Susan Lambert is joined by Dr. Brittney Bills, educator and recent Science of Reading Star Award Winner to discuss MTSS. Dr. Bills began her journey as a school psychologist for six years before transitioning to the role of curriculum coordinator at Grand Island Public Schools. In this episode, Dr. Bills explains what MTSS is and how it centers on prevention rather than intervention. She talks about the intersection of universal screening data and MTSS and provides advice on evidence-based strategies and techniques to make a positive impact in your classroom. Using examples from her own district, Dr. Bills discusses avoiding burnout, learning to use data, and the process of ongoing improvement.
Learn more about the Science of Reading for English learners at Celebrating Biliteracy: Realizing a Better Future for Our Spanish Speakers. Register here!
Susan Lambert: 0:01
Before we jump into today's episode. I want to invite you to register for a free virtual symposium on May 19th, 2022: Celebrating Biliteracy: Realizing a Better Future for our Spanish Speakers. During this event, you'll discover how to celebrate and honor the unique skills, strengths, and needs your multilingual learners bring to the classroom as well as how to accelerate literacy development for your Spanish speakers. Register now at the link in the show notes. On today's episode, I talk with Dr. Brittney Bills from Grand Island Public Schools, where they're working hard to change not only their classroom instruction, but also the entire literacy system, from the district level to the building level to the classroom. They're working to ensure all resources are aligned and support all students in their literacy development. During this episode, you'll also hear from educators and students at Grand Island about their Science of Reading journey. Enjoy. Hello, Brittney. We are so excited to have you on our episode today. Thanks for joining us.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 1:10
Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to talk with you today.
Susan Lambert: 1:15
Well, as you know, we always like to start by asking our guests to talk a little bit about their Science of Reading journey. So we'd love to hear that from you.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 1:25
Yeah, I'd be happy to share. So my journey started about 10 years ago, when I was a fresh school psychologist, out of my preparation program and on my way to Heartland Area Education Agency, learning, you know, the way of school psychology and just, you know, practicing as a school psychologist. And Heartland AEA was really the place where my passion and love for learning about the Science of Reading ignited. They had really outstanding professional development that they offered all of their incoming staff. And they have a really unique model for identifying students for special education services, which is one of the reasons why I decided to go there. They do not use a discrepancy model at all for identifying students for special education. It's all around— at that time we were calling it Response to Intervention, right? And so, you know, putting evidence-based, instructional practices into place, monitoring progress and seeing how students respond. And so that is where it started. And I was just there for a brief of amount of time. While I was there, my now-husband and I were fresh into a relationship and it wasn't really certain where it was gonna go. And he did end up proposing to me. And so I moved back. We lived in the metro area in Omaha for five years, but I continued to work in Iowa for five years with Green Hills Area Education Agency, where I continued to have outstanding mentors who really nurtured my desire to grow as a professional and learn everything that I could about the science of teaching reading. And it's also the place where I had the great opportunity to work very, very closely with one elementary school over the course of my entire career there, and really launch an MTSS model for them. It was so much fun, actually. I mean, I remember when I started with them, the principal there was brand-new to a principalship. She hadn't been a principal before and they were using Amesweb as their universal screener. And she's like, "I know nothing about this. I have no idea what I'm doing." And I'm like, "I know so much about this! And I'm so excited that I can be here and I can help you!" And so that elementary school was just such an incredible place to work. They were so open, and they really thrived and just wanted to continuously improve and learn everything they could for the benefit of their students. And so it's the place where I really just had a great opportunity to apply everything that I knew from my training program and then from my work at Heartland to an elementary building, and just really move them through a strong process of establishing a really nice system to support their students. And then, about the time that I left there, I was just ready for leadership of my own, you know, I was pursuing some possible principalships and then the job description for Grand Island came up and it was just a literacy focus. They were looking for someone to coordinate their ELA curriculum. And it was funny because I told my husband, I was like, "They won't even interview me." <laugh> You know? And they did. You know, it was just a constant, like, "They won't offer me the job." <Laugh> You know, all of those things.
Susan Lambert: 5:23
"Don't worry; don't worry."
Dr. Brittney Bills: 5:24
"Don't worry; don't worry." Yeah. 'Cause it was very last-minute. I mean, it was July. It was a very quick turnaround. And my husband does not handle change well at all.
