When our research on supporting reading, writing, and mathematics for older – struggling – students was published last week, most of the responses missed the heart of the matter.
In Australia, we have always used “categories of disadvantage” to identify students who may need additional support at school and provide funding for that support. Yet those students who do not fit neatly into those categories slipped through the gaps, and for many, the assistance came far too late, or achieved far too little. Despite an investment of $319 billion, little has changed with inequity still baked into our schooling system.
Our systematic review, commissioned by the Australian Education Research Organisation, set out to identify the best contemporary model to identify underachievement and provide additional support – a multi-tiered approach containing three levels, or “tiers” that increase in intensity.
We found that if schools get Tier 1 classroom teaching right – using the highest possible quality instruction that is accessible and explicit – the largest number of students make satisfactory academic progress. When that happens, resource-intensive support at Tier 2 or Tier 3 is reserved for those who really need it. We also found that if additional layers of targeted support are provided rapidly, schools can get approximately 95% of students meeting academic standards before gaps become entrenched.
The media discussion of our research focused on addressing disadvantages such as intergenerational poverty, unstable housing, and “levelling the playing field from day one” for students starting primary school through early childhood education.
These are worthy and important initiatives to improve equality in our society, but they are not the most direct actions that need to be taken to address student underachievement. Yes, we need to address both, BUT the most direct and high-leverage approach for reducing underachievement in schools is by improving the quality of instruction and the timeliness of intervention in reading, writing, and mathematics.
Ensuring that Tier 1 instruction is explicit and accessible for all students is both proactive and preventative. It means that the largest number of students acquire foundational skills in reading, writing, and mathematics in the early years of primary school. This greatly reduces the proportion of students with achievement gaps from the outset.
This is an area that needs urgent attention. The current rate of underachievement in these foundational skills is unacceptable, with approximately 90,000 students failing to meet national minimum standards. These students do not “catch up” on their own. Rather, achievement gaps widen as students progress through their education. Current data show that, on average, one in every five students starting secondary school are significantly behind their peers and have the skills expected of a student in Year 4:
For students in secondary school, aside from the immediate issues of weak skills in reading, writing and mathematics, underachievement can lead to early leaving as well as school failure. Low achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics also means that individuals are more likely to experience negative long-term impacts post-school including aspects of employment and health, resulting in lifelong disadvantage. As achievement gaps disproportionately affect disadvantaged students, this perpetuates and reinforces disadvantage across generations. Our research found that it’s never too late to intervene and support these students. We also highlighted particular practices that are the most effective, such as explicit instruction and strategy instruction.
For too long, persistent underachievement has been disproportionately experienced by disadvantaged students, and efforts to achieve reform have failed. If we are to address this entrenched inequity, we need large-scale systemic improvement as well as improvement within individual schools. Tiered approaches, such as the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), build on decades of research and policy reform in the US for just this purpose. These have documented success in helping schools and systems identify and provide targeted intervention to students requiring academic support.
In general, MTSS is characterised by:
- the use of evidence-based practices for teaching and assessment
- a continuum of increasingly intensive instruction and intervention across multiple tiers
- the collection of universal screening and progress monitoring data from students
- the use of this data for making educational decisions
- a clear whole-school and whole-of-system vision for equity
What is important and different about this approach is that support is available to any student who needs it. This contrasts with the traditional approach, where support is too often reserved for students identified as being in particular categories of disadvantage, for example, students with disabilities who receive targeted funding. When MTSS is correctly implemented, students who are identified as requiring support receive it as quickly as possible.
What is also different is that the MTSS framework is based on the assumption that all students can succeed with the right amount of support. Students who need targeted Tier 2 support receive that in addition to Tier 1. This means that Tier 2 students work in smaller groups and receive more frequent instruction to acquire skills and become fluent until they meet benchmarks. The studies we reviewed showed that when Tiers 1 and 2 were implemented within the MTSS framework, only 5% of students required further individualised and sustained support at Tier 3. Not only did our review show that this was an effective use of resources, but it also resulted in a 70% reduction in special education referrals. This makes MTSS ideal for achieving system-wide improvement in both equity, achievement, and inclusion.
Our research could not be better timed. The National School Reform Agreement (NSRA) is currently being reviewed to make the system “better and fairer”. Clearly, what is needed is a coherent approach for improving equity and school improvement that can be implemented across systems and schools and across states and territories. To this end, MTSS offers a roadmap to achieve these targets, along with some lessons learned from two decades of “getting it right” in the US. One lesson is the importance of using implementation science to ensure MTSS is adopted and sustained at scale and with consistency across states. Another is the creation of national centres for excellence (e.g., for literacy: https://improvingliteracy.org), and technical assistance centres (e.g., for working with data: https://intensiveintervention.org) that can support school and system improvement.
While past national agreements in Australia have emphasised local variation across the states and territories, our research findings highlight that systemic equity-based reform through MTSS requires a consistent approach across states, districts, and schools. Implemented consistently and at scale, MTSS is not just another thing. It has the potential to be the thing that may just change the game for Australia’s most disadvantaged students at last.
From left to right: Dr Kate de Bruin is a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for over two decades. Her research examines evidence-based practices for systems, schools and classrooms with a particular focus on students with disability. Her current projects focus on Multi-Tiered Systems of Support with particular focus on academic instruction and intervention. Dr Eugénie Kestel has taught in both school and higher education. She taught secondary school mathematics, science and English and currently teaches mathematics units in the MTeach program at Edith Cowan University. She conducts professional development sessions and offers MTSS mathematics coaching to specialist support staff in primary and secondary schools in WA. Dr Mariko Francis is a researcher and teaching associate at Monash University. She researches and instructs across tertiary, corporate, and community settings, specializing in systems approaches to collaborative family-school partnerships, best practices in program evaluation, and diversity and inclusive education. Professor Helen Forgasz is a Professor Emerita (Education) in the Faculty of Education, Monash University (Australia). Her research includes mathematics education, gender and other equity issues in mathematics and STEM education, attitudes and beliefs, learning settings, as well numeracy, technology for mathematics learning, and the monitoring of achievement and participation rates in STEM subjects. Ms Rachelle Fries is a PhD candidate at Monash University. She is a registered psychologist and an Educational & Developmental registrar with an interest in working to support diverse adolescents and young people. Her PhD focuses on applied ethics in psychology.