The Over-Simplification of Education:
When Evidence-based Practices are Diluted, They No Longer are Evidence-Based
Earlier this week, I was reading an Education Week interview with Sharon Hoover, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Discussing the reasons for so many students’ current mental health challenges, Hoover emphasized that the fixation on social media as the primary root cause is counterproductive.
Indeed, any educator doing an effective root cause analysis knows that (a) there are many reasons why some students present with the same social-emotional “problem,” and that (b) multi-tiered services, supports, and interventions need to be linked to person-specific analyses completed on individual students.
Given this, Hoover identified (with some expansion by me) a “high-hit” list of possible reasons for students’ current social, emotional, and behavioral issues in their schools:
- Online and in-person teasing, bullying, and harassment
- Schoolwork and homework pressures, and being “academically behind”
- Grades and graduation—including college/job selection, costs, and attendance
- School safety and the threat of (gun-related and other) physical violence and injury
- Gender identity conflicts (self and others), peer/social status, relationships and dating
- Sleep, diet/nutrition, physical health, exercise
- Living in poverty, along with housing and food insecurity
- (Pandemic-related) grief and loss
- Local/national/world events, and political divisiveness
- Cultural, minority background, religious, disability, and/or sexual orientation stresses
- Climate-related and other natural disasters
Clearly, once confirmed, each of these underlying reasons may require significantly different services, supports, or interventions. Thus, the importance of completing the root cause analysis before prescribing interventions is not just essential. . . it is the ethically- and functionally-necessary thing to do.
Indeed, the wrong student intervention both delays the correct intervention, and it potentially exacerbates the original problem, making it more resistant to change.
The Pressure to Over-Simplify Educational Procedures
While students’ mental health concerns are a major concern in today’s schools, and—per Hoover’s point above that we cannot explain this concern by “fixating” only on social media as the primary cause. . .
. . . my essential focus in this Blog is the over-simplification of education, and the fact that—when we over-simplify—we end up implementing inconsistent, incomplete, inadequate, or invalid procedures, practices, and interventions.
Once again, relative to students, this serves to delay the correct approaches; it may change, add to, or exacerbate the original problem; and it may make students (and/or staff) more resistant to the “next” (even when correct) academic or social, emotional, or behavioral approaches needed.
Said a different way:
Implementing intervention is not a benign act, it is a strategic act.
The goal is not to “implement interventions.” The goal is to implement the right interventions—the first time—that facilitate positive and sustained changes in the area(s) of student concern.
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Back Story I: Designing Effective Multi-Tiered Services
When consulting across the country, I am often asked to help districts and schools redesign or upgrade their multi-tiered systems of supports—the continuum of academic or social, emotional, and behavioral instruction, services, supports, and interventions that facilitate learning and mastery for all students across (typically) three-tiers of approaches that increase in specificity and intensity.
Parenthetically, every district in the United States—per the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—is required by law to have a defensible and student-centered multi-tiered process.
But ESEA’s definition of a “multi-tiered system of supports” is broad, letting each district decide how to address its own students relative to their academic and behavioral needs. Moreover—reinforcing this “local needs and response” orientation—the law’s benchmark term appears in lower-case with no capitalization or “MTSS” acronym.
Thus, the primary federal education law that guides school instruction (ESEA) does not require the MTSS (capitalized) framework recommended either by the U.S. Department of Education (or its Office of Special Education Programs), or any State Department of Education—unless, the latter has legally codified a specific MTSS process.
Given this—after a needs and status assessment, a resource and assets analysis, and a success and gap evaluation—my multi-tiered consultations at the district or school levels often focus on developing a user-friendly multi-tiered procedural Flowchart to guide the “journey” along the instruction to intervention continuum.
This Flowchart begins in a school’s general education classrooms with (a) effective, differentiated (academic and social-emotional learning) instruction and classroom management, (b) progress monitoring and mastery assessments for all students, and (c) classroom-based modifications and strategies for students who are struggling to succeed.
The Flowchart then proceeds through a data-driven, problem-solving decision-tree process to identify the root causes of the academic or behavioral challenges that still exist for some students. . . followed by strategic (Tier 2) or intensive (Tier 3) consultation, services, supports, or interventions as needed.
Significantly, the eligibility and service processes required by Section 504 (of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and special education (through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—IDEA), respectively, are also woven into the Flowchart.
The result of entire consultation process is both (a) a multi-tiered system of supports Flowchart uniquely tailored to the district or school(s) I am working with; and (b) a Guidebook that fully describes the Flowchart, and provides staff with the necessary forms and resources.
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If your District or School is interested in our sample Multi-Tiered System of Supports Guidebook, complete with our recommended Flowchart and implementation forms, go to:
If your District or School is interested in our nine-session on-line/on-demand Course (which includes the Guidebook above)—
Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports: Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention, go to:
for the Course Syllabus, a free research-to-practice Report, and a free 35-minute Introductory Video.
