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Change has come at an exponential pace for California’s educators.

Four years ago, we welcomed a new funding system that engages stakeholders, promotes transparency and channels more resources toward students with the greatest challenges.

OCDE

Al Mijares

At about the same time, our state implemented new standards designed to improve college readiness and an overhauled accountability system has since advanced beyond test scores to present a more holistic view of academic performance — and progress.

These are all shifts in the right direction, yet more can be done to improve student outcomes in California. In my view, our next step is for schools and districts to embrace an effective model that addresses not just the academic performance of our state’s six million public school students, but also their social and behavioral needs, which are prerequisites to educational achievement.

Fortunately, such a model exists, and it’s already being leveraged throughout California.

The multi-tiered system of support, or MTSS, is a framework of new and existing strategies used to identify students who need assistance, initiate a response plan, track progress and make improvements over time.

Because this approach builds on the strengths of each school’s staff and signature programs, it will look different depending on where it’s deployed. But, as its name suggests, the multi-tiered system of support framework relies on three distinct levels, or tiers: 1) universal support for all students, 2) supplemental services for students who require more academic or behavioral assistance and 3) individualized help for those with the greatest needs.

For an example of how this framework is being used at the secondary level, look no further than Fountain Valley High School in Orange County.

With the benefit of a modified schedule, Fountain Valley’s teachers gather throughout the year by grade level to discuss what’s working in and out of the classroom, and what might be causing academic and behavioral problems. These sessions give staff an opportunity to identify students who are struggling and would benefit from additional interventions, which may include tutoring, counseling or even an after-school club.

Fountain Valley’s tiered interventions are determined in part by hard data and collaboration, but that’s not the whole story. They’re also driven by meaningful interactions between students and teachers, who have underscored the importance of establishing personal connections by promoting a simple question — “What’s Your Story?” — as a campus-wide theme.

About 15 miles away, South Junior High School in Anaheim is building a similar framework. If a student starts to drift off course academically or behaviorally, a team that includes counselors, administrators, the school’s psychologist and other educators will meet to discuss possible solutions. Interventions can include additional classroom support, one-on-one mentoring, home visits or even a referral to an outside organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County. The idea is that each student will receive an approach that’s based on his or her unique needs.

“It’s not just meeting about content,” South Principal Enrique Romero says. “It’s meeting about kids.”

One of the challenges for any secondary school is that students report to multiple teachers, which makes it more difficult to collaborate or spot emerging trends. Recognizing this, South this year is piloting a new seventh-grade program in which four teachers in the core subjects of English, math, science and history essentially share the same set of students. The school has also created a new position — family and community engagement specialist — to help parents become more involved on campus and to help them learn to advocate for their children.

It’s possible this is the first time you’re hearing about MTSS in California, but efforts are underway to expand the multi-tiered system of support framework through a statewide initiative that’s being led by the Orange County Department of Education with support from the Butte County Office of Education and an organization called the SWIFT Center, which is providing technical assistance.

With funding from the California Department of Education, this partnership has already invested $3.2 million to help 105 schools, districts and county offices of education design and implement their own MTSS frameworks. Two additional rounds of funding are set to be awarded this academic year with the goal of eventually reaching every district in the state.

Each grant recipient will build capacity through training, enabling schools and districts to play to their strengths, target deficiencies and focus their resources on locally identified needs. For example, a school can use MTSS to improve attendance if that’s a persistent issue. Other schools can target school climate, academic performance or dropout rates, or any combination of these issues. Regional leaders and county offices of education throughout the state are guiding this important work, and to reflect the conviction that MTSS can benefit every student, they have adopted the motto “All means all.”

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence to show the efficacy of MTSS.

According to a published case study of the Tigard-Tualatin School District in Oregon, the principles of MTSS have led to a steep drop in office referrals for discipline, along with an increase in the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards in grades 3 through 11. Officials also saw the achievement gap between Latinos and other student groups on state assessments narrow significantly over five years.

Similarly, the SWIFT Center, which helps sites develop multi-tiered system of support frameworks, reports that 64 K-8 schools in five states have demonstrated improved academic and behavior outcomes, and the results were particularly impressive for students with special needs. Within urban school districts, SWIFT reports, the proportion of students reading at or above benchmark levels increased by as much as 16 percent — a rate that was mirrored by students with special needs. Meanwhile, out-of-school suspensions fell by as much as 84 percent.

Again, no two MTSS frameworks will be exactly the same, but common threads include collaboration, the use of data, differentiated instruction and targeted interventions that kick in before a school or student is failing.

In other words, educators are using the multi-tiered system of support to solve problems before they become problems, and the preliminary results are highly encouraging.

Now it’s time to take the next step in California’s continual drive for educational improvement by sharing these effective strategies so they can be scaled up statewide — because when it comes to ensuring the success of California’s six million students, all means all.

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Al Mijares is the Orange County Superintendent of Schools.

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