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FAQ: How to Implement Successful Universal Instruction

Dr. Sarah Brown is the Senior Director of Learning & Development at FastBridge and the co-author of Effective Universal Instruction: An Action-Oriented Approach to Improving Tier 1 . In anticipation of her book release, Dr. Brown compiled a list of frequently asked questions she hears when working with K12 educators.    

When schools are working to improve the success of their core instruction, some common questions often arise.  This week, I want to take some time to address some of these more common questions. We also invite you to submit more questions about your Tier 1 (core) improvement efforts!

Question: We’ve been working on our Tier 1 instruction for what feels like decades!  When will we be done?

The good and bad news is that we will never be finished improving our Tier 1 instruction! It’s good news because, unlike so many things in education, you can anticipate this never changing. It’s bad because we often get tired of not seeing the results we want.

It’s possible to see those results you’re hoping for. It’s about keeping our eyes on the prize and sticking with evidence-based practices for long enough for them to have an effect. In some cases, we might be used to trying something for a couple weeks, then moving on to another method. When schools successfully improve instruction for all students, they commit to universal tier instruction being the priority for school improvement for multiple years.

Question: We have a high population of needy students. They come to school without skills that students in the district next door have when they enter school. Won’t our students always be behind?

This is an all-too-common predicament.  There are two answers related to this, both of which I acknowledge are easy to say, but hard to implement.

First, if we truly believe that all students can achieve at high levels, that includes students who enter school with a variety of readiness levels. We know that students enter with the same potential. So, we have to teach like we truly believe all students can learn.

Second, your instruction will need to be more explicit and more intensive than that of the school next door in order to close the achievement gap. Luckily, when we start early (when learning gaps are smaller) it’s easier to help students who are at-risk meet standards. Students in your school, though, may need more practice, feedback, and modeling than students in the district next door for you to see the same great results.

Question: What does Tier 1 mean for students with disabilities?

Special education services are intended to help all student progress toward grade-level learning goals. And, unless students are taking an Alternate Assessment (1% of students), they are expected to be taught toward grade level standards. They may need accommodations and modifications to access Tier 1 instruction, but Tier 1 instruction should never be replaced by only Tier 3 instruction. When that happens, we tend to see student gaps increase. Many times, in these cases, students with disabilities are actually receiving fewer minutes of instruction in a given content area than students without disabilities. How do we expect student achievement gaps to close when we don’t provide additional instruction?  

In reality, teams should identify the content and activities in the general education setting to ensure students are working toward standards and addressing achievement gaps.  The entire instructional package should be considered, as opposed to just thinking about where a student will have a reading class.

Question: Why do we screen in the fall of kindergarten?

We screen students in the fall of kindergarten to identify how intensive our core needs to be this year to ensure all kindergarten students are successful!

If the majority of our incoming students are at-risk in the fall, we can add intentional opportunities for them to have practice and feedback on critical skills.  There’s no need to wait to provide these opportunities. This early intervention can dramatically change the number of students who later need more intensive intervention by closing the learning gap when it’s barely noticeable.   

Question: Doesn’t it take years to see Tier 1 improvement growth?

Some improvement efforts take longer and others have immediate results. When teams are focused on instructional routines and student skill needs they can address immediately, results can be seen very quickly.  Universal tier improvements are about identifying the right skills and practices to implement to make an immediate difference. Your team may also be making curriculum and alignment decisions that will take longer to implement, but those should likely be done simultaneously with efforts to improve learning this year.

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