#174 – Supporting Students Through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), with Dr. Katie Novak

Unpacking Education April 12, 2023 51 min

“How do we create the conditions that all students need, and by connection, that all teachers need so that they can be successful in meeting the needs of all kids?” asks Dr. Katie Novak, coauthor of a forthcoming book, In Support of Students: A Leader’s Guide to Equitable MTSS.

In this episode, Dr. Novak helps us explore this important question through the lens of a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS). She discusses not only the key components of a successful MTSS system but also how school systems need to be changed in order to attain the vision of meeting every student’s needs.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

No matter what explains a student’s lack of learning, schools can and must commit to a collective responsibility to providing supports.

Austin Buffum, Mike Mattos, and Chris Weber, from their book, Simplifying Response to Intervention: Four Essential Guiding Principles


The following resources are available from AVID and on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:

Meeting the Needs of Every Student

Early on in this episode, Dr. Novak says emphatically, “I believe that all students can learn at high levels when they’re given the conditions they need to be successful.” This leads to her logical next question: “How do we create a system that works for all children?”

Throughout our conversation, we dig into the three tiers of MTSS, what those look like in a successful school system, and how we can make that model a reality. Through intentional efforts, schools can use the MTSS model to effectively serve all students. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Dr. Katie Novak is a former English teacher, an internationally renowned education consultant, an author, an adjunct professor, and a former assistant superintendent of schools. These experiences provide her with unique insights and expertise into education.
  • No Matter What: Dr. Novak feels that we need to reach all students no matter what the obstacles might be. She says, “I think that we make so many excuses for why students are not learning at high levels, as opposed to thinking about all of the different drivers that we have available to ensure that students do grow and learn at high levels.”
  • The Right Conditions: Dr. Novak says, “I believe that all students can learn at high levels when they’re given the conditions they need to be successful.”
  • MTSS: MTSS stands for multi-tiered system of supports. Attaining the goals of this model requires asking, “How do we create the conditions that all students need and, by connection, that all teachers need so that they can be successful in meeting the needs of all kids?”
  • The Importance of Systems: Many times, systemic barriers prevent MTSS from being implemented with effectiveness. To be successful, districts need to ensure family–community engagement, MTSS-friendly scheduling, access to technology, high quality resources, and ample professional learning opportunities.
  • Tier I: Tier I includes teaching and learning in the mainstream, general education classroom. It includes the teacher’s best shot at helping all students achieve proficiency, and it’s critical that all students have access to Tier I instruction. Dr. Novak explains, “You don’t stop being a general education student when you need special education support, or you don’t get pulled out of a really inclusive environment because you need support in reading, or you need a little bit more support socially or emotionally or whatever it happens to be, but our system is so problematic because a lot of the time, the only way to give the kids a supplemental support is to pull them out of that Tier I. And it’s because we don’t have the schedules for that. We don’t have the staffing for that. We don’t necessarily have the family and community support for that. We don’t have the expertise for that, and so you end up with this really problematic system.” Katie adds, “The only way to ensure that all students have access to Tier I is to make sure that Tier II and Tier III are supplemental.”
  • Building on Tier I: ”We want all students to have access to Tier I environments with their peers, knowing that some students at different times in their lives, at different times in their days, are going to need more support than that. And so the idea of these multi-tiers is this supplemental, additional support for students who need it, when they need it. That we need really clear entry and exit criteria for when you get additional support, and that’s kind of that multi-tiered piece.”
  • Not a Quick Fix: “Too often, we don’t realize that building this system is going to take multiple years,” says Dr. Novak. Therefore, schools need to set multiyear goals to achieve successful MTSS programs.
  • Beyond Standardized Testing: “If our goal is deeper learning, we have to move away from these one-size-fits-all practices. We have to stop giving board presentations where success on standardized tests rules supreme. If we want something for kids, let’s measure what matters, and then that will allow us to make some of these shifts.”
  • A Quality Tier I Classroom: In a quality Tier I classroom, students are self-directed and offered multiple paths to success. Dr. Novak says, “It’s flexible. It’s self-directed. […] Kids are independent if we provide them with opportunities to be independent.”
  • More Than a Label: Too often, we label students as Tier II or Tier III kids. Dr. Novak says that is the wrong way to think about it. “It’s not a description of a child; it’s a description of a service. And again, it’s not only about the entry criteria, it’s about the exit criteria.” She reiterates this point, saying, “We’re not defined by the supports that we need but the people that we are.”
  • More PD for Teachers: “Let’s provide teachers with the models of what this looks like, and the professional support they deserve, and the high quality instructional materials, so they’re not bending over backwards on the internet every night trying to figure out something that is going to work for kids because this is not for lack of trying.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is MTSS?
  • What is Tier I?
  • What is Tier II?
  • What is Tier III?
  • How can MTSS help schools reach all students and support the quest for proficiency?
  • What barriers must be overcome to implement an effective MTSS system in your school or district?
  • How can you improve current Tier I instruction in your school or district?
  • What action steps would you like to take moving forward?

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