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Making SMART Decisions With Your MTSS Data

Dr. Kelly A. Powell-Smith
Mount St. Joseph University
Updated on March 19, 2024
  • MTSS

“Those who fall in love with practice without science are like a sailor who enters a ship without a helm or a compass, and who never can be certain whither he is going.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) is a term that has become common in schools today across the United States as well as in several other countries (e.g., Canada, Australia). Though terminology may vary, central ideas include addressing academic and behavioral needs of all students through a tiered system of supports designed to prevent student difficulties and reduce achievement gaps. As such, the model incorporates primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. Despite how commonplace the idea of MTSS is, many schools struggle to maximize the effectiveness of MTSS practices. 

How can we maximize the utility and effectiveness of our MTSS practices? I believe that to do so we must be SMART. What do I mean by SMART? You have likely heard of SMART goals or those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Achievable), Relevant, and Time-Bound. These are all good characteristics for goals to have, but what I mean by SMART with respect to MTSS is broader than setting goals. I am speaking directly about the functioning of your MTSS. With respect to MTSS, being SMART means making data-driven decisions that are Systematic, Measurable, Agile, Reflective, and focused on Teaching. Let’s take a quick look at each of these terms.

To be Systematic means to be methodical and characterized by order and planning. This feature of being SMART suggests we need a framework to guide our MTSS decision-making. Using a framework will mean the data collected are tied to the decision to be made and to the assessment question(s) to be answered. A decision-making framework, such as the collaborative problem-solving model, serves as a guide to help keep teams focused on the decision to be made at any point in the process. When we lose focus on the key decision to be made, decision-making can get bogged down. We need to pause and ask, “What decision am I trying to make?” We need to know the question we are trying to answer and the decision(s) to be made at each point in time and collect the best data to answer them. 

When something is Measurable, it can be quantified. Educators need to ensure the system gathers the right data in the right amount to quantify the level of concern for the student or students. The process of quantifying the issue to be resolved needs to be focused and efficient. Being overwhelmed by too much data or collecting the wrong data will result in poor decision-making. With respect to assessment data, more is not necessarily always better. The data collected should accurately measure and identify the problem as well as its magnitude. We also need measures to help educators analyze problems in such a way that attention is focused on factors we can impact (i.e., alterable variables) rather than those we cannot.

Agile speaks to the frequent re-assessment and adaptation of plans. We set goals and select interventions based on the data collected and the evidence base. However, even the best intervention with solid research to support its effectiveness is not guaranteed to work for any individual student. Educators must be prepared to test selected interventions to see if they are having the desired impact and be prepared to pivot when they are not effective, or implementation issues are encountered. Here, we need to leverage progress-monitoring data for ongoing decision-making. Whether support needs to be faded, intensity increased, or we need to address issues regarding fidelity of implementation are all important considerations. 

Being Reflective means to think deeply and thoughtfully. Being reflective is required at all steps of the process. Consider whether the right problem has been identified and think about the impact of our procedures to address problems more broadly. MTSS efforts are a place where we have the opportunity to advance equity. Important questions to consider include:

  • Who is the concern important to and why?
  • Have we involved the right people in the problem-solving process?
  • Are we being equitable in our practices?
  • Do our procedures and outcomes advance equity for students?
  • We need to pause every so often and ask, “Did we get to where we wanted to be? Why or why not?”

And then, of course, we have Teaching. MTSS should have a central focus on teaching—or the notion of helping students learn the critical academic, behavioral, and social-emotional skills necessary to function well in society. For MTSS to fulfill its potential, the system needs to be focused on the key goal of all students getting what they need to be successful. Without a focus on high-quality effective teaching practices, this goal is not possible.

Attention to these qualities in MTSS practice should result in a greater focus on the use of screening and progress-monitoring data for making critical formative and summative educational decisions that result in improved outcomes. Orienting our practice toward these SMART qualities also will help educators focus problem-solving on alterable variables, set data-based goals, select interventions based upon the best evidence available, and treat those interventions as hypotheses to be tested through the use of progress-monitoring data as a feedback loop.

Later this week, I will be presenting an EdWeb webinar on this topic during which I will elaborate on the application of these ideas in school practice, as well as provide examples and recommend resources. Please join me for “Using MTSS Data to Make SMART Decisions.” I hope to see you there!


Watch the webinar