Skip to main content
California Department of Education Logo

II. Evidence-Based School & Classroom Practices

Creating an effective system for students to realize their full potential.





  1. Early Learning
  2. Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices (current page)
  3. Educator Preparation and Professional Learning
  4. Assessment
  5. Accountability
  6. Family and Student Engagement
  7. Special Education Financing




Evidence-Based School and Classroom Practices

An effective system of education starts with the ultimate goal in mind: that all students will realize their full potential and become productive citizens who contribute to their own well-being and that of their communities. Within this system, every education-related decision—about hiring, training, curriculum, instruction, purchasing, assessment, and budgeting—is made in the interest of achieving this goal. This system is designed with democracy and coherence as its first principles.


Within this system, every student receives research-proven instruction that is delivered in environments and through curricula, instructional methods, materials, and assessments that are evidence-based and universally accessible to nearly everyone—with disabilities and without—with little or no need for additional accommodations.27 Because in this design only a very few students need special accommodations, schools benefit from significant savings in effort, remediation requirements, and money.

Within this system, teachers are well versed in proactive, inclusive instructional planning as well as in proven instructional and intervention strategies and techniques, including assistive technology, so that no student suffers because of ineffective instruction. Data about each student, classroom, and school in this system is closely tracked. Teachers know how to use that data to shape their teaching and to make decisions about supports and strategies. When the data show that students are struggling, the students receive the help they need as soon as they need it. The entire system is aligned so that the teacher is able to respond immediately to a learning need with appropriate interventions.

Within this system, general education and special education teachers and support staff work together toward the same goal. School districts and local educational agencies (LEAs) adjust schedules and carve out time for these teachers to collaborate so that general education classrooms are designed to support the vast majority of students. When students need more help than the general education teacher can provide, the special education teacher steps forward with the expertise to design and deliver targeted intervention strategies, accommodations, and supports.

Within this system, behavior is treated as a topic for study. Every student learns clear, positive rules for how to behave appropriately. When a student forgets the rules, every adult in the system clearly, positively, and consistently reinforces them through a graduated system of supports and consequences that are directly reflective of the degree of behavioral challenge.

Families are central to this system. Teachers and administrators welcome and actively seek the insights of parents and other family members about how their children learn. Families receive frequent reports on how their children are progressing and how their needs are being addressed. Parents and other family members work with educators to construct useful strategies for home and school so that each place reinforces the other.

This system is a learning system: educators are flexible and adept at continually modifying their approach. If an intervention—such as counseling, tutoring, or a curriculum modification—is not effective, a team of trained educators determines a new set of tactics. Even when they find that a strategy is effective, they know that students are constantly changing and growing, and what works today may not work tomorrow or may simply no longer be needed.

The good news is that a few school districts and charter schools in California (as well as in other states and internationally) already operate this way. The leaders in these places have recognized that they needed a new approach—a coherent approach—in order to significantly improve the effectiveness of general and special education and to best serve most students, and that they needed to implement this approach across the entire enterprise. As a result of the system they have developed, these organizations have fewer students identified as needing special education services, in great part because the students receive targeted help early in their struggle. In these organizations, the students who do have disabilities are more likely to become proficient in reading and mathematics; and they are more likely to graduate from high school.28

The Challenge

Separate Systems

A structural, institutional, philosophical, and habitual divide currently exists in California between general and special education, even though special education has always been defined as a part of general education. This divide obstructs the state’s ability to create the effective, coordinated, coherent system of education described above.

Task Force members are in agreement that special education cannot be “fixed” on its own. Special education can only succeed when it is part of a strong general education system, so that for all students there is one educational program, one curriculum, one set of standards and expectations, and one system of accountability.

Universal design for learning (UDL) establishes both the philosophical and practical foundation for this unified approach that serves all students. UDL is a set of principles—a blueprint—for curriculum and instruction that guide and create instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that support learning and access for everyone. UDL creates a context for success for every student within a core, general education curriculum and classroom.

A multitiered system of supports (MTSS) offers the practical structure for realizing this vision. MTSS is a whole-school, data-driven, prevention-based framework for improving learning outcomes for every student through a layered continuum (typically three tiers) of evidence-based practices that increases in intensity, focus, and target to a degree that is commensurate with the needs of the student. Other states, most notably Florida and Kansas, have developed MTSS statewide and have been successful in improving the school results for all students while decreasing special education enrollments and expenditures.