Susan Lambert: 5:38
Sorry, if he's listening to this right now.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 5:40
Yeah, right? Yes, yes, he would admit that. But yeah, and he knew, and I'm just super-grateful for him. He's always been so supportive of my desire to grow as a professional and pursue the things that I'm passionate about. And so yeah, that journey led us here, with Grand Island Public Schools. And I've been here now for four years and we've just done some really incredible and remarkable things. And the very brief time that I've been here, I'm so proud of the work that we've done here. You know, our teachers are all offered the opportunity to be trained with LETRS, professional development; we've gone through the process of implementing high-quality instructional materials in our classrooms for our K–5 students; we use really solid universal-screening tools for reading now with all of our K–5 students; and we are now in the process—I have a new role. It's my favorite role that I've ever served. I'm now our district K–5 ELA curriculum coordinator and our MTSS academic coordinator. And so my passion for literacy is kind of pairing up with my knowledge base around MTSS. And I have this opportunity, this wonderful opportunity, to develop this amazing system for Grand Island Public Schools. And so we are bringing those two worlds together right now, and it is a really exciting time for us.
Susan Lambert: 7:14
That's so cool. Well, let me tell you what I love about that story. I love that you made it real because you actually <laugh> talked about your husband and your proposal and, like, listeners out there know, like this is, this is real life, and we can't dedicate everything to our careers. So that's really cool. And then I love that you highlighted Heartland. So for our listeners that don't know about that, it really is sort of the seat of development of RTI and MTSS. So, so cool that you had that early opportunity and that, and the opportunity in an elementary school for more than just a single year or two. So you really have the opportunity to see at the student level what worked, what didn't work, and what it takes to actually move kids.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 7:58
Yeah, absolutely. It's been an amazing journey.
Educator 1: 8:05
The Science of Reading has truly shown my students the why behind reading and all that it encompasses. My students are able to recognize how we learn to read, what skills we need to read. And they're able to demonstrate those things, to show reading and understanding. The skills we are teaching and learning about truly are assets to my students. And without the Science of Reading, I wholeheartedly don't believe my students would be where they are today as readers. As an educator, I myself have a deeper understanding of reading because of the Science of Reading and trainings that I've received. I know what is expected of my students to be proficient and successful readers, and I know how to help them get there. The approach we've taken at my district with the Science of Reading at the forefront has developed my teaching and made me more confident and excited about teaching students to read and become better readers.
Educator 2: 9:03
The Science of Reading has made me more confident and a more engaging teacher. I feel better prepared to teach the future generations of students and provide the skills needed to become the best readers my students can be. Taking LETRS has also helped my teaching instruction and prepared me to better help identify and target areas my students might need more support in and provide an extra challenge to extend learning. This is something I would've never felt confident doing without the guidance of the Science of Reading. It has helped my students as it's developed them into the readers that some of them never thought they would be, or even possible. They believe in themselves. They aren't afraid to try. And they're so eager to keep learning more. This has been one of the greatest things to witness as a teacher. And it's because of the Science of Reading.
Susan Lambert: 10:01
For our listeners that don't know, you were actually one of our Amplify Science of Reading award winners. So congratulations again on that. And listeners can probably already hear why, right? Like, just you talking about both your passion, but also what you've been able to do already to help move that work forward. You used the word "MTSS" or the letters "MTSS." And I'd like to talk a little bit about that because I'm pretty sure that most of our listener base has heard "MTSS" before and may know something or a lot about MTSS. Can you just give us, like, what is it? What are the key elements? Just school us a little bit in MTSS.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 10:45
Yeah. I'd love to. So, MTSS is similar to Response to Intervention. Multitiered System of Supports, okay? is what it stands for. And it's similar to RTI or Response to Intervention in that it is a problem-solving model, right? Now where it differs a little bit from Response to Intervention...Response to Intervention, as evidenced by its name, was always more of like an intervention focus. We use tools to identify students and then we identify the interventions that they need in order to be successful. Within an MTSS framework or an MTSS model, the thought is that universal tier is the first intervention for all students, right? And it presents the greatest opportunity for us to have an impact because that's usually the time of the day where we spend the most instructional time, right? Where all of our students are with us together in one space. And if you have, you know, good high-quality instructional materials and knowledgeable teachers, it just is the greatest opportunity to have the largest impact. And another kind of key component of that framework and thinking about that universal tier within an MTSS model, the focus is really on prevention, right? So we want to prevent students from developing a reading difficulty. And so we are going to put into