Rethinking School Improvement and Success, Staff Development and Accountability, and Students' Academic and Behavioral Proficiency

Using ESEA/ESSA’s New Flexibility to Replace the U.S. Department of Education’s Ineffective NCLB Initiatives

Dear Colleagues,

In my last Blog post (July 9, 2016), I discussed:

Why Students Don't Behave: Because We are not Teaching Them the Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills that They Need

Honestly, across all of the social media outlets, the Blog received over 25,000 hits.

And that's great. . . .

Except helping districts, schools, and educators with content and information is just the first step in the school improvement process. The real work involves the planning, preparation, implementation, and evaluation.

And when schools and districts get to these steps, there are many voices, viewpoints, and vendors. . . and invariably, they also look to their (state and federal) Departments of Education.

This is because:

  • They want to stay "in compliance" so that they don't have to deal with additional paperwork, time-consuming audits, costly compliance visits, and incessant questions;
  • They assume that the leaders in these departments know what they are talking about; and/or
  • The leaders in these departments make it appear that they know what they are talking about, or that it would be "in the district/school's best interests" to follow the department's technical assistance lead.

[Trust me, I know this. . . I worked for a state department of education running a multi-million dollar federal state improvement grant for 13 years.]

Why We Need to Question State and Federal Leaders to Improve our Schools

Believe it or not, to rethink the process of school improvement and success, we need to take the lead of our current Congress.

When Congress reauthorized the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA-- also known as ESSA, the "Every Student Succeeds Act"), they were clear in saying that:

  • Previous federally-directed school improvement approaches did not work
  • Previous federally-directed approaches to reading and math instruction, teacher certification and evaluation, school climate and bullying, disproportionality, and the school-to-alternative program-to-juvenile-justice-to-prison pipeline were not working;
  • The U.S. Secretary of Education (representing the Department of Education) should not have the authority to (over-) interpret the federal law and dictate educational policy and practice for the country; and
  • States, Districts, and Schools need to be primarily responsible and accountable for their own school climate and engagement, their own staff training and supervision, and their own student outcomes and proficiency (under the law)

And so, taking the lead of Congress, we need to similarly question the existing programs that have been used and advocated by the U.S. Department of Education (largely through our state department of education). . .

And we need to embrace the ESEA challenge (especially as our state departments of education prepare to implement the law- - largely at the beginning of the next school year) to make sure that we comprehensively re-think, re-tailor, and retrofit the process of education in our local schools and districts.

But we need to do this on a factual basis.

And, from my perspective. . . we need to start by questioning, reworking, and (indeed) rejecting the U.S. Department of Education's (USDoE) school improvement, Response-to-Intervention (RtI), Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) frameworks, models, procedures, and approaches.

This is simply because both research and practice have consistently demonstrated that the USDoE's School Improvement mandates, Response-to-Intervention (RtI) approaches, and (UPPER CASE) Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) framework - - pushed by their many incestuously-funded National Technical Assistance (TA) Centers- - have not worked and, to the degree they are continuing, will not work.

Here are the data.

The School Improvement Track Record

From a research-to-practice perspective, the school improvement results from the last (especially) eight years of ARRA, the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, and NCLB's required school improvement "interventions" were uneven at best.

These results were "anchored" by USDoE's four mandated transformation or take-over approaches (Congress later added a more flexible fifth option)- - three of which involved firing the building principal.

None of them demonstrated consistent, predictable, or sustained success.

For example: while different analyses of the outcomes continue to be released, look at an Education Week article analyzing the SIG results (November 12, 2015; "New SIG Data Serve Up Same Old Conclusion: Mixed Results")

Critically- - even at face value- - did anyone with any knowledge of how to run a business really believe that these four global "improvement" approaches were really going to consistently "turn-around" something as complex- - politically, organizational, and functionally- - as a school. . . and then sustain the success?

Evidently, the U.S. Department of Education did. . . using over $97.4 billion in taxpayer money (through ARRA, SIG, and Race-to-the-Top) between 2009 and 2011 alone.

And even when schools "successfully" turned-around, it was not due to the selected transformation or take-over approach. Analyses showed that the success was due to very specific, targeted, strategic strategies that were embedded in the particular approach that was chosen.

The Multi-Tiered RtI Track Record

From a research-to-practice perspective, was anyone surprised at the federally-sponsored RtI report (Evaluation of Response to Intervention Practices for Elementary School Reading; published November, 2015) demonstrating that first through third grade students receiving literacy interventions using the U.S. Department of Education's multi-tiered RtI intervention model actually made less academic progress when compared to students experiencing similar literacy gaps who stayed in their regular education programs?

