A Tree Falls In Kansas -- Does Anybody Hear It?

A Kansas public schools model holds great promise.

The perpetual questions are, how do we improve our public schools? How can schools better teach our children?

The answer of the day includes starting education early through universal Pre-Kindergarten. The solution yesterday was standardized testing and embracing a common set of educational standards. And throughout, educational innovators have unveiled new programs, apps, and curriculum, each promising better outcomes.

But rather than adding more things, years, and programs to education, states ought to first consider how efficient their existing school system is, and whether it’s current operational structure can be improved.

Many schools today are highly fragmented in how they operate. Fragmentation reduces efficiency and creates quality control issues. Usually administrators focus on the business of running the school while teachers deal with instruction. Instruction can vary widely between classrooms, there is no clear framework for how teachers use data, and special education is treated as a separate activity. The impact of these efforts on overall student outcomes can be limited without an organized, systematic approach.

The Kansas Department of Education has worked quietly, but steadily, for over a decade to create a model that remedies this lack of organization.  The Department has developed an approach that can help any public school—using its existing resources—create improved outcomes for all children.  This systems-change model is called the Kansas Multi-Tiered System of Supports, or Kansas MTSS.

Kansas MTSS organizes a school’s resources more efficiently to help meet every child’s needs. Instead of teachers working separately in individual classrooms recreating the wheel and making instructional best guesses, the school is taught how to create standardized, data-informed protocols for curriculum and interventions.  This results in consistent, effective instruction and intervention for every child monitored for progress on a biweekly basis. Kansas MTSS empowers teachers and schools to increase the number of children succeeding academically and behaviorally, all within the parameters of existing resources and budget.

Through Kansas MTSS, schools learn to use everything they already have, but to use it better. That includes Pre-K programs, existing curriculum and teachers, classroom time, and even those fancy I-Pads. Because ultimately, all that great stuff built on top of a disorganized, splintered organization is not going to be effective.

How do I know Kansas MTSS works? An initiative I developed called the Kansas Reading Roadmap uses it.  The KRR, with funds and support from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, works statewide in fifty high-poverty schools to promote school-wide early literacy proficiency. Our partner schools use Kansas MTSS and then scaffold afterschool, summer and family engagement programs onto it.

Adding aligned supplemental programs to Kansas MTSS is like adding extra horsepower to an already fast car. In twenty-two of our model programs last year we saw reductions among children at-risk for special education of almost 40%. And the number of children reading at benchmark increased by 11 points.

Sometimes it’s the least sexy things that can make the biggest improvement. Yet, because of their practical, incremental nature, they do not get a lot of attention.

While Kansas MTSS may not be as flashy as a new computer program or as simple a soundbite as universal Pre-K, it holds incredible promise for helping answer the age-old question. “How can schools better teach our children?” 

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