place all of the things that we need in order to prevent students from having that difficulty, that ongoing difficulty, at third grade and beyond. And so one of the things I think about as I think about the Science of Reading, and how the Science of Reading really fits within an MTSS model...it's such a nice fit, right? Because we think about this, we think about our universal tier, and we think about using high-quality instructional materials. And that's great. We wanna do those things. But the reality of it is, is that all of our schools are different, right? In my district I have 14 elementary schools and they're all very different from one another. And so when we think about our universal-screening data and, you know, all of those pieces, we really think about first, problem-solving around our universal tier first, based off of our data. So what does our data demonstrate our students need within that universal tier? And how can we apply evidence-based practices as they relate to the Science of Reading to beef up universal tier and opportunities for our students, first, there? And then it's a layering-on of supports and problem-solving at those other layers, the targeted and intensive tiers, after that. But we really wanna focus on that universal tier. Some other kind of key pieces of it is that universal screening; it's really important that districts have evidence-based universal screening tools. I know not all districts use measures that are really sensitive to those critical early-literacy pieces, and so it's really important for districts to evaluate their assessments. A lot of researchers will recommend that you do an assessment audit and just see if you have assessments that are gathering all of the data that you need around the different aspects of literacy. That was a major missing piece for us that we put into place just a few years ago, and honestly, just this year for all of our students, K–5. And then another big piece is really that fidelity of implementation. You know what I mean? We're implementing things as they were intended to be implemented, as they were designed. And before we make decisions about changing a program or changing our practices or changing our strategy, we wanna make sure first that we implemented the way that we said we would, and the way that the programs were intended to be implemented. So—and then really the final piece, which also is very similar to a Response to Intervention model, is that progress monitoring piece, that ongoing monitoring of students. But I really like to think about it as we problem-solve around every tier. Beginning with universal tier, we apply strategies; we monitor whether those strategies worked within that universal tier; and we continue to problem-solve if things aren't working. And then we move up through that process, but we don't forget, and we don't ignore universal tier and go straight to tier two and tier three.
Susan Lambert: 15:54
Hmm. That's great. Oh, there's a lot to unpack there! Let's try to unpack some of it. So let's start with this idea of universal tier or core instruction or what all students should be getting. So as I understand it, and I'm not the expert here, we use a universal screener for all students to find out where they are in terms of risk categories. What happens if we find out, oh my gosh, we've got all these kids that really are at risk and really need a lot of intervention? Because I know a lot of times the first place people will jump is, oh my gosh, we need better tier two and tier three programs. I think you're saying that's not true?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 16:40
Yeah. I am saying that's not true. And I think our district is such a great example of that. I mean, our incoming kindergartners don't have a lot of opportunities and experiences before they enter our classrooms. You know what I mean? And so we do have a significant number of our kindergarten students who already present significant levels of risk for developing reading difficulty if we don't put things in place for them. And so when you have that many students who demonstrate that level of risk, it's impossible to intervene your way out of that. Right?
Susan Lambert: 17:23
Dr. Brittney Bills: 17:25
And so really focusing on first and foremost, you know, we've got really solid universal instruction in place. You know, maybe your data demonstrates that a majority of your students are really struggling with phonemic awareness, right? Or phoneme segmentation. And so looking within those materials to see, you know, are there ways that we can embed more opportunities. We can up the ante on frequency of opportunities that students are engaging with that particular skill within that universal tier within the lessons that we're already providing our students. And so really problem-solving there first and using our data to drive us to the things that we can do within universal tier to beef up instruction. Because again, it is our best opportunity where all students are present. And we have some really solid things in place. We can just increase the frequency, increase the intensity of that instruction that is taking place within that universal instruction.
Susan Lambert: 18:32
So I'm gonna say that another way, too. It may not necessarily mean that you have to get another supplemental program or bring something else in. It may just mean that you need to emphasize or stretch the instruction that's already in place in the core.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 18:47
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I've been thinking about this a lot, you know, just in our own school district. So as I look at our data, I notice that...or, like, strategies might be another thing. Right?
Susan Lambert: 19:03
Dr. Brittney Bills: 19:03
So I notice that our students are not quite acquiring the high-frequency words that we would want to see them acquire, at the rate that we would like to see them acquire them, right? So I was at Plain Talk, you know, thanks to all of you. It's my favorite conference to attend.