Critically, this was a large-scale study with national practice implications. The outcomes were based on approximately 24,000 first through third grade students in 13 states that statistically compared 146 schools using the U.S. Department of Education's RtI framework in literacy for at least three years with 100 randomly-selected comparison schools NOT using the RtI framework in the same 13 states.

The Multi-Tiered School-wide Behavioral/PBIS Track Record

And, finally . . . from a research-to-practice perspective, is anyone surprised at the continuing research data demonstrating that the USDoE Office of Special Education Programs' (OSEP) Multi-tiered School-wide Behavioral/ PBIS framework has demonstrated very few consistent, sustained, comprehensive, and causally-based changes in student behavior- - especially across a significant majority of the 19,000 PBIS schools that the PBIS National TA Center says exist across the country?

As but one example: In May, 2013, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned and published a report School-Wide Positive Behavior Support Framework: A Review of Approaches to Implementing the Framework, Tier I Behavior Support Programs and Tier II Behavior Intervention Programs that actually was "hidden" from the public-at-large.

That is, rather than widely publicizing and disseminating this Report, it appeared only as an Appendix to an RFP that- - amazingly- - is currently funding another $19 million grant (to two "insider" PBIS groups in Maryland and Illinois) to validate the PBIS framework that the USDoE has been funding since 1997, and that it continually cites as "evidence-based."

See Appendix A1 of the report.

This study- - and many others- - concluded that the PBIS framework has been used across the country randomly, without implementation integrity, without sustainability, that it has not positively impacted disproportionality, and that it has actually delayed services and supports to the most behaviorally-challenging students.

Don't you think that- - if you had 19,000 schools to draw from- - you could find 10 to 15% that were "successful"? . . . Even though those "statistical" successes could not be causally explained by the PBIS framework?

Once again, especially under the new ESEA, schools need to focus less on decreasing Office Discipline Referrals (a horribly unreliable piece of data anyways), and more on:

  • Increasing students' classroom engagement and academic success;
  • Increasing students' interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills;
  • Decreasing the disproportionate number of minority and special education students who are sent to the Principal's Office for discipline and/or who are suspended or expelled; and
  • Addressing the social, emotional, or behavioral needs of students with serious and persistent needs- - including significant mental health needs.

The New ESEA/ESSA: Replace the Multi-Tiered RTI and School-wide Behavioral/PBIS Frameworks

As noted, the recently-passed ESEA/ESSA has transferred much of the responsibility for developing, implementing, and evaluating effective school and schooling processes to state departments of education across the country.

And so, as the new ESEA/ESSA has already "retired" the four mandated strategies for school improvement, so too- - given the research and results- - state departments of education (and their districts and schools) should similarly retire the pre-existing MTSS Academic/RtI and School-wide Behavioral/PBIS frameworks that have been singularly advocated (and sometimes contingently funded) by the USDoE.

Indeed, as state departments of education are now responsible for rethinking the school improvement process for their least successful schools from the ground up. . .

. . . they should revisit the research while identifying effective psychometric and psychoeducational practices (see 10 examples below) and re-design their (lowercase--as they are written in the law) multi-tiered systems of support and positive behavioral intervention and support approaches- - again from the ground up.

If state education departments (or districts/schools) feel that they need "permission" to do this, know that:

  • The term "RtI" or any of its derivatives never appears in the new ESEA/ESSA bill.
  • The term "multi-tiered system of supports" appears only five times in the entire law. Moreover, the term is always written in lower case- - (except where the term is the title for a section of the law), and the acronym "MTSS" (designating a specific framework or model of multi-tiered services) NEVER appears.
  • The term "positive behavioral interventions and supports" appears only THREE times in the entire ESEA/ESSA law. Moreover, the term never appears in UPPER CASE, the "PBIS" acronym never appears, and the word "framework" (as in PBIS framework) NEVER appears in the law.

Beyond this:

The new ESEA/ESSA defines "multi-tier system of supports" as "a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students' needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making."

Relative to the five times the term appears in the law, two appearances are in the definition as above. The other three citations appear in sections where the law talks about the need for all districts receiving ESEA funds to:

  • "(F) (D)evelop programs and activities that increase the ability of teachers to effectively teach children with disabilities, including children with significant cognitive disabilities, and English learners, which may include the use of multi-tier systems of support and positive behavioral intervention and supports, so that such children with disabilities and English learners can meet the challenging State academic standards."
  • "(4) Provid(e) for a multi-tier system of supports for literacy services."
  • Offer professional development opportunities that "(xii) are designed to give teachers of children with disabilities or children with development delays, and other teachers and instructional staff, the knowledge and skills to provide instruction and academic support services, to those children, including positive behavioral interventions and supports, multi-tier system of supports, and use of accommodations."