Response to Intervention (RtI) is also a tiered or graduated approach to the early identification and support of students with learning and behavior needs. Operating at the student level, RtI is a part of MTSS and echoes the tenets of MTSS in structure. The RtI process begins with high-quality instruction and screens all children in the general education classroom, then provides supports that specifically target the needs of those students who continue to struggle at the “universal” or “first” level of instruction.

Neither MTSS nor RtI are prescriptive. They are certainly not programs. They both are research-proved data-driven approaches to ensuring the most efficient and effective use of all school resources and teacher effort; more importantly, they ensure that no children are “left behind” because their struggles went unnoticed and their needs unmet.

But both MTSS and RtI belong fundamentally in general education, and California’s two disparate “educations” have yet to come together to realize this unified system, despite its proven benefits for students, its proven track record of teacher satisfaction and instructional success as well as parental satisfaction because their children are succeeding in school, and its proven cost savings to schools, districts, and states.

There have been efforts. In California, the CDE convened a work group and developed guidelines on the state’s variation of RtI: “Response to Instruction and Intervention,” or RtI2. The State Improvement Grant (SIG) was used in an effort to provide training and technical assistance to schools that were working to implement an RtI model. In IDEA there is another federally recommended approach to identifying learning disabilities: a process that involves charting “patterns of strength and weakness” (PSW). The State Board of Education amended its Title 5 regulations in 2013 to include both RtI and PSW as options for assessing whether or not students had a specific learning disability. However, MTSS and RtI belong, by definition, in general education and can only succeed when general and special education engage in close and ongoing collaboration toward the same end. Because California has tended to operate separate systems, the SIG and State Board of Education (SBE) undertakings were led by special education staff, with general education missing from the discussion.

Early Intervention

Early intervention does not just mean “early childhood.” As it represents the supports provided to a child of any age at the first sign of a problem—either learning or behavioral—prompt early intervention is important at every level of schooling to address everything from preliteracy deficits in kindergarten to calculus disconnects in high school. If teachers don’t provide support as soon as a problem emerges, struggling students typically fall further and further behind; and the larger the learning gap becomes, the more unlikely students are to realize school success. The seminal and widely cited research of Snow, Burns, and Griffin29, 30 posits that any child who is not reading proficiently by third grade is not likely to graduate from high school. Yet too many schools in the state lack the coordinated and integrated structures (MTSS) for gathering and using student performance data to inform instruction and intervention (RtI)—essentially the very things that students need if they are to overcome their challenges—whether they’re learning or behavioral—and go on to learn, graduate, and fully enter adult life.

Built-in checks—in every curriculum, in every system of assessments, and every classroom practice—that ensure children are learning and keeping up with the requisite skills and knowledge for advancing, whether it be to the next activity, chapter, or grade—are essential to school success and are central features of an integrated educational system where every instructional skill and resource is placed at the service of learning.


Diversity is a good thing. It is woven deeply into the fabric of what defined this country from its inception, and it provides communities with a range of talents and perspectives. The presence of diversity in our schools helps children learn to value individuality while promoting respect for others. Yet diversity also represents challenges for schools, especially in a bifurcated system.

Data from 2012–2013 show California with a student population of more than 6 million students, 11.16 percent of whom are identified as students with disabilities. That 11.16 percent represents nearly 700,000 students, 27.8 percent of whom are also English language learners. As a result, California uniquely faces the combined challenge of differentiating instruction, implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), goal writing, and supporting the language development of a significant number of special education students. And research on the CCSS and special education points to significant inequities in the instruction and materials for students with disabilities who are also students of color, and/or English Language Learners, along with commensurate inequities in the professional learning supports for the teachers who are charged with educating these students.

Multiple needs in an individual student contribute to the challenges schools face when their systems are not integrated and coherent. Children with a disability who are also English language learners (ELLs) become caught between systems because there is not enough support for both intensive language and special education services. Ultimately, this dilemma forces an IEP team to make a "Sophie’s choice": in which area will a student receive support, and in which area not? Either option promises poor outcomes for the student.

