She reminds us: “MTSS is not another thing, it is THE thing.” MTSS places a heavier emphasis on prevention at the Universal Tier level (Tier 1 Core Program as seen in the graphic below). And as Solution Tree associates remind us: When we “shore up the core,” when we engage in reflection on the pieces of the core that we are missing, when we use data to guide our work, and when we look at Solution Tree’s Response to Intervention (RTI)/MTSS triangle through both a behavior and academics lens, we are on the right path.
As always, when we lean into vulnerability and accept that mistakes have been made, we’ll continue to get better. When we are committed to the process and remember that change does not happen overnight, we’ll gain the fortitude it takes to engage in this messy work. When we remember that MTSS and the Science of Reading are not separate entities, we will have that solid literacy instruction in place. When we go back to our roots and remember the reason for our work (those kids!) and the reason we chose this remarkable career, we will be the change agents that those kids need. “We have a responsibility to engage in that continual improvement process all of the time, year after year after year.” Thank you, Dr. Brittany Bills and Susan Lambert for your commitment, your inspiration, and for a FANTASTIC podcast episode!