5 Things Katie Novak Can Teach us about the MTSS Framework

“We have to move away from the idea that MTSS is something that a single administrator can do,” says Katie Novak, Ed.D.,”If we want those systems to change, it takes a village.  

Katie Novak is as relatable and kind as she is knowledgeable. She generously shares her expertise in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), universally designed leadership, and inclusive practices. 

But what she seems most passionate about is supporting teachers and students. This passion clearly comes across the computer screen from where she sits in Groton, MA, with one leg perched high in her desk chair for our interview. 

Novak is founder and executive director of Novak Educational Consulting and author of twelve books. Novak’s newest book is In Support of Students: A Leader’s Guide to Equitable MTSS. It was co-authored with Dr. Kristen Rodriguez, owner of Commonwealth Consulting Agency, LLC., and based on the MTSS work Rodriguez and Novak have done with school districts around the world. 

We recently met with Novak to ask her how schools and districts can improve their MTSS implementation.

In this blog post, we’ll share what she said, including:

  • Why a needs assessment is an important part of an MTSS plan
  • What to consider when building a strategic vision
  • How RTI and MTSS are different
  1. Focus on the overall purpose of MTSS.
    People sometimes get a little bit lost in the technical aspects of MTSS without remembering why this work is so important,” Katie says. 

    “Our wildly important goal is that we want all students to learn at high levels.”

    “We have to grapple with the fact that what we want for kids is not accessible to many, given our current systems.”
  2. Know that student progress takes time.  
    The evidence-based practices of MTSS work, but it takes time to see the results. 

    This is in part because effective MTSS requires changing systems that have been in place for a long time. That kind of change is slow. Another part of this is that we sometimes expect students to make large amounts of progress in too little time. 

    Novak says that schools or districts sometimes move on from MTSS too quickly because high expectations aren’t met soon enough.

    “We have to really think about what a year of growth looks like,” Novak says, “We need to be realistic about what growth is possible, and then celebrate that growth without abandoning really great evidence-based strategies.”

    How can schools and districts know what goals and plans make sense for them? Keep reading to find out what Novak suggests.
  3. A needs assessment shows districts where to start with MTSS.
    “I think people really have to take a look at their system, particularly the outcomes and the impact on students, and ask “who is not being served?” Novak says.

    “That’s much bigger than just academic data. We have to talk to kids, families, and teachers in the district so we can recognize their experiences.

    We have to recognize what we’re doing really well, and also be really transparent about what we’re not doing yet. 

    “Then we need to get representative stakeholders together to really think about the needs of the district and how that consistently goes back to measuring the impact on students.”
  4. A strategic vision helps guide MTSS implementation.
    “In working with a lot of school districts, I recognize that people are really focused on creating annual action plans,” Novak says, “But if you read three or four of them in a row, many times they don't even seem like they're connected. Those are often not explicitly aligned to what is like a larger district strategy.

    “I think it’s really important before going down the road of action planning that we create a strategic instructional vision.

    “What is the experience that we want for our kids? What is our portrait of a learner? What do families want for kids?

    “Where do we line up in comparison to that vision? Then ultimately, how do we build a system that gets us closer to that for all students?”
  5. MTSS is not RTI. Here’s why that matters.
    “People often think of MTSS as being the same thing as Response to Intervention (RTI), a three tiered model,” Novak says.

    “That’s maybe the heart of what we want a multi-tiered system to be. But a multi-tiered system necessitates that all kids are included in tier one with their peers. Many students are not.

    “We’re still tracking, we’re still providing remedial curriculum, we still have a lot of separate segregated settings for students who have disabilities.

    So what would we have to change so all students really were included and making a year of growth in tier one?

    “There are a lot of outside drivers to consider. Some of them are very technical, like high quality curriculum and instructional materials. Or a schedule that allows for supplemental support. Or the support of families in the community.

    “MTSS is very similar to what we saw in the RTI models, which is all kids included, we used data and determined that some kids need more intensive supplemental support. But MTSS asks: how do we make that model work? And it’s everything around it, those drivers, that make it work.”
  6. If you’re an educator working at a classroom level, try this.
    A robust MTSS framework includes lots of support for educators. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), high quality instructional materials and curriculum, planning, instructional coaching, tools and strategies for including all students at tier one, and more. 

    But we asked Novak if she had any advice for educators who aren’t involved with MTSS implementation and want to include more students at tier one. 

    She said, “I think that in some ways, teachers are feeling like maybe they don't have the skill set to meet the needs of kids who are just incredibly diverse. 

    “I think that the UDL lens of just saying, ‘What is the barrier here that's preventing this child from accessing grade level work, and can I work to eliminate that?’ is really powerful. 

    “Are you going to see incredible success overnight? No, but are you going to experience incredible success over time? Yes. 

    “If you have a kid who is not speaking or reading English yet, or isn’t decoding at that grade level, or has visual processing challenges, and I’m handing out novels, sometimes our instinct is to give that kid an easier book.

    “But all kids deserve access to grade level text. If the barrier is the inaccessible text, how do we make the text accessible?” 

    Some options are having the class read aloud, or providing digital copies that can be translated, or read with text-to-speech. And Novak says that using these practices routinely means that teachers don’t have to solve a similar barrier next time. 

    Novak says, “MTSS is about creating a better system for everyone, including teachers. That's where my heart lives, with teachers. Because without great teachers, we get no learning from kids.”