Too often in schools, English Language Development (ELD) and special education services are not aligned. Special educators address issues of disability; general education staff address issues of language, either within a general education setting or through pull-out services. The teachers providing ELD instruction to the child too often are not involved in the IEP conversation. As the child continues to need both language supports and services under IDEA, the IEP team is forced to determine if the language acquisition struggles are related to the disability. This decision is often made without examining the child’s background, experience of learning, and language acquisition.

The Common Core State Standards add to this already complicated picture. Without the early alignment of systems for students who are learning English and who have a disability, IEP teams will find it increasingly difficult to design a program that supports the best interest of the child. There are simply too many disparate parts that don’t “talk” to each other.

California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is a good first step in creating a culture of cross-program collaboration. While the LCFF does not direct the use of special education dollars, it is making it possible for school districts to blend funds from other categorical sources, including ELL funds. It remains to be seen how the separate special education dollars fit into this picture and, more importantly, how students who have disabilities and other needs will be served.

The Discrepancy Model and Disproportionality

Our schools most commonly determine a student’s need for special education services—essentially, give students a label—through a long-standing, problematic practice: waiting for documented failure (the “severe discrepancy” model31) before providing services. A corollary problem is the disproportionate number of children who are students of color or English language learners and who are identified as having learning and/or emotional disabilities because sources for the problem other than disability (the degree of cultural competence among school staff, for example, or trauma at home) are not considered and explored.

One intent of the most recent reauthorization of IDEA was to provide an alternative means of identifying students with learning disabilities (LD). This provision was prompted by the emergence of inconsistent identification patterns of learning disabilities across states—in some less than 3 percent of students were identified with LD; in others, nearly 10 percent were identified. Representatives from state education agencies concluded that “too many students are being classified as LD, including too many minority students; students are often classified as LD so that services can be provided even though they do not have a genuine disability; the use of ability-achievement discrepancy method of determining Specific Learning Disability (SLD) often causes harm because identification is delayed to later ages.”32

In many instances, the universal provision of best instruction followed by prompt and focused intervention at the first indication that a student is struggling can prevent academic and behavioral difficulties from developing in the first place—and thus reduce the number of students who are identified as having learning disabilities. This “universal provision” is RtI.

While the RtI processes and the “patterns of strengths and weaknesses” offer important alternatives to the “discrepancy model” in identifying students for special education services and to the practice of misidentifying students (resulting in disproportional representation of certain student groups), RtI and PSW have not been systematically promulgated in California; and rigorous trainings and follow-up support on RtI and “patterns of strengths and weaknesses” do not exist. This has resulted in serious misunderstandings about what RtI and PSW actually mean and in the continuing failure of many schools to provide appropriate services and supports to students.

Socio-Emotional Learning and Supports

Many students come to school not knowing how to behave for any one of a number of reasons: they never had the experience of preschool, so they don’t know how schools “work”; they suffer from childhood trauma, which can alter normal behavioral response patterns and even permanently change brain structures33; or they simply find themselves in a cultural disconnect between their own community and that of the school. Yet studies point to behavior and social skills—such as getting along “in diverse workplaces” and being able to develop “collaborative relationships”—as essential to ensuring employment.34 MTSS again shows itself to be a proven vehicle for providing appropriate degrees of social-emotional learning, all of which are geared toward the specific needs of a child, with universal positive behavioral supports (such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports [PBIS], Restorative Practices, and other programs identified through the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning [CASEL]) for all students and allowing for tiered interventions for students who struggle behaviorally.35

Students with disabilities are often disenfranchised because many teachers are not able to provide inclusive, accessible instruction. UDL becomes a critical locus of inclusion for these students. Through UDL, which offers instruction with a variety of modes of input (e.g., written, graphic, oral, tactile), levels of text, and ways to convey learning, students are more likely to become engaged and able to respond to and make sense of the instruction that is provided, in part because they are allowed multiple ways to demonstrate their understanding. In sum, they feel more interested in and connected socially and emotionally to the educational system.

