Multi-Tiered System of Supports in Instrumental Music

As part of my school's professional learning this year, we have been looking at integrating a Work Habits tool into our instruction. As part of our district's transition to standards-referenced grading, we have removed behavior from the academic grade. The Work Habits tool is a means of assessing behavior deemed to contribute to academic success. Our staff's learning around the science of behavior, collecting and analyzing behavior data, and responding to behaviors has been fascinating to me. Specifically, we have been looking at how our academic AND behavior standards fit into the MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) framework, also known as RTI (Release to Intervention).

To give a very brief summary of my understanding, all students should receive what our district calls quality core instruction through the instructional framework (gradual release of responsibility). MTSS calls this Tier I or the Universal Tier identified in green above. Ideally, we would have 80-90% of our student population proficient in academic and behavior standards as a result of this quality core instruction. My understanding is that if our assessments are showing that we are not getting 80-90% of our students proficient with our quality core instruction, we need to adjust our instruction. Roughly 5-10% of our student population will need Tier II interventions (yellow) in addition to Tier I instruction and interventions to achieve proficiency in academic or behavior standards. Another roughly 1-5% of students will need individual Tier III interventions (red) layered on top of Tiers I and II.

What do we do right now?

Our current system of vertical teaching was not originally designed with MTSS in mind. We currently have six teachers delivering instrumental music instruction in the form of large group rehearsals and small-group or individual lessons. Our district works on an 8 period A/B schedule that looks something like this:

Adapted from a 2014 presentation on vertical teaching to drake university

In other words, students in 6th Grade are divided up into 3 teams (school-wide). Each team has 2 equal bands. Each band meets every other day. In 7th grade, each team only has 1 band that meets every other day. In 8th grade, students are divided into 2 equal bands that meet every other day. There is one 9th grade band that meets every day; every other day they meet at the same time as one of the 7th grade bands. There are two high school ensembles divided by grade level (10th Grade Symphonic Band and 11-12th Grade Wind Symphony) that meet at the same time every day.

Ideally, students are seen in a small-group or individual lesson by a teacher who is an expert on the student's instrument during their band rehearsal (more information about this in my post on vertical teaching). Because of the number of students and the slight overlap of schedules between buildings, we also pull students from choir rehearsal, study hall, or open periods. This occurs on an eight day cycle (A1, B1, A2, B2, A3, B3, A4, B4). Periods 1 and 2 need the full eight days to see students that need to have a lesson during those particular rehearsals (usually due to student or teacher availability). For Periods 3-8, we are able to see the number of students within six of the eight days and keep A4 and B4 as make-ups to allow for absent students or other interruptions throughout the cycle.

Is it ideal? No! I wish we could see our students for lessons more often. However, that is not going to change without adding more staff or changing how we schedule lessons, and this is where I want to spend the meat of this post:

How could we implement MTSS in our schedule?

Our vertical PLC has spent a great deal of time working to answer the four essential questions of a professional learning community:

  1. What do we want students to learn? (standards)

  2. How will we know if they have learned? (assessment)

  3. What will we do if they don’t learn? (intervention)

  4. What will we do if they already know it? (extension)

I feel like we do an excellent job of answering questions 1 and 2. We have found that we struggle responding to students who struggle to demonstrate proficiency or who are already exceeding the standard. Part of this is due to the limitation of our lesson schedule: we only see students in a lesson once every eight school days, and this serves as our Tier I instruction. There currently isn't time to provide Tier II or III instruction within that schedule.

Some schools use intervention periods to provide time to circle back with students. We are not always able to do this because of how the intervention periods are structured at each building. Prairie Ridge (6-7) has Advisory every day, but we don't usually have access to students during that time. Northview (8-9) and Centennial (10-12) have Flex or Seminar, respectively, each Wednesday. The one day per week means that students could be pulled for interventions/extensions in other classes during that time too.

So what could we do within our own structure to try and better meet students? Here is what I am brainstorming for our 6-7th grade students. They meet for band every other day (either all A days or all B days). I would like to structure their rehearsals like this:

A1 B1 A2 B2 A3 B3 A4 B4
Instrument Class Tier II or III Lessons Tier II or III Lessons Tier II or III Lessons

Instrument Class would allow our lesson teachers to pull all instruments of a given family for instruction. The class periods are 45 minutes, but these instrument-specific lessons wouldn't necessarily have to use the whole time. Because we have identified specific skills we want students on each instrument to be able to do in each grade, and because many of our 6th and 7th grade students are in the same place in their Student Instrumental Course lesson books, we can deliver that quality core instruction to more students in one setting.

Tier II Lessons would occur during a normal band rehearsal like our lessons are currently. By definition, they would be small groups of students from our instrument class that we have identified need more support or extension. If they are structured similarly to our lessons now, they would be roughly 20 minutes in length with 2-4 students. Currently, our students receive one 20 minute small group lesson every eight school days. This comes out to roughly eleven lessons per semester, or 440 minutes of instruction per year. Transitioning to my multi-tiered suggestion would guarantee all students are still receiving at least the 440 minutes of instruction, albeit in a larger group. Students needing more support or an extension would receive additional minutes of instruction on top of this, potentially up to an additional 440 minutes over the course of a year.

Tier III Lessons would also occur during a normal band rehearsal. By definition, these would be individual students identified as needing more support or extension. They would be structured similarly to the Tier II lessons, just on an individual level. This could mean that if a certain student was identified as needing more support or extension, they could potentially receive 60-80 minutes of small group and individual instruction in an eight day cycle.

Our focus in grades 6 and 7 are on skill building: simple and compound meter to the division level; playing in concert Bb, Eb, and F; producing a good tone quality with varying articulations and dynamics, etc. We summatively assess these skills in lessons every 6 week grading period. As it is now, we only see these students at best four lessons in between assessments. It would be better for our students (and us) if we could move through the teaching and learning cycle multiple times before we summatively assess.

Teaching and learning cycle - from presentation on standards-referenced instrumental music program

We have already done some of the leg work of Identify learning targets & success criteria and Plan tasks that elicit evidence of learning (see my post on prioritized standards). With my recommended structure above, we would be moving through the teaching and learning cycle each 8-day lesson cycle: formatively assessing students at least once in that cycle, helping students self-assess, providing feedback, and most importantly, responding to the data with Tier II and Tier III supports or extensions after the fact.

It is something I would like to try, and something we have been discussing somewhat briefly. The discussion has evolved out of seeing a need to respond to students who are exceeding or not yet proficient at the standard, feeling that lessons at the younger level are "on repeat" as we move throughout the day, and learning in our own buildings around MTSS. I am curious if there are other programs out there that have structures in place to circle back with kids as an intervention or an extension. We'd like to learn from you!


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.