Meanwhile, the term "positive behavioral intervention and supports" is NEVER defined in the new law- - nor is a previous definition in law referenced. Given my research and to my knowledge, this term has never been defined in law or statute.

That aside, two of the three times that this term appears in the law have been quoted above.

The third appearance of the term is in the "Activities to Support Safe and Healthy Students" section of the law where Section G states:

  • "(G) implementation of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports, including through coordination with similar activities carried out under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq.), in order to improve academic outcomes and school conditions for student learning."

NOTE that both ESEA and the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ALWAYS use this term in the lower case. The term is NEVER capitalized in either law, nor do they ever use the "PBIS" acronym.

Thus, the USDoE's PBIS Framework is not required by either ESEA or IDEA (in contrast to public statements made by the National PBIS TA Center).

The New ESEA/ESSA: Scientific Principles to Include in any Reconceptualized Multi-Tiered System

In 2012, I wrote a technical assistance paper, National Concerns about RtI and PBIS: A Review of Policy and Practice Recommendations Not Based on Research or Effective Practice.

In that TA paper, I identified 10 multi-tiered system of supports/positive behavioral intervention and support practices that either have been ignored by the USDoE frameworks or approaches or have been mistakenly adapted and used.

These 10 practices are summarized below. It is strongly recommended that these practices be infused throughout any state's reconceptualization of their approaches in these areas.

#1.) Multiple gating procedures need to be used during all academic or behavioral universal screening activities so that the screening results are based on (a) reliable and valid data that (b) factor in false-positive and false-negative student outcomes.

#2. ) After including false-negative and eliminating false-positive students, identified students receive additional diagnostic or functional assessments to determine their strengths, weaknesses, content and skill gaps, and the underlying reasons for those gaps.

When screening procedures do not exist or are not accurate, Steps 5 and 6 should occur with all students who are academically struggling in the classroom or demonstrating social, emotional, or behavioral concerns in any school setting.

#3.) When focusing- - especially at the elementary school level- - on helping students to learn and master foundational academic skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonetic decoding, numeracy, calculation skills), students should be taught at their functional, instructional levels- - regardless of their age or grade level.

When focusing- - at the secondary level- - on academic content, comprehension, and application skills, teachers need to be sure that students have mastered the foundational and prerequisite literacy, math, written expression, and oral expression skills needed to be successful.

#4.) All students should be taught- - every year- - social, emotional, and behavioral skills as part of an explicit Health, Mental Health, and Wellness preschool through high school curriculum. These skills should especially be applied to students' academic engagement, and their ability to work collaboratively in cooperative and project-based learning groups.

#5.) Before conducting diagnostic or functional assessments, comprehensive reviews of identified students' cumulative and other records/history are conducted, along with (a) student observations; (b) interviews with parents/guardians and previous teachers/intervention specialists; (c) assessments investigating the presence of medical, drug, or other physiologically-based issues; and (d) evaluations of previous interventions.

#6.) Diagnostic or functional assessments evaluate students' instructional settings. These assessments evaluate the quality of past and present instruction, the integrity of past and present curricula, and interventions that have already been attempted. This helps determine whether a student's difficulties are due to teacher/instruction, curricular, or student-specific factors (or a combination thereof).

#7.) Diagnostic or functional assessments to determine why a student is not making progress or is exhibiting concerns should occur prior to any student-directed academic or social, emotional, or behavioral interventions.

These assessments should occur as soon as academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students are identified (i.e., during Tier 1).

These assessments should not be delayed until Tier III- - otherwise it is likely that the Tier I and II interventions implemented (in the absence of these assessments) will not be successful, will make the student more resistant to later interventions, and actually may change the problem or make the original problem worse.

#8.) Early intervention and early intervening services should be provided as soon as needed by students. Tier III intensive services should be provided as soon as needed by students. Students should not have to receive or "fail" in Tier II services in order to qualify for Tier III services.

Early intervention services include- - based on the diagnostic or functional assessment results- - the use of assistive supports, skill-gap remediations, instructional setting and process accommodations, and curricular modifications.

