Implementing MTSS in a School District to Recover Students’ COVID Learning Losses

Susan Miller
6 min readJun 29, 2021

Because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, America’s K-12 students have very likely suffered some degree of learning losses over the past year.

Let’s use Jefferson County, Colorado, where I sit on the Board of Education, as an example.

Jeffco’s COVID achievement losses came on top of the significant proficiency shortfalls that were already evidence on the 2019 state Colorado Measures of Academic Progress (CMAS) assessments.

For example, 54% of Jeffco third graders did not meet state English Language Arts (i.e., reading and writing) standards, 65% of our sixth graders didn’t meet state math standards, and 62% of our eighth graders didn’t meet state science standards.

We also know from research that once a student falls significantly behind, it is increasingly difficult for them to catch up to proficiency before they graduate (see ACT’s report, “Catching Up to College and Career Readiness”).

That has been true in Jeffco too. Once a student falls significantly behind, catching up to proficiency has been very difficult. See, for example, the following comparison of 2016 CMAS results for third graders from different ethnic groups to 2019 CMAS results for sixth graders:

In the past, one of the arguments made to explain the failure of districts to catch students back up to proficiency was a lack of money. While I disagree with that claim (I think we could use existing funding much more effectively and efficiently), it has now been rendered moot by the enormous amount of federal and state aid that districts will receive to support the recovery of students’ COVID learning losses.

However, the challenge of spending that money as effectively as possible remains.

Let me put that in perspective for you.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) is the non-partisan research arm of the Washington State Legislature (akin to the US Congressional Research Service). They have rigorously analyzed a range of interventions that can be used to increase student achievement (there is another document containing all WSIPP’s analyses on my website: “Rigorously Choosing Between Different Options For Recovering Covid Learning Losses”).

The following table summarizes their results. “Effect Size” is a measure of the average achievement improvement that was observed across a range of rigorous studies.

To put these Effect Sizes in perspective, between grades 1 and 12, the median increase in the minimum (or cut) scale score for proficiency in a subject is equal to an Effect Size of .32 (i.e., .32 standard deviations).

Students in the lowest CMAS category are one or more standard deviations below grade level.

In “Interpreting Effect Sizes of Education Interventions,” Brown University’s Matthew Kraft analyzed high quality studies (usually randomized control trials) of reading and math interventions in grades one through twelve. He found that the median achievement improvement intervention had an effect size of only 0.10 standard deviations.

That is why catching up to proficiency is so hard once a student has fallen significantly behind.

As you can see, WSIPP also provides an estimate of the probability that each achievement improvement intervention will deliver benefits that exceed its costs.

However, selecting the most cost effective achievement improvement interventions is only half the battle. We also need to understand how much of the district’s budget they will require.

There is a methodology called “Multi Tiered System of Supports” (MTSS)that enables us to meet that challenge. Like its predecessor, “Response to Intervention” (RTI), MTSS is based on the common sense idea that they students who have fallen furthest behind should receive the most support to help them catch up.

MTSS divides this support into three “tiers”. “Tier 1” is regular classroom instruction that every student receives, and which incurs no incremental costs.

“Tier 2” support is provided to students who need more help.

“Tier 3” provides the most intensive support to students who need the most help to catch up to proficiency.

Let’s look at what MTSS might look like in Jeffco.

Let’s assume that in Jeffco MTSS would address the needs of students in grades 1 through 12, who on last winter’s NWEA Math MAP test were projected to be in the lowest two categories on the spring CMAS assessment. These roughly correspond to students who are more than one standard deviation below the cut score for grade level proficiency, and those are more than half but less than one standard deviation below.

Since MAP only covers grades 2 through 8, I’ll assume that the numbers for grade 1 match those in grade 3, and the numbers in grades 9 through 12 match those in grade 8.

Let’s also assume that students projected to be in the lowest CMAS category (9,858 in reading and 11,224 in math) will receive “Tier 3” supports, and those in the “partially meets” category will receive “Tier 2” supports (12,735 in reading and 14,901 in math).

In terms of time, let’s use the following assumptions (which are based on best practice guides) for the time involved in Tier 3 and Tier 2 supports:

This equates to a need for 98,388 person days to provide Tier 2 and Tier 3 Reading supports, and 112,210 person days to provide Tier 2 and Tier 3 Math supports.

The critical question is where these days will come from, and how much they will cost.

For example, let’s assume that current school based staff (teachers, instructional coaches, and social emotional learning specialists) worked 2 hours longer each day to provide some of the required Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports. Based on the average cost (salary plus benefits) of a Jeffco teacher, the extra time would cost $16.3 million/year.

However, that would still leave a need to hire people to provide the remaining 35,773 hours of Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports. Assuming we could find talented people without a teaching credential to provide these supports at half the cost of a teacher (e.g., a recent graduate or retiree with a math degree), I estimate it would cost another $7.7 million/year. So the total additional annual cost to provide Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports would be about $24 million.

Finding $24 million in a $1.4 billion dollar district budget should not be hard.

In an intensely competitive global economy, the stakes involved in recovering learning losses are very high, not just for our children, but also for their families, our employers, our state’s economy, and, ultimately, for K-12 leaders across the nation.

If we fail to use the very substantial amount of federal and state aid school districts have been given to successfully meet the achievement challenges we face, we risk the collapse of confidence in public education and trust in its leaders.

Business as usual is not going to cut it.

Susan Miller advises school districts around the country on enrollment, facilities, financing, and other issues. She is also a member of the Board of Education for Jefferson County (CO) Schools, the nation’s thirty-sixth largest district. These are her personal views. Learn more at https://www.millerforjeffcostudents.com/

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