Effective Universal Instruction: An Action-Oriented Approach to Improving Tier 1

Effective Universal Instruction: An Action-Oriented Approach to Improving Tier 1


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This accessible volume helps school leadership teams accomplish the crucial yet often overlooked task of improving universal instruction—Tier 1 within a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). Strong universal instruction reduces the numbers of PreK–12 students who may need additional services and supports. Providing clear action steps and encouraging guidance, the expert authors present a roadmap for evaluating the effectiveness of Tier 1, identifying barriers to successful implementation, and making and sustaining instructional improvements. In a large-size format with lay-flat binding for easy photocopying, the book includes 27 reproducible checklists, worksheets, and forms. Purchasers get access to a Web page where they can download and print the reproducible materials.
This book is in The Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools Series, edited by T. Chris Riley-Tillman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462536832
Publisher: Guilford Publications, Inc.
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Series: Guilford Practical Intervention in the Schools Series
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 10.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kimberly Gibbons, PhD, is Associate Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, she was Executive Director of the St. Croix River Education District in Minnesota. During this tenure, she was named Outstanding Administrator of the Year by the Minnesota Administrators of Special Education (MASE); she is also a past president of MASE. Dr. Gibbons provides national consultation and has numerous publications on response to intervention and data-based decision making.
Sarah Brown, PhD, is Senior Director of Learning and Development at FastBridge Learning in Minnesota. Her work focuses on implementing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) at multiple levels of the education system and improving systems to support high achievement for every student. Previously, Dr. Brown has had several administrative roles, including serving as a Bureau Chief at the Iowa Department of Education, where she led statewide implementation of MTSS, and as a Unique Learners’ Manager at the St. Croix River Education District in Minnesota. She also worked at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota.
Bradley C. Niebling, PhD, is Bureau Chief for Learner Strategies and Supports at the Iowa Department of Education, where he leads statewide implementation of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), supports Iowa’s statewide implementation of the Iowa Core State Standards, and works with schools to improve Tier 1 practices within MTSS. Prior to that, Dr. Niebling worked at the university, school, and intermediate service agency levels as a school psychologist, trainer, and researcher. He has published multiple journal articles and book chapters on standards-based practices, curriculum alignment, and response to intervention/MTSS. 

Read an Excerpt



Sweeping changes have occurred in the last 15 years in the area of accountability and educational reform. Educators in the 21st century have been charged with ensuring high levels of learning for all students (DuFour, 2004), and progress toward this goal is now measured and publicly reported in the form of statewide accountability tests. Countless debates have occurred and numerous "reform initiatives" have been studied to try to discover the best way to improve our public education system. In an attempt to respond to the charge of improving outcomes for all learners, our nation's schools have been subjected to a constant stream of new programs, initiatives, and frameworks to solve the problem, with little success. Results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; National Center for Education Statistics, 2017) indicate a continued need to accelerate student growth in both reading and math. In the area of reading, 35% of fourth graders and 35% of eighth graders were "proficient" or "advanced" in reading. Results from the 2017 NAEP in the area of math indicated that 40% of fourth graders and 33% of eighth graders were "proficient" or "advanced" in math. Additionally, achievement gaps continue to persist between racial and ethnic groups.

According to Kastberg, Chan, and Murray (2016), results from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) indicate that the average scores of U.S. 15-yearolds in reading literacy were lower than the averages in 14 educational systems, higher than in 43, and not measurably different than in 12 educational systems and the OECD average. In math literacy, the U.S. average was lower than more than half of the other education systems (36 of 69) as well as the OECD average, higher than 28 education systems, and not measurably different than 5.

Finally, significant gaps in academic performance exist between the general school population and subgroups of students, such as those with disabilities, members of minority groups, and children living in poverty.

The response-to-intervention (RTI) or multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS) framework has quickly emerged as a methodology for improving outcomes for all students through high-quality instruction tailored to student needs within a data-based decision-making model. In fact, a recent national survey of K–12 administrators indicated that 61% of respondents are either in full implementation or in the process of districtwide implementation of an RTI/MTSS framework, up from 24% in 2007 (Spectrum K–12 School Solutions, 2010). Although it is promising that so many school districts around the country are beginning to implement the RTI/MTSS framework, we have observed that many districts implementing this framework immediately try to intervene and provide supplemental services and supports to all students who are not meeting grade-level expectations (e.g., Tier 2 and Tier 3 services). While we agree it is a natural tendency to focus on helping students who are at risk, we believe that a critical first step is to evaluate the effectiveness of the universal tier (e.g., Tier 1, core instruction). Most school districts in this country do not have the resources to intervene their way out of ineffective universal instruction. The universal tier is the first intervention for all students and is our largest opportunity to have an impact on student achievement. We hope that this book will bring the attention back to quality universal instruction to prevent large numbers of students from falling off track and needing additional services and supports.


