Still Waiting to “Fix” Tier I?You’ll Always Be Waiting…
Collaboration, not isolation, is key to student learning
Lindsey Marquardt
Principal, Rocky Ridge Elementary, Bethel SD
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Improving Instruction, Planning with Data, Managing Resources, Closing the Gap
Imagine, a first-year principal, ready to change the world, who inherits a school where at least 70 percent of her students are not meeting standard on math and reading (according to state scores).
She decides to prioritize Tier I instruction as her first initiative because, as principals, we know that if 70 percent of our students are not meeting standard, research tells us we have a Tier I problem. So, this very ambitious first-year principal starts working with her staff on unpacking standards, creating clear learning targets, and backward planning each unit of instruction. She was certain these were the missing pieces to her hard-working teachers’ success.
When spring came and the state test results started rolling in, she could hardly wait to see the results; she just knew their hard work would pay off. You probably anticipated what happened next. She didn’t get the results she wanted; not that year, or the year after. And you also probably guessed that this really ambitious principal was me.
Perhaps you can relate to this scenario.
She didn’t get the results she wanted; not that year, or the year after. And you also probably guessed that this really ambitious principal was me.
HARD TRUTHS As educators, we have read research and countless statistics that tell us how important classroom teachers are, and how classroom teachers are the ones with the biggest impact on student learning, and how we need the MOST talented people in front of our students MOST of the day. Because of this, I began making shifts in the building and putting my most talented teachers in classrooms. I then honed in on developing these classroom teachers and spent little time considering what was happening in other programs in the building (ie. title, resource, EL). Now, I am not proud of this, but I think many can relate to this dilemma.
It wasn’t until one of my very talented teachers came to me and painted a clear picture for me. She said, “Lindsey, I simply cannot do it. I cannot be effective when I have to differentiate for 80 percent of my class. I am trying to do all of the things you want me to do, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because five of my kids get pulled out at that time and I have no idea what they are working on. So later in the day, I have to make up for what they missed while the several other students who receive SpEd services are also pulled. Something needs to happen with the schedule so I can keep all of my kids, or we need more people to help with intervention.”
This feedback indeed was timely, true — and a little tough — but was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.
For about a week, I kicked myself for not realizing it sooner. I was waiting to “fix” my Tier I problem before I would allow myself to think about anything else; when really my problem was that I was thinking about Tier I separately from Tier II and Tier III. I realized that we all had to work together if we were going to make a difference. All of these systems and programs exist for a reason and would not thrive in isolation.
I had a feeling I wasn’t the only person in the building who felt this way.
A NEW ACTION PLAN I pulled together representatives from all of the programs in my building (Special Ed, Title, Administration, School Psychologist, SLP, Instructional Paras, and a classroom teacher) and I asked a simple question, “In a perfect world, what would intervention look like to you?”
Not surprisingly, everyone had similar answers: “data-driven, responsive and flexible, individualized to student needs, aligned with classroom instruction, consistent/daily.” It was easy to see that we all wanted the same things, but we weren’t working together! We then analyzed our model, which I would say is a pretty typical model. There is an “intervention” time built into the schedule where only the students who qualify (per rank order, IEP or MLE) get pulled and go to a different location to work on goals related to their program and curriculum, all while missing instruction in the classroom. In our situation, only about 20 percent of the 70 percent of students who were behind were getting extra service; no wonder we weren’t making a difference!
Once we all realized that our models did not match our beliefs, we decided to change our plan of action. We needed to completely recreate our systems for support and we were going to need everyone from each department to do it. We decided that ALL kids should get exactly what they need for some period of the day. We believed that all departments needed to have access to and utilize common data and assessments to inform our instruction, and we believed that kids, regardless of classification, qualification, or otherwise, were going to get support from the most qualified person.
A W.I.N. So what did we do? We used an assessment tool to identify each individual’s reading level and areas of need. This information was then used to form groups, where students were placed with other students with similar needs.
Next, we used all teachers (grade level classroom teachers, Title, Title Paraeducators, and resource staff) to teach groups of students. This way, we were able to run 12 groups per grade level rather than the five or six we used to run. All students were assigned a group that was based on their skills –– even kids who were on or above grade level. We assigned the best curriculums we had access to and we trained paras and teachers on those curriculums. We also came up with one document to track all of the data we were using so everyone could access it and see what kids were working on.
We call it “WIN”: What I Need. And that is exactly what kids get: what they need. Kids love it, teachers love it, and parents love it. Why? Because at least for one 45-minute period of the day, all kids feel successful. Kids get to see other kids who are working on similar skills as them. Teachers get to focus on one skill at a time. And parents take comfort in knowing that their students are getting intentional instruction tailored to what their child needs in order to excel. To quote Wiley, one of our students, “I like WIN because it’s like, everyone is working on their own stuff and no one has to walk to a group alone. Because everyone goes to a group, you don’t feel bad about going anymore.”
UNEXPECTED BENEFITS We were hopeful that in changing our approach, kids would feel just like Wiley, but there were more benefits that I had not anticipated.
By using all of our teaching staff, classified and certificated, we increased the collaboration across the building. Suddenly, teachers were seeking out paras who were teaching similar groups to them and asking about materials. Fourth-grade teachers who were teaching blends and digraphs were talking to first-grade teachers about different activities to use. Our special education team was in the building after school talking to gen-ed teachers about students they wanted to get to know more. After the first year, it began to feel like we were ALL on the same page.
Other exciting things started happening as well. Our Student Intervention Team had excellent data and were able to make more informed decisions about intervention and special education referrals. Our parents started calling and asking about WIN scores and how to help their children at home. Kids started asking about their WIN group and when they might move levels. WIN gave us all something in common and it was something we all could champion!
So, did it work? After the first year of full implementation, our school had the second-highest academic growth in the district based on combined SBA scores. After the second year, we moved from the bottom 10 percent of our district rank, to the bottom 25 percent. After the third year, our school had the highest scores in the history of the school, and for the first time beat the state average for SBA and matched the district average! My staff was elated! Our hard work was starting to pay off! While that is exciting, it’s not everything.
As a principal, our success is often measured by data and scores. And while I am ecstatic that our data is trending up (thank goodness!) the bigger success was getting my staff to work together around a common goal. To hear students excited to share their WIN levels with me, to see my paras regarded as instructors that impact student achievement; to see my intermediate teachers asking my primary teachers for tips, still makes my heart swell. The real success was realizing that I could not afford to wait, if I wanted to fix Tier I, I was going to have to think outside of the box and employ all the resources I had available.
I am forever thankful to that teacher who opened my eyes, because had she not, I might still be waiting.
Lindsey Marquardt is the principal of Rocky Ridge Elementary, Bethel SD
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Washington Principal | Volume 1– 2021-22