Tackling the Current Challenges Faced in Public Schools: MTSS as Part of the Solution

By Lesley Sylvan
September 29, 2020

As with every area of public life, the COVID-19 public health emergency has put an enormous strain on the K–12 public education system. In the spring of 2020, educators were forced to halt face-to-face instruction and pivot toward remote instruction in an unprecedented manner. In the fall of 2020, school districts across the country are implementing a variety of different approaches including all-virtual learning models, hybrid models, and face-to-face instruction with social distancing measures in place. All in all, it has not been “business as usual” in public schools for over 7 months.

 While the long-term impact of these unprecedented changes on students’ collective academic progress remains to be seen, there is growing consensus that these necessary changes have stunted students’ ability to make the academic progress expected under more “normal” circumstances.  Given the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 public health emergency, there is no straightforward way to predict the magnitude of the impact of this crisis on student learning and how this will vary between students. However, there is broad agreement that the most vulnerable populations of students (e.g., students with disabilities, English language learners, students from historically disadvantaged racial and cultural backgrounds) will be most negatively impacted. In particular, learning losses are likely to be greatest for students with limited financial resources, especially those with limited internet access.

Concerns about academic progress, especially for students from vulnerable groups, are not a new phenomenon in education. Year after year, the Nation’s Report Card shows too few of these students are performing at proficient levels in areas like reading, math, and writing. Addressing the “achievement gap” and issues related to educational equity have been front and center in the minds of educators for many years. However, as with other areas, the COVID-19 public health crisis has revealed and exacerbated existing problems and inequities.

During the 2020–2021 school year and for school years to come, educators and professionals in schools will need to work harder than ever before to help students catch up from the lost learning opportunities. They will also need to work collectively to address the stress or trauma that students may have experienced or continue to face (e.g., loss of family members, loss of income, social isolation, or mental health issues) resulting from the multidimensional impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency.  While there will need to be numerous possible ways to tackle the enormous pressing challenges in public education, educators working collaboratively to support students through the multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) framework should be a key part of the solution.

The MTSS framework is a tiered system of support that involves multiple levels of instruction aimed at meeting students’ needs in a timely and efficient manner. In contrast to a “one-size-fits-all” model, a central element of MTSS is providing all students with a strong research-based core curriculum and addressing the needs of students who need more support through increasingly intense “tiers.” A useful way to visualize the model is as a triangle, with Tier 1 services on the bottom (targeting all students), Tier 2 in the middle (targeting some students), and Tier 3 services on the top (most individualized). The MTSS framework is unique for its emphasis on collaboration and problem-solving within the school system and its focus on data-based decision-making.  

Given the urgency and enormity of the challenge of helping students catch up on academic gaps and move on to rigorous grade-level work, the MTSS framework is highly relevant in this current climate. For one thing, substantial research has shown the benefits of providing multiple tiers of support to students in numerous academic areas.  Additionally, the MTSS framework is supported by federal education policy, including the Every Student Succeeds Act as well as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Finally, MTSS is designed to be flexible and provide “just in time” support to students without relying on a sometimes lengthy process to “qualify” for specialized support.

In particular, school-based speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have the potential to make a meaningful impact on addressing the challenges within public schools through participation in the MTSS framework. SLPs can extend their impact in schools by utilizing their high level of expertise in language, literacy, and communication within an MTSS model. In doing so, SLPs are well-positioned to not only provide direct support to students but also engage with close consultations and collaborations with other educators.  Further, by taking an active role in MTSS, SLPs can help contribute relevant and appropriate data to inform decision-making related to the accurate identification of students with disabilities, while also ensuring that necessary support is provided to at-risk students.

My forthcoming book from Plural Publishing, titled Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Implementation Tools for Speech-Language Pathologists in Education, provides school-based SLPs with detailed tools, ideas, and inspiration to be impactful within this framework.  In addition to providing answers to a range of questions related to the applicability of the MTSS framework to SLPs’ role in schools, this book focuses on concrete and practical ideas for how SLPs can implement MTSS in their practice. A central element of this book is the “multi-tiered SLP toolkit,” which is organized into three main areas: tools related to supporting the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, tools related to supporting speech-related issues such as articulation, and tools to support the social and emotional aspects of language use.  The evidence base for each approach is clearly identified and straightforward implementation procedures are provided.  The book contains numerous “real-world snapshots” of SLPs actively involved in MTSS within their own school districts across the country. These “snapshots” will help readers identify the wide variety of ways that SLPs can get involved with MTSS.

While this public health crisis was not anticipated when I initially drafted Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Implementation Tools for Speech-Language Pathologists in Education, I think the publication of this book is timely. It comes out at a time that educators, including school-based SLPs, more urgently than ever need practical and flexible tools to support students efficiently and effectively.  While everyone has a lot on their plates, involvement within the MTSS framework provides school-based SLPs with a concrete, immediate, and practical way to make a difference for students with and without identified disabilities. In light of how the COVID-19 public health crisis has both highlighted and exacerbated the challenges faced in the education system, this work is now an even more essential tool for doing what is best for our students.