The consequences of student misbehavior are significant. Even in-school suspensions, a common consequence for persistent misbehavior, can significantly decrease instructional time for a student36 and, as importantly, socialization time. Since students with disabilities are far more likely to be suspended than their nondisabled peers, these students are being denied important access to the very education they need to be more successful in and out of school. A tiered system of positive behavioral support remedies this unfortunate outcome because it systemically and systematically addresses student misbehavior at the first sign of problems through consistent school-wide responses, often preventing small problems from becoming large ones. In fact, one study conducted in 37 elementary schools to examine the impact of tiered positive behavioral intervention for its efficacy indicated that those schools that “implemented the model with high fidelity . . . experienced significant reductions in student suspensions and office discipline referrals.”37

The Civil Rights Project reported additional causes for concern about patterns of suspensions in schools that had no clear systems of social and emotional learning and supports. The project reviewed out-of-school suspensions in 1999 and again in the 2009–2010 school year38; and the Council of State Government from Texas tracked every middle school student in that state for six years to study out-of-school suspensions. These reports revealed alarming inconsistencies in what led to these suspensions, especially when factors of race, gender, and disability were identified. These inconsistencies point to the power of the very unstable “judgment call” among staff, which ends up negatively influencing the future of a child. One student gets suspended for swearing; another doesn’t. One student gets suspended for pushing a classmate; another doesn’t.

California is currently paying increased attention to school discipline policies—“zero-tolerance” policies in particular—because of the high rates of suspension and expulsions the state has seen during the past few years and the degree to which the patterns of disproportionality affect students of color.”39 New discipline policy guidance from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice set forth provisions that schools are required under law to consider whether their student discipline policies are drafted and implemented fairly and consistently and whether they may have a “disparate impact” on certain student groups. “Higher rates of suspensions and expulsions among certain student groups cannot be explained away by assuming higher rates of misbehavior among those students,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.40 The most alarming related statistics suggest that suspensions and expulsions meted from within a punitive school disciplinary policy create a gateway to the juvenile justice system and subsequently to adult prison.41, 42

A clearly defined system of social-emotional education and positive behavioral supports, delivered with fidelity and in tiers of intensity appropriate to a child’s need has been shown to reduce the number of inconsistent and punitive punishments in schools along with the number of lost hours of instructional time, and leaving students more commitment to learning and teachers happier in their school environments.43

In addition to issues of discipline, social-emotional learning can address the problem of bullying in our schools. Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. One study shows that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly, compared with 25 percent of all students. This too can be addressed through a multitiered system of social-emotional education that includes the many iterations of positive behavioral supports, including restorative practice.

Mental Health

Finding the true source of any problem and addressing the issue early is always the most effective and financially sound strategy. But often children suffer mental health challenges that go unmet and, as a result, their academic, personal, and interpersonal growth are compromised. Children with unmet mental health needs may also negatively affect the learning experiences of their peers as well; and untreated mental health needs are associated with behavioral problems, bullying, decreases in academic performance, and poor school attendance.

Currently, educators who are concerned that a student might need mental health services have limited referral options. They can refer a student to special education services for evaluation. In many cases, however, such students are not designated as needing special education services and are left without appropriate assistance. Neglected mental health needs rarely disappear and more frequently get worse over time, making it critical to provide early intervening services as soon as a child demonstrates the need for them and to make these services more readily available in all schools. Again, within a well-designed MTSS and within well-integrated systems at the state level, students with mental health needs would not fall through the cracks, and educators would have options for finding appropriate help and support.


While California is larger and wealthier than many countries, the state is one of only four in the United States that does not have state-adopted technology standards—this at a time when technology is becoming increasingly more central to instruction, assessment, and accommodations. Also problematic is that fact that the embedded, daily use of technology is new for many general and special educators, especially those who work in smaller, more rural, or less economically advantaged schools and districts with limited availability to or acceptance of integrating technology within instructional practices.

Ironically, for nearly two decades California’s educators have benefited from a statewide initiative to support the integration of technology in schools through the California Technology Assistance Project (CTAP). The CTAP provided assistance to schools and districts by helping them learn how to use technology in teaching and learning and by offering staff development, technical assistance, and information and learning resources, among other things. The funding for this initiative expired on December 31, 2013—just as California schools began in earnest to move toward a full implementation of the CCSS and its aligned assessments from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which together feature many helpful—but new and potentially challenging—technological requirements.

Research shows technology to assist students in many ways: maximizing independence in academic and employment tasks; participating in classroom discussions; and gaining access to peers, mentors, and role models as well as to a full range of educational options.44 Technology also facilitates self-advocacy and allows students to participate in experiences not otherwise possible; it increases a student’s chances of success in work-based learning experiences, of securing high levels of independent learning, and of successfully transitioning to college and careers.