Universal instruction is what "all" students receive in the form of academic and social–emotional instruction and supports. Universal instruction focuses on the implementation of the district's core curriculum and is aligned with state academic content standards. It is differentiated to ensure that this instruction meets the needs of students. The amount of time dedicated to content-area learning and the focus of instruction are based on the needs of the students in a particular school. Some schools require more time than others in particular core curriculum areas, based on student demographics (readiness, language, economic factors) and student performance levels, to ensure that all students reach and/or exceed state proficiency levels. Schools spend significant amounts of time and money and enlist a significant number of personnel to make sure that universal instruction is well designed and based on empirical research documenting what works.

Teaching staff must receive sufficient and ongoing professional learning to deliver the universal instructional program in the way it was designed. The expectation is that if the universal tier is implemented with a high degree of integrity by highly trained teachers, then most of the students receiving this instruction will show outcomes upon assessment that indicate a level of proficiency that meets minimal benchmarks for performance in the skill area. The universal tier is more than a single textbook. It is all the materials and instruction used to provide the main classroom instruction in a particular content area — or, simply put, whatever it takes to get most students meeting grade-level standards!


To understand what the universal tier is and its role in MTSS, it is important to dig into the history of factors that influence our current definition of universal tier. In addition, to continue improving the universal tier over time, it is also important to understand the factors that are likely to influence MTSS in the future. Such factors are likely to include key findings from research, influential policies, and our collective experiences as we work to meet the needs of all students by providing a common set of learning experiences.

Where We Have Been

An extensive review of the history of public education in the United States is beyond the scope of this book. However, developments in the last 30–40 years do provide a helpful perspective on what has preceded the current-day realities of education. In particular, there were several social, political, and educational forces in the 1970s and 1980s that, in many ways, started separately but have served as the precursor for a convergence of efforts into what we know today as the universal tier in MTSS. These efforts included individual student problem solving, standards-based reform, as well as several federal policies.

Individual Student Problem Solving

Individual student problem solving in education evolved from the late 1970s through the early 2000s. In many ways, it evolved because the approach of identifying students who required special education services by disability category, and trying to match treatments based on those categories, was not producing many positive outcomes for students with disabilities (e.g., Reschly & Tilly, 1999). Individual student problem solving, by contrast, was focused on matching treatments to student needs by answering four questions: (1) What is the problem?; (2) Why is the problem happening?; (3) What should be done about it?; and (4) Did the intervention work? (e.g., Bergan, 1977; Bergan & Kratochwill, 1990; Tilly, 2002). This is considered a functional approach to identifying student needs, as opposed to a categorical approach that is grounded in information gathered about students and their needs that occur naturally within their school experience.

Although some of these early efforts focused on special education identification, what emerged was a more collaborative approach to identifying student needs, with groups of educators and parents working in teams (Pluymert, 2014). This work took place before making decisions about students regarding their special education eligibility. Although the individual student problem solving approach was grounded in solid research regarding matching interventions to student needs, it fell short as a viable approach to meeting the needs of all students in schools. Trying to solve student learning and behavioral difficulties one student at a time was inefficient and very resource intensive. Although individual student problem solving remains an important part of school practice today, it is typically considered a part of a larger, more systems-based approach to using data to meet student needs — that is, MTSS.

Standards?Based Reform

Briefly, standards-based reform is a movement that rests on the assumption that setting high academic standards, then developing accountability for schools based on students' attainment of those academic standards, will drive changes in teachers' practice. Standards-based reform also assumes that all students can learn if they are held to a common or universal set of high academic standards (Porter & Smithson, 2001).

In general, this movement developed in response to U.S. students' low performance on standardized tests of achievement, compared to students in other countries. For example, the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, described this low student performance. Based on this finding, one of the primary claims of this report was that educational goals for all students needed to be identified. In addition, the Second International Mathematics Study and Third International Mathematics and Science Study revealed differences in the content, depth, and breadth of instruction and the relationship of this instruction to student achievement (e.g., McKnight et al., 1987) across different countries, including the United States.

Findings from studies such as these gave rise to the phrase mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum. In other words, the instruction that students generally received in the United States covered a lot of different topics, but did not cover many of them well. This factor was cited as a primary contributor to the poor academic performance of students in the United States, when compared to students in other countries. These studies also highlighted the lack of clearly defined standards in the United States, when compared to other developed countries.