Tier II and III services include strategic or intensive curricular or skill-targeted strategies or interventions, other services or support programs, student-tailored compensations (for academic problems), and crisis-management services (for social, emotional, or behavioral problems).

#9.) When (Tier I, II, or III) interventions do not work, the diagnostic or functional assessment should be revisited, and it should be determined if (a) the actual student problem was either accurately identified or has changed; (b) the assessment results correctly determined the underlying reasons for the problem; (c) the correct instructional or intervention approaches were selected; (d) the correct instructional or intervention approaches were implemented with integrity, and with the intensity needed; and/or (e) the student needs additional or different services, supports, strategies, or programs.

#10.) The "tiers" in a multi-tiered system of supports reflect the intensity of services, supports, strategies, or programs needed by one or more students.

The tiers do not reflect the percentage of students receiving specific intensities or services, nor do they reflect the organization (i.e., small group or individual), the delivery setting or place, or the expertise of the primary providers of those services.

Moreover, the services and supports in a particular tier in a specific school or district are relative and dependent on the available resources- - including the number, skill, and expertise of the existing core and support staff.

For example, in a rural, poor school district, the absence of a Tier I social skills curriculum taught by the classroom teachers for all students might result in a number of students with social, emotional, and behavioral gaps that require the involvement of "Tier III" community mental health referrals and staff- - because the district does not have the mental health support staff to provide these services.

A larger school district that had a Tier I primary prevention social skills curriculum would have fewer students with social, emotional, and behavioral gaps; and these students would receive "Tier II" supports from the counselors, school psychologists, and/or social workers employed by the district.


The School Improvement, RtI, and PBIS approaches pushed by USDoE during the NCLB years did not work. . . and they did not demonstrate consistent, sustained, comprehensive, or causal changes in student, staff, or student outcomes.

Because of their poor results, the USDoE actually "rebranded" RtI and PBIS a few years ago using their "Multi-Tiered System of Supports" (MTSS) designation- - but these frameworks and approaches (see the studies cited above) have not worked any better.

Significantly, the rebranding was done largely because the USDoE knew that educators had become disenchanted and frustrated with original RtI and PBIS approaches, and strategically decided to "reboot the system" so that the limited RtI and PBIS results could be put "into the past."

I know that some have been surprised at the largely inconsequential School Improvement, RtI, PBIS, and MTSS results over the past number of years. This is because many believe that the U.S. Department of Education, their state departments of education, and the national and state experts espousing these approaches know what they were talking about.

But remember, people only know what they know. They often don't know what they don't know.

At the same time, let's not under-estimate the impact of politics.

Indeed, let's remember that Diane Ravitch strongly advocated for high stakes testing when she was working in the USDoE during the Bush administration, and then completely changed her view after she left.

Moreover, let's remember that the $6 billion Reading First program was discontinued by Congress because the USDoE was manipulating the grant selection process and funneling money to a selected number of specific literacy series and intervention programs.

These are some of the very clear reasons (there are others) why the new ESEA/ESSA has language in it that has explicitly taken power and responsibility away from the U.S. Department of Education and its Secretary.

In essence, Congress wanted to ensure that the USDoE could not continue to establish and dictate its own educational standards and approaches, or to overstep and abuse its authority- - over and above any legislation that it passed.

But in limiting the USDoE's reach, ESEA/ESSA gives states, districts, and school many wonderful opportunities.

And so. . . in conclusion:

  • We DO need to help failing schools to turn-around and improve.
  • We DO need to determine WHY academically struggling students are not succeeding so we can deliver effective, timely, and successful instructional approaches and interventions to address their needs.
  • We DO need to determine WHY students are exhibiting social, emotional, and behavioral challenges so we can deliver effective, timely, and successful interventions to address their needs.

AND. . . with its emphasis on design, implementation, and evaluation at the state and local levels, ESEA/ESSA gives these units opportunities to reconceptualize (a) school improvement; (b) school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management (i.e., lower case positive behavioral intervention and support systems); and (c) (lower case) multi-tiered systems of support.

BUT. . . if state departments of education continue to embrace the past, unsuccessful NCLB RtI, PBIS, and MTSS approaches, I hope that districts and schools will work together to influence these departments of education to stop and replace these practices.

This is NOT about politics or preferences. This is about our current and next generations of students, graduates, post-graduates, and employees.

If there is anything that I can do for you in these areas, please do not hesitate to contact me.

In fact (as always), I am willing to give- - pro bono- - up to two one-hour conference calls to any district or school leadership team that wants to further discuss this information and how it applies to your students, staff, and community.