Students with disabilities may require extensive use of technology devices because of their disability; for this reason special education staff require extensive preparation and training to effectively use—and instruct the use of—such devices. All teachers, in fact, need to be proficient in the use of educational technology tools in order to teach and assist students in mastering the CCSS. Technology tools, websites, and computer applications can enable students to create, think critically, collaborate, and communicate with one another. These devices and applications can also help to engage and motivate students, while making it easier for teachers to individualize instruction and gauge progress.

The lapse in what students and teachers could know and need to know technologically and what they actually do know provides some context for what California educators now face. Whether they are general educators or educators of children with disabilities, they are faced with the challenge of adopting a new set of learning standards—while not being prepared for the challenge of integrating the technology inherent within those standards.


The application of UDL in all of its inclusive implications sets the foundation for a coherent system of education that provides instruction, services, and supports to students as they are needed—through a MTSS that incorporates RtI (including early intervention in its broadest sense) and social and emotional learning. Access to this system, however, now requires knowledge of technology and computers—which are now ubiquitous in schools, curriculum, and assessments and which have become essential for success in adult life as well as in school. Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, arguably our most vulnerable students, deserve equal access to this system, as well as the best supports and assessments possible to ensure they too benefit from school and have every chance of realizing a productive adult life.

In support of these changes, California should ensure the following:

  • UDL is understood, is established as a key area of professional learning for educator training, and is implemented in all schools.
  • MTSS is developed throughout the state, incorporating robust and aligned systems at all organizational levels that support response to instruction and intervention (RtI2) approaches and systematic programs of behavioral, social, and emotional learning.
  • Social-emotional learning supports, which are provided through a system that is comprehensive and blended, are available in all schools and districts; these supports include lessons of self-management, social interaction, and social responsibility that are infused in daily curriculum; these supports increase collaboration with community mental health resources in a structured, data-driven, and evidence-based way.
  • General education resources are used to intervene as early as possible (infant/toddler/preschool/elementary) with evidence-based and multi-tiered social-emotional supports prior to referral to special education services.
  • Technology support is provided at the state, regional, district, school, and classroom levels to ensure the successful implementation of the CCSS and use of its assessments, and to ensure that students with disabilities have and can use the assistive devices they need in order to learn.
  • All students with disabilities have access to comprehensive and effective transition services and programs; model programs are identified, implemented, and aligned around college/career/independent living standards and expectations; collaboration among LEAs, Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) and Regional Occupation Programs (ROPs) is expanded so that students with disabilities are included in Regional Occupation and Career Technical Education programs, including Pathway grants, as well as in other local options.

Additional Information

Research: Academically Strong California Districts for Students in Special Education

In 2010, researchers from the American Institutes for Research analyzed the academic performance of California students with disabilities and discovered that some districts were far more successful than others. They identified eight California school districts in which the academic performance of students with disabilities was unusually strong over a period of four years and looked in depth at four of them to identify policies and practices that contributed to their relative success.a

Here is what they found:

  • All four districts were committed to including students with disabilities in general education classrooms and ensuring access to the content in the core curriculum.
  • All four stressed collaboration between general education and special education teachers.
  • Three districts practiced continuous assessment and the use of RtI strategies to address students’ needs and monitor their progress.
  • Three districts provided targeted professional learning opportunities for their teachers and administrators.
  • Two districts utilized explicit direct instruction teaching methods

Across all California districts, there was great variation in the percentage of students with disabilities meeting proficiency targets in English language arts, suggesting that inclusion works only if it is done well and only if students receive the supports they need to succeed.

Long Beach Unified School District: Using RtI2 Effectively in High Schools

Dr. Judy Elliott states that RtI2 is "neither a fad nor a program, but rather the practice of using data to match instruction and intervention to changing student needs."b

She goes on to say, “This approach is not about placing the problems within the student, but rather examining the student’s response to instruction and/or intervention. In essence, RtI expands the practice of looking at students’ risk of learning and behavioral failure beyond the student and takes into consideration a host of factors. Effective implementation of RtI requires leadership, collaborative planning and implementation by professionals across the education system.

“RtI as a framework or model should be applied to decisions for general, remedial and special education, creating a well-integrated system of instruction and intervention guided by student performance data that is close to the classroom.”

Elliott demonstrated the efficacy of her beliefs during her tenure in Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), where she had the vision, the leadership, and the follow-through to implement RtI2 in high schools.