Susan Lambert: 19:23
Great, great conference.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 19:25
<laugh> Such an incredible conference. But I had the opportunity to go to Dr. Katharine Pace Miles's session on high-frequency words, and she has done extensive research under Dr. Linnea Ehry around how students most effectively map high-frequency words to their brain. And you know, I'm like, knowing this, we can easily apply this strategy within the materials we already have within the context of the instruction that we're already providing, because our data demonstrates that we need it. But we don't need to go off and buy, you know, a high-frequency word program and do that in addition to what we're doing. We just need to beef up what we're doing.
Educator 3: 20:14
Hi, I'm Megan Aarons at Howard Elementary. And the Science of Reading has made a big impact in our district and at our school. Before we really made a shift to the Science of Reading, I think we knew which kids were struggling readers, but we did not pinpoint why. We knew that they had missing skills, but after introducing the Science of Reading, every teacher can articulate what a student's missing skills are. We have the systems in place of a strong screening system, and we're building a solid progress-monitoring system. We can have shared conversations on what student goals are, exactly what they're missing, and a plan for how we're gonna get there. This greatly impacts students, because we are filling their holes. We can actually look at the data and we tracking it actively to see which students are growing and which students need more support. It has been a tremendous shift. I'm proud of the hard work that our students—or that our teachers have done, and the growth that our students have made. Um, and I'm so thankful that our district has put wonderful professional development resources and high-quality instructional materials in place to make sure that every single student can achieve and read and become literate at a high level.
Educator 4: 21:37
Hi, I'm Mindy. And I'm a first-grade teacher. The reason why I like Science of Reading is because we focus on the phonemes and the sounds and words. This helps us to identify spelling patterns that students will use. They also get to practice those spelling patterns by using the spelling trees. We learn about the power bar and how common a sound is versus how not common it may be. And then the Science of Reading also provides several intervention materials that will help us with hitting those skills that some students may be missing.
Susan Lambert: 22:09
That's really interesting because I love that you made that connection. One of the things that I really worry about is sometimes—and I'm gonna use Plain Talk as an example, right? And that session you went to as an example. Sometimes we will go to these sessions and we will think, wow, that's a great idea. I'm gonna go back to my classroom and implement that...without thinking, do my kids need this, or do they not need this? And really, I think in the MTSS structure and what you're talking about, it's letting the data drive the decisions. It's the student need that should drive the decisions. Not a cool presentation that we saw at a conference. Do you agree with that?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 22:51
I absolutely agree with that. Yes! <Laugh>
Susan Lambert: 22:53
Yeah. I sort of set you up for that, didn't I! <Laugh>
Dr. Brittney Bills: 22:56
You did, a little bit.
Susan Lambert: 22:56
A little bit.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 22:57
But yeah, you know, I think as consumers of information, you know, especially as more and more starts to become available to us around the Science of Reading, we do have to be critical consumers of that information, right? And we always have to have our students in mind as we're making those decisions. And processing through those things and thinking through those things. So, yeah, absolutely.
Susan Lambert: 23:28
Now I wanna talk a little bit more about like, just digging into this universal screening because we had a conversation actually at Plain Talk about administering the universal screening, but then actually using that information that comes out, converting that data, in other words, into information. And I know you are using this at multiple levels. So at the district level, the school level, and actually the grade level, maybe even the classroom level, can you talk a little bit about how in an MTSS structure, this universal screening data should be best used?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 24:07
Yeah. So within an MTSS model, at least from the training and the professional learning that I have received, one concept that is different in MTSS than in Response to Intervention is the concept of a class-wide intervention, right? So if there are 60% or more of your students who are demonstrating a need, like, let's say fluency as an example. Okay? Oral reading fluency. Then you would look to implement a class-wide intervention around fluency with your students to help improve that, because you have more students than not who are demonstrating that difficulty. So a lot of times what happens in schools, you know, we have this time in our day where we can provide intervention and provide supports to students, and we, like, piecemeal that time out. And when we have data such that I have talked about, where, you know, 75% of our kids are below or 66% of our kids are below, there's very little time to give once you actually start grouping kids. You might have this group of kids that's gonna get this five-minute intervention three times a week, and this group of kids that's gonna get this 10-minute intervention two times a week, and what have you. And one of the other kind of ideas around MTSS is efficiency. We wanna use data and leverage data to make decisions that are going to help us arrive at our outcomes or our goals in the most efficient and effective means possible. Which is where, from what I've gathered, this idea of class-wide intervention comes, right? If the majority of your students struggle with that, then logically you would use more time to give that intervention to all students, rather than trying to piecemeal time, and really kind of work on a lot of little things with very limited amounts of time in your day and in your schedule. And I know that that is something that is a very new concept to teachers. If any teachers in my district listen to me right now, they're gonna be like, WHAT? <Laugh> What are you talking about? Because we have not had that conversation, you know? It's always been the differentiated small groups. And this idea of individualized instruction and giving every kid what they need. I went to a session with Steve Dykstra a while back. And he talked about we don't need more individualized instruction. We don't need more of these ideas of small [unintelligible]. We need better cookie cutters. 'Cause the reality of it is that we have more kids than not that have the same difficulties, that have the same struggles, and we need better cookie cutters. We need better processes, more effective practices that we can apply more widely to more efficiently and effectively arrive at our outcomes. So that we can really get to the resources are left for our students who do need more intensive support. Those smaller groups, those higher rates of feedback, that higher level of intensity. But what's happening in our systems is we're trying to support so many kids at that level who don't necessarily need that level of intensity and we're burning ourselves out in the process.
