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Here's What Makes or Breaks RTI and Other School Support Systems

Multitiered systems of support—including response to intervention and positive behavior interventions and support—have become almost ubiquitous among schools trying to find more personalized ways to support students' academic and behavior needs. But with a lot of moving parts, schools often struggle to make these complex systems effective in the long run.

But how principals and district superintendents approach data use and coordination in the first year of implementation predicts how well schools will be able to sustain their support efforts, according to a study in the journal Education Researcher.

In either behavior or academic contexts, these systems include: universal screening tools that allow teachers to identify which students need help; evidence-based interventions to get those students back on track; multiple "tiers" of intensity to increase support for students who don't improve; and progress monitoring, so that educators have the data on how well a student is responding to the extra help and can make changes if needed.

Researchers from the University of Oregon, Eugene; Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver analyzed implementation and data use among the staffs of 860 schools across 14 states that used or launched schoolwide positive behavior intervention and supports initiatives. 

Two out of three schools were still using the support systems after three years, the researchers found. The overall enrollment or concentration of poor students in the schools did not predict whether or not a school continued to use PBIS, though elementary schools were generally more successful than secondary schools. But the researchers did find two very early indicators that flagged which schools would sustain their initiatives:

  • Team data use and implementation: In the first year, the schools whose PBIS teams most quickly collected, disaggregated, and shared student data with teachers and staff created what the researchers called "continuous regeneration ... wherein school teams adapt their implementation to fit more strongly with changed contexts and school population." This speedy data use proved the strongest marker of whether schools kept using the system three years later.
  • Critical mass: At the district level, the researchers also found that early in implementation, the more schools in a district that used the PBIS systems, the better all of the schools were able to implement and maintain the systems. 

These practices seemed most important as schools worked through the bugs in the first five years of implementing the systems. More-experienced schools were better able to go it alone without a critical mass of other PBIS schools. And notably, once middle and high schools had implemented their systems of support for five years, they were as likely as elementary schools to continue.

The takeaway for district leaders, the researchers concluded, is to support clusters of schools being trained in PBIS systems together, and help them become fluent in analyzing and sharing student data as quickly as possible. 


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