Important Policies

The efforts around standards-based reform and individual student problem solving, as well as the growing sentiment on social, political, and educational fronts, all culminated in the reauthorization of two important federal laws. The cornerstone policy for standards-based reform is known as the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Although this act has been reauthorized several times since 1965, the reauthorization that has received perhaps the most public attention was the reauthorization in 2001, known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB placed an unprecedented emphasis on the results of tests used in accountability systems, as well as on the importance that strong alignment exist between academic content standards and large-scale accountability measures. The spirit and intent of NCLB, as well as the growing support of problem solving and RTI as an alternative to the discrepancy approach to determining students' eligibility for special education services, was reinforced in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004. Under IDEA 2004, students with disabilities are required to participate in accountability assessments, and schools and districts are held accountable to ensure that increasing numbers of these students are proficient. In addition, RTI was codified as an alternative to the discrepancy model as a means by which schools could determine whether or not a student was eligible for special education services.

Where We Are Going

Developments in the last 15 years have brought the importance of a strong universal tier within MTSS into stronger focus. These efforts have included a more systems-based preventive approach to problem solving, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the reauthorization of NCLB.

Systems-Based Intervention as a Preventive Approach to Problem Solving

We have learned through the implementation of individual student problem-solving efforts that although the approach can be effective for individual students, most school systems do not have the resources to meet the needs of all students using only this approach — especially when it comes to making universal tier improvements. In recent years, we have shifted the tactic to include individual student problem solving within a whole-system approach to problem solving known as MTSS. This shift arose both from the experience of educators implementing these practices in schools, as well as from public health models of disease prevention that differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of intervention, which increase in cost and intensity depending on the patient's response to treatment (e.g., Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009; Vaughn, Wanzek, & Fletcher, 2007).

Standards-Based Reform: The CCSS

The CCSS movement evolved in response to the inconsistency of state standards across the nation, along with large numbers of students exiting high school unprepared for college and/ or employment. It was not uncommon for students to be rated "proficient" in one state and "below basic" in another state. Questionable student outcomes, as well as concerns about the rigor of content to which students were exposed, prompted the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to draft clear, consistent, and more rigorous standards known as the CCSS. Though optional for states to adopt, the CCSS were nonetheless partially adopted and implemented in 45 states. This widespread implementation may have been influenced largely by the U.S. Department of Education, which required states to adopt "college and career readiness standards" similar to the CCSS in order to be eligible for federal dollars as part of the Race to the Top grants, as well as to obtain a waiver on NCLB requirements.

Like many educational efforts that are implements on such a large scale, the CCSS has drawn its fair share of both support and criticism, often based on incomplete or inaccurate information. For example, some critics of the CCSS have claimed that the Standards are curricula. However, they are not curricula, and despite a great deal of rhetoric, they do not dictate how teachers teach content. Although CCSS implementation has been controversial and "rocky," it has resulted in an increased interest in core, or universal, instruction, and many teachers are enthusiastic about the challenge of implementing the Standards in their classrooms. This interest and enthusiasm are often the result of both increased access to information and ongoing interaction with the Standards while collaborating with others around how to support and implement them. Although we agree that genuine debate about the CCSS, in the interest of ascertaining what is best for students, is critically important, it is a debate full of landmines and should be done with thoughtfulness and caution. For every poll that shows declining support for the CCSS, there is another poll showing support for the CCSS holding steady or even increasing.

The purpose of this book is not to take a side in this debate, but rather to inform and clarify two key areas: (1) the multiple perspectives in that debate, and (2) to put those perspectives in the context of the universal tier in MTSS. At the end of the day, academic content standards have been, and continue to be, a part of the educational system in the United States. As such, it is important that we, as educators, are informed about those standards and know how to use them effectively. With that said, some of the most common criticisms of the CCSS are that (1) they were not validated as research-based before being implemented, (2) teachers are not well-enough prepared to implement them, (3) textbooks and other curriculum materials published prior to the implementation of CCSS are not well aligned with them, (4) they are a federal overreach and an intrusion on student privacy, and (5) they minimize teachers as professionals.


Criticism: The CCSS were not validated by research before they were implemented. The primary perspective of this criticism is that states were quick to adopt the CCSS and require schools to implement them before they had been tested in real-life classrooms, with real-life teachers and students, to see what impact the Standards would have on student learning. Without testing the Standards in smaller pilot projects, it was inappropriate for states to require schools to implement them. There is little debate about whether or not the Standards themselves were tested before adoption or implementation; they were not.


Excerpted from "Effective Universal Instruction"
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Copyright © 2019 The Guilford Press.
Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Learning Targets
3. Universal Tier Assessments
4. Determining the Effectiveness of Universal Instruction
5. Identifying Barriers to Effective Universal Tier Implementation
6. Action Planning to Address Barriers to Universal Tier Instruction
7. Implementing Universal Tier Improvements
8. Evaluating Core Improvement Efforts
9. Continuing the Journey


School psychologists, administrators, curriculum directors and developers, instruction leaders, school building leadership teams, and teachers working with children ages 4–17 (grades PreK–12); researchers and graduate students. May serve as a supplemental text in graduate-level courses.

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