Susan Lambert: 28:17
That makes a lot of sense. And I get how from a teacher point of view it would be a very different message because I know, I remember, being an administrator or being a curriculum director and administrators telling teachers, "No, when I come to an observation, I wanna see small-group instruction, small-group instruction, small-group instruction." But that, that might not be the way best way to leverage—how would you suggest getting out of that cycle of just delivering small-group instruction?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 28:52
I mean, honestly you just gotta jump in and do it. That has been a major shift in our district. We were a district that a bulk of our instructional time within universal tier was spent in small groups. And when I would do classroom observations and honestly using Daily 5. Using a Daily 5 model. So I would go to kindergarten classrooms who would have 60 minutes of their instructional time designated for Daily 5 and they'd have four 15-minute groups. And when you step back as an outside observer in these classrooms...you remove yourself from the classroom and really look and see what's happening with a critical eye, you see that kids spend 45 minutes doing nothing that is evidence-based or high-impact that is going to lead to really good outcomes and good results. Their kids are in August looking at picture books for 15 minutes. Well, I have a five-year-old son, I'm sorry, he can't sit and look at a picture book for 15 minutes.
Susan Lambert: 30:16
<laugh> Neither can I, actually.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 30:17
You know what I mean? And they're writing and they haven't even learned how to write yet, you know? So they're in these stations and they're engaging in this learning that they aren't equipped yet to engage in. And it really is not a good use of their time or the teacher's time. So you flip that and you take that 60 minutes and rather than kids getting 15 minutes of instruction a day, they get 60 minutes of really strong, really solid teacher-directed instruction where they're engaging in a variety of opportunities, right? There might be whole-group opportunities where, you know, we're doing choral response. So, phonemic awareness: Why do four small groups for phonemic awareness? Engage all kids in that activity! Right? Let all kids hear and see and participate! And one of the things I've been trying to help our teachers think through is, it doesn't mean that you might not find opportunities for small-group in your day, or within that universal tier. This is where collecting daily data and really getting to know your kids well is important. So if we have a strong program where we're working on phonemic awareness, we're explicitly introducing the new sound that kids are gonna learn today to students, we're explicitly teaching them how they're gonna spell that sound and that letter formation...I can, when I begin to get, you know, fluid and good with those materials and that kind of cycle, that routine of instruction, begin to think through and identify: I know these students really struggle with letter formation, right? And I know these students are gonna just take off; they could do this; hey just need a little bit of modeling. They can take off, they can do this on their own. And I can design that time of day or that part of the lesson to most effectively meet the needs of all students. So it doesn't mean we can't still differentiate. It doesn't mean that we can't still—we still wanna know our kids. We still wanna make the best decisions that we can make. It just means we have to think differently, right? We have to apply what we know in different ways.
Susan Lambert: 32:52
So don't do small group instruction for the sake of small groups.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 32:56
Absolutely. Yes! Think of it as a strategy rather than a time of the day.
Susan Lambert: 33:04
Oh, I love that.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 33:06
It's a strategy I'm gonna use because I know my students and I know that for this particular thing, they're gonna need it. Or I'm gonna need to pull a small group for this thing. But yeah, it's not a time of the day; it's a strategy that we can use.
