This Is Not Your Mother’s MTSS

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ushered in the opportunity to rethink what it meant to “educate the whole child” through a coordinated a system of supports that would meaningfully differentiate student learning and district accountability for academic and social-emotional growth. States crafted plans aimed at providing all students, regardless of background and circumstance, access to the right resources and supports at the right time, so that every child could manifest her/his potential.


But was that enough to guarantee equitable opportunities and outcomes? My research and work suggest that many states are still tinkering around the edges rather than transforming the current paradigm. Such tinkering will result in even wider gaps and more students being disenfranchised from promising futures.


Here are the facts that support my position. First, half of all children in the United States will be nonwhite by 2020. Second, people from “two or more races” make up the fastest growing population. Third, children of color and those living in poverty have been disproportionately misidentified as disabled, disruptive, and undisciplined.


Thus, here are my questions: If what we're doing now isn't working, what will the future look like for our children in 2020 and beyond? If public education is not meeting the needs of all students now, what needs to change?


Here is the solution: Education must address the needs of the whole child through the interdependent framework of:

1.     An equity mindset

2.     Social-emotional learning

3.     Culturally responsive policies and practices


The current deficit-based system must be interrupted and redesigned through a strength-based lens. That means school leaders, teachers, and families must possess a relentless belief that all children have potential for success and that it is the responsibility of the adults to create the conditions that best match student learning styles. It means shifting mindsets of the adults so they ask “how is the child smart” and then design learning around their strengths. It means transforming the profession into an asset-based education system.


This approach requires shifting from the current multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), which is based on a seek-and-slot philosophy, to a strengths-based approach that acknowledges students’ culture as an asset. Because an equity-focused MTSS is a district-wide frame, the false assumptions about the 80-15-5 percentages currently in effect will be disrupted and the tracked system of labeling students will be erased. These labels have had devastating consequences for students of color, poverty, and disability.


The Pre-K through 12 education system cannot afford to continue tinkering. Bold actions are called upon to harness the promise of the ESSA and create a nimble system that truly values who students are and all that they bring to school. It requires teacher preparation programs to forge new pathways of learning. It means professionally developing teachers, leaders, and families in culturally responsive practices and ensuring that resources and materials represent the learner.


Students need to see themselves in their learning!  

Kate Anderson Foley, Ph.D.

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