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Back Story II: Undermining the Design of Effective Multi-Tiered Services
Periodically, after the initial consultations that result in a district or school’s personalized Multi-Tiered Flowchart and Guidebook, Administrators get fearful.
The origin of the Fear is often their concern (a) that the Flowchart and/or Guidebook appears too “lengthy, complex, or time-consuming,” and (b) that large numbers of staff members (or a small number of critical staff members) will not “buy-into” and, hence, actively or passively resist or reject the process.
The result of the Fear is then a request to simplify, cut-down, or “streamline” the process into a “shell” of what it was.
[Indeed, I have recently been asked to compress a district’s entire multi-tiered services Flowchart into a “One-Pager.”]
The result of the Cut-Down, as alluded to earlier, is a diluted synopsis that often becomes the “living” public or operational document to the point that no one remembers, attends to, or uses the complete Flowchart.
Once this occurs, experience has shown, the school’s multi-tiered process deteriorates into an inconsistent, incomplete, inadequate, or invalid set of procedures resulting in ineffective student services, supports, and interventions. . .
. . . when these approaches are desperately required by the most-needy students in the school.
Said a Different Way: Rather than focus on effective implementation science, staff communication and collaboration, administrative leadership and supervised accountability, and student commitment and advocacy. . .
. . . some Education Leaders, instead, “cater to the maddening crowd” by over-simplifying crucial educational procedures that then undermine and negate their efficacy.
Hence, this Blog’s title.
When we over-simplify education, we invalidate evidence-based practices.
“Never Would I” Analogies
The request to simplify a district’s multi-tiered system of supports—figuratively—into a one-page flowchart is like:
- Asking a Medical Professor to simplify a complex operation into a single page of crib-notes
- Asking the Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to reduce a four-movement symphony into a single sheet of music
- Asking a Computer Programmer to shorten the code, sending a rocket into space, to a few lines
- Asking a Car Mechanic to streamline the directions for repairing a transmission to a single flashcard
Clearly, no one would make these requests. . . or make these requests and expect a “job well done.”
But, let’s get “closer to home.”
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From a district or school perspective, no one would:
- Ask a Superintendent to simplify the strategic planning process needed to establish the District’s next Five-Year Strategic Plan
- Ask the Chief Financial Officer to reduce the District’s Chart of Accounts and multi-million dollar budget projections for the next year to a single page print-out
- Ask a district’s K-12 Math Curriculum Selection Committee to evaluate its top-three curricula by choosing the one that looks easiest to implement
- Ask a Building Principal to condense Danielson’s Teacher Evaluation System to five items when evaluating teachers for tenure
- Ask a School Psychologist to shorten a comprehensive special education assessment report to a one-page abstract
- Ask a Teacher to streamline the instruction of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to twenty minutes
- Ask an out-of-district Consultant to summarize the professional development and coaching on the science of reading to one hour
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I think the point has been made.
Whether it is an in-house district or school process, or an out-sourced consultation or professional development, detail and integrity matter.
Educational leaders who expect their staff to embrace the comprehensiveness of their selected initiatives, need to similarly embrace the comprehensiveness of their colleagues’ contributions. . . especially when that comprehensiveness is required to attain desired student outcomes.
Education Week recently published an article about the ten educational “buzzwords” that many educators hate and would like “retired.”
One of the words is “fidelity.”
While it would be important to understand the thoughts, emotions, or reactions triggered by this word, this is a tragic reflection on the state of education in our country.
If we, as educators, are not dedicated to making objective, data-informed decisions—at the district, school, staff, and student levels, and implementing instruction and multi-tiered services, supports, and interventions with fidelity, then are we really fully dedicated to our students, their best interests, and their best educational outcomes?
This Blog, then, is about doing even hard and complex things the right way.
In summary: While students’ mental health concerns are a major concern in today’s schools, this Blog’s essential focus is the over-simplification of education, and the fact that—when we over-simplify—we end up implementing inconsistent, incomplete, inadequate, or invalid, procedures, practices, and interventions.
Once again, relative to students, this serves to delay the correct approaches. It may change, add to, or exacerbate the original problem. And, it may make students (and/or staff) more resistant to the academic or social, emotional, or behavioral changes needed.
While most educators work each day “with full plates,” we cannot substitute quality for expediency.
If we do, we will never solve the (student) challenges that are one of the reasons why our plates are so full.
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As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that we share.
While there is one more Blog yet to come this year, I wish all of you a “Happy Holiday” season on both a personal and professional level.
When we return in January, we have five to six more months to positively impact our students, staff and colleagues, schools, and other educational settings.
If I can help you map out your next few months—for example, in the areas of (a) school improvement, (b) social-emotional learning/positive behavioral discipline and classroom management systems, and (c) multi-tiered (special education) services and supports—feel free to contact me to begin this process now.