Susan Lambert: 33:25
Why is the Science of Reading important to you?
Student 1: 33:28
It's important to me 'cause I get to learn new reading things and, like, new words that I haven't learned before. When I go on Amplify, they like tell me a lot of things about reading and like what I get to do.
Student 2: 33:46
Well, to me, it's important 'cause when I wanna grow up, I wanna be an author and write stories that'll make the whole world happy. And also to other people, there are millions of jobs out there that are really important that you need to know reading and spelling for. Like, for a fact, people are gonna work in an office or as a doctor or as a scientist, you have to know how to take notes and understand the people you're talking to. And also if you know how to read and write, it's also better that you'll get a better education in life too. This is why I think reading is important.
Student 3: 34:15
Because it can help you learn and you can learn new words as you go on reading and reading. And even though you don't know some words, there are a lot of context tools which can help you to memorize or learn new words. So the Science of Reading is important because I've improved by being a better...like, memorizing, or like, making up, if it's a book without pictures, like, I can come up with what's happening in the story and find out words that I don't know, using context clues.
Susan Lambert: 35:02
Mm-hmm. So you can visualize what's happening?
Student 3: 35:04
Susan Lambert: 35:04
And then figure out those missing words that you're not sure what they mean?
Student 3: 35:08
Susan Lambert: 35:09
Susan Lambert: 35:11
And then, in the MTSS model, we monitor students. So, middle of the year, we're gonna give another universal screener, and if we see they're not making progress, then we look back to our core instruction or we look back and say, OK, what do I need to modify? Has that helped? And then I'm gonna ask you another question, but has that helped your teachers in the district actually make shifts in the instructional progress to know that students are actually making progress?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 35:45
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I will tell you...I collect survey information from them on a regular basis. I really value their feedback. I wanna know how things are going for them. I wanna make sure that they feel supported. And I surveyed our teachers after we started using DIBELS because I wanted to get some feedback from them on just, it was a big shift, everything was a shift. The frequency of progress monitoring that they were gonna have to do, honestly, we had more students who demonstrated risk by moving to DIBELS than we did when we were using a different assessment tool, and so they had more students that they had to collect data on. And so they were very nervous about that. They were nervous about their ability to manage that. And by and large, the feedback was like, "I was nervous about this, but once I started collecting the data and I had an assessment tool that was sensitive to the structure that I was providing and I could see the growth that kids were making or not, I started to get addicted to the data and I wanted the data." Which is what we want, our teachers to want the data, right? We want our teachers to value the data and to want to look at the data. So it was kind of like a little fearful, right? Change is always hard for everyone. But once they got rolling with the process—and again, we continue to grow and evolve and improve in practice year after year after year. From my perspective as a district leader and also someone who's very ambitious and wants us to just, be operating at a really high level all of the time it's so important to help work people through that change process and recognize that they can only take on so much at a time. And you really have to be strategic about the moves that you make and the things that you introduce and when you introduce them and how you introduce them. And so our data practices have evolved greatly over time. Actually just this year I rolled out a data analysis tool for our grade-level PLCs to be able to use where they can look at all types of data. Within DIBELS they can pull data from multiple reports into one place. And that by far has been their favorite way to look at data so far, because they they don't just look at, did kids meet benchmark or not? We're pulling the percentage of kids who are meeting benchmark in all of the individual subject areas. We are pulling that data by teacher. So if one teacher is particularly effective at making improvements in one thing it facilitates a conversation around, "What are you doing with that?" And "I wanna learn from you!" You know what I mean? "How did you do that? How did you get those results?"
Susan Lambert: 39:24
So I'm gonna interrupt for just for a second: Let's say I'm a second-grade teacher and I have three other second-grade colleagues with me as teachers. Those second-grade group of teachers can see all the data on one report.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 39:38
Yes. Yep. They can see all of their data lives together. And they're really thinking about their grade level as like, second grade. Like we're all responsible for these second graders. They're not just my second graders, like, "this is my second-grade group and your second-grade group and your second-grade group," but "how can we collectively problem-solve around this group of kiddos that we're all supporting?"
Susan Lambert: 40:01
That makes sense. Because it's scary to see your own data as a classroom teacher, because it's a reflection of who you are. That can be fearful. But then to aggregate all that together is an entire—I could see where that could be a change-management process to say, "No, we're all in this together. Let's do this problem-solving together."
Dr. Brittney Bills: 40:20
Yeah. The other piece that has been particularly effective for our teachers is they not only look at that, but they also look at the growth that their students made. So I created a quadrant where they map out all of their students in in this birth quadrant. And then they problem-solve around any of the students who didn't make expected rates of growth. So it could be a student who was above benchmark in the fall and didn't make expected rates of growth is gonna fall into a category where it's gonna flag that student for problem-solving. And again, we're not just focusing on color bands, right? We're thinking about "how is our system supporting, again, all of our students?" and "Is our system effectively supporting all of our students or not?"
Susan Lambert: 41:18
That's a good point. Just because, just because a student starts at the beginning of the year with no risk indications, if they aren't making progress and they fall into a risk category that says something too about what's happening in the core instruction.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 41:33
Absolutely. Yeah. Yep. And those are, those are all things that we as a district are thinking about and we're collecting data around. You know, we look at one of our major criteria for determining the effectiveness of our universal instruction is if we have 95% or more of our students who started the year at or above grade-level benchmark are remaining at or above grade-level benchmark. The idea there is that those students are likely receiving universal instruction alone, right? They're not getting more intensive, targeted interventions. And they might be getting enrichment and things like that but we're not intervening at a high degree with those students. And so that is a really good indication of the health of our system. And it's a really important factor or an important piece to have, because another thing that happens in my experience, I will say, with teachers working within these models is we provide effective intervention for students and they reach benchmark and then we don't wanna let them go. We wanna hold on to them, because we're fearful, we're scared, because we have it in our minds that the intervention is the thing that made the difference. And if we don't do that intervention anymore, they're gonna slip back. So having that data that says, "Hey, our data indicates that once students are at grade-level benchmark, we can, we are effective, at keeping them there," that data helps support that transitional decision around moving kids to core and letting them go and letting them fly. It also facilitates a good conversation around if our data isn't there, then we do act as consistent with that MTSS model. We need to go to our universal tier and we need to be answering questions about that fidelity of implementation. Are we implementing as we're supposed to be implementing? You know, if we are, is that intensive enough for our particular population of students or do we need to problem-solve around these different areas and think differently about what we're doing?
Susan Lambert: 43:58
So MTSS is really a systems approach, right? It's putting certain things in place in terms of the system. But what I'm hearing you saying, and this is really an "aha" for me too, is that that system needs to respond to students based on their need, because every year we get a new group of students in, or our kindergartners move up into first grade, and they may or may not have the same issues. And our core instruction needs to respond to that. Am I getting that right?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 44:30
Yes, you're absolutely getting that right. And I think that's where, you know, there can somewhat be a misconception around things like high-quality instructional materials and, um, you know, all of, all of these things that are promoted. High-quality instructional materials are necessary but they're not sufficient. Necessary but not sufficient, right? And we have a responsibility to engage in that continuous improvement process all of the time, year after year after year. So that our system is the most effective for all of our students.
Susan Lambert: 45:10
Hmm. I love that because people think that when you buy a program, if it's a good program, teachers should just be able to execute that program all across different classrooms and across different schools across the district. And you and I both know that that's not true, that the high-quality instructional materials act a s the base, and the teacher needs to understand both the science of reading instruction and the students, to be able to make modifications to that.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 45:41
Yes, yes, absolutely.
Educator 5: 45:45
In my early years of teaching, if I had a fifth grader who couldn't read, I always thought it was that they just needed more practice with reading. I would mention to their parents or to them that they just needed to read more and read out loud and listen to reading and get all that practice in. After learning about the Science of Reading, I'm now able to better diagnose and delineate between decoding issues and fluency issues, be able to help those students get back on track with their reading.
Susan Lambert: 46:22
So MTSS is a thing that's not a one-and-done.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 46:27
No, absolutely not. I would say that—well, and I actually can't even say that. You know, as we've built this system out and we work with the tools that we're putting out to our schools and to our teachers, we are constantly in the process of continuous improvement. And problem-solving and testing things. So that tool, that data tool that I told you about, I pushed that out to our teachers this winter to look at their middle-of-year data and to look at growth and all of that, and had really wonderful feedback from our teachers around that. And we've already changed it. We've already made edits <laugh> to that tool, just based off of some of the conversations that ignited around it. And the different approaches that teachers took to entering the data within that tool. And so one thing that comes out in particular is in our district, you know, about 17% of our students are learning English as a second language. And one school that used the tool, they plotted the services that our English language learner students were receiving behind their names when they looked at the growth. And it prompted additional problem-solving specifically to those students. And we are going to add an EL profile now to that data tool.
Susan Lambert: 48:09
Dr. Brittany Bills: 48:10
So, you know, when students fall out...you know, time is a precious commodity in our systems, right? And that was really what those conversations started to come around: We don't have enough time in the day to do all of these things. And so it really became around, okay, we gotta understand, we were really need to understand these kids. Everything there is to know about them. So that we can make the most effective decision around their education. And so adding that EL profile just helped illuminate information about that student that made that problem-solving process and that decision-making process far easier. I think that's another piece too. This is just kind of popping into my brain, but, the time that it takes to problem-solve and to engage in those conversations, we want to just make a decision and go and try it and do it. But the time we save, you know, by making the best decision and we're not wasting instructional time on things that kids don't need, you know what I mean? When we could be better using that time around things that students really do need, so that they can be the most successful. So it definitely is not a one and done, for sure.
Susan Lambert: 49:45
<laugh> You're pretty passionate about this. I can tell. <Laugh>
Dr. Brittney Bills: 49:49
I will tell you, building this system for Grinnell and public schools, it sincerely has been the highlight of my career. It has been a just tremendous joy to be involved in this work and to be able to develop this system for our principals, for our coaches, for our teachers. I'm really thrilled and excited to share with everybody. Next year will be kind of like a big launch of everything that we've been working really, really hard on. And I'm just excited at the response and the feedback that we're gonna get around that system that we're building for them.
Susan Lambert: 50:35
That's great. I can't wait to come back and talk to you about that and hear more about it. I do just wanna highlight and mention that this has been a multi-year journey in terms of a change-management process, is that right?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 50:49
Yeah, absolutely. So this is my fourth year here. And I will say, reflecting back, the things that we have done in four years make me extremely proud. Because I know that we've done things that most districts wouldn't have done in that amount of time. But it has very much been a process. I mean, it has taken every single year for us to be able to get where we are. And we are deeply committed to the continuous improvement process. I work year after year after year. I'm constantly using our data to inform professional development, to inform the strategies that we're gonna put into place, and all of the decisions that I make as a district leader, you know. I'm really reflecting on that data and using it continuously to help drive all of the decisions that we make.
Susan Lambert: 51:54
How exciting! Well, whew, I have so many more questions to ask, but we'll hold those for another time because I'm sure you're going to be back talking to us again. I would love if you had any final thoughts or any advice for our listeners as they're either maybe making a shift to Science of Reading or making a shift to MTSS. Any thoughts you have in closing?
Dr. Brittney Bills: 52:18
Yeah. So I don't remember where I saw this, so I feel bad 'cause I'm not going to be able to give credit where credit is due here. But in regard to MTSS, someone very wise said, "MTSS is not another thing. It is the thing." And we have really been working to frame up MTSS—when you think about change-management theory and change theory, it's really like a first-order kind of change, right? Most districts are familiar with RTI. There's enough kind of crossover that it doesn't feel really new. The biggest piece is that universal piece. And I will tell you that it is really, really difficult because educators have been operating from an intervention mindset for so very long, it is really hard to go to the universal tier first and to problem-solve around that universal tier first. And if you're someone who's really leading that work, you just have to continue to champion that message and you have to continue to—when people wanna go to tier two and tier three and bring up strategies or ideas around tier two and tier three—take them back to tier one and drive that conversation back to tier one. And I would just say if you're an educator, and you are constantly going there when you see your data or when you're kind of problem-solving, trying to set yourself up so you can correct: I'm going to tier two; what can I do for all students within that universal tier first? You know what I mean? To have improvement. And the other thing I think I would say is MTSS is not a thing that lives outside of the Science of Reading. They're two things that complement each other very, very well. MTSS is a really nice framework with which I feel the Science of Reading lives in really, really beautifully. And so I would just say not to think about things in isolation. They really complement each other exceptionally well.
Susan Lambert: 54:59
Yeah. That's great advice. Well, thanks, Brittney, for joining us today. Thanks for the work that you're doing. And I am sure we will hear from you again soon.
Dr. Brittney Bills: 55:09
I look forward to it.
Susan Lambert: 55:13
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