LBUSD was a district with more than 93,000 students. Demographics included 49.7 percent Hispanic, 18.3 percent Black, 16.7 percent White, 9.3 percent Asian, 3.5 percent Filipino, and 2.1 percent Pacific Islander. English language learners comprised more than 25 percent of the population, and 65.9 percent of the students received free and reduced lunch. Special education represented only 7.7 percent of the overall student population as compared to more than 11 percent statewide, and of these 7,700 students with disabilities, 60 percent received special education services through resource specialist programs.

  • The RtI2 approach applied was a tiered approach to literacy instruction. More than 80 percent of students received all their literacy instruction as part of the general curriculum with specific intent and focus on improved literacy skills.
  • Strategic interventions were provided to approximately 8 percent of all students and were targeted interventions focused on those students who needed core instruction plus more assistance.
  • The most intense and individualized interventions are used only for the smallest group of students with the greatest needs, less than 6 percent of all students.
  • Interventions included Language!, Lindamood-Bell, Literacy Workshop, and English Language Development Levels I–IV.
  • Progress was monitored over multiple years, with students needing intervention showing a growth of more than 100 Academic Performance Index (API) points over 3 years.

Kansas Approach to Early Identification and Intervention to Address All Students’ Needs

Kansas is one of several states that encourage their schools to use a MTSS “for ensuring that all students are challenged and achieve to high standards, both academically and behaviorally."c The state describes MTSS as “a coherent continuum of evidence-based, system-wide practices to support a rapid response to academic and behavioral needs, with frequent data-based monitoring for instructional decision-making to empower each Kansas student to achieve to high standards.” With the MTSS approach, educators determine as early in the school year as possible which students need support and what support they need. The “tiers” in MTSS are levels of intervention based on students’ needs.

MTSS is not a way to avoid providing special education services, nor is it a system for identifying students with disabilities. Rather, it is an approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment that creates a culture of collaboration in which general and special education teachers share responsibility for the learning of all students. Because of that, in schools implementing MTSS, more students with disabilities spend more time learning in general education classrooms. The special education services they receive are in addition to, not instead of, instruction in the core curriculum.

The following key principles form the foundation of the Kansas MTSS:

  • Every child will be provided effective and relentless teaching.
  • Interventions will be provided at the earliest identification of need.
  • Policy will be based on evidence-based practice.
  • Every educator will continuously gain knowledge and develop expertise to build capacity and sustain effective practice.
  • Resources will be intentionally designed and redesigned to match students’ needs.
  • Every leader will be responsible for planning, implementing, and evaluating.
  • Academic and behavioral data will be used to inform instructional decisions.
  • Educators, families, and community members will be part of the fundamental practice of effective problem solving and instructional decision making.
  • An empowering culture will be enhanced/developed that creates collective responsibility for student success.d

Kansas does not mandate the use of MTSS. But the state has organized the Kansas Technical Assistance System Network to support the implementation of evidence-based practices in school districts.

An evaluation of MTSS in Kansas found that more than 90 percent of a sample of 600 districts are in the process of implementing the approach, with 44 percent of the schools having received some level of training.e

The evaluation identified several key factors affecting successful implementation of MTSS:

  • Strong leadership at the building and district levels
  • A strong curriculum and high-quality instruction, informed by assessment data
  • Widespread acceptance among the staff of the MTSS principles and practices
  • Protected time for collaboration around instruction and assessment
  • Ongoing professional learning opportunities and coaching, which are critical to sustainability
  • Support for implementation and alignment of MTSS practices with other school needs and initiatives

However, the evaluation cautions, “even with support and buy-in MTSS can be considered complex and time-consuming to implement.” But, it said, with “strong leadership and broad-based staff support,” these challenges can be addressed.

Sanger Unified: All Educators Take Responsibility for Meeting the Needs of All Students

In 2004, student performance in the Sanger Unified School District in California’s Central Valley put it in the bottom 2 percent in the state. Seven of its 20 schools faced the possibility of losing much of their autonomy because they had repeatedly failed to hit academic improvement targets.

Within a few years, however, a rapid rise in academic achievement had eliminated that threat, and four of those threatened seven schools were recognized as State Distinguished Schools. Achievement across the entire district, which serves a population that is largely poor and not fluent in English, has risen steadily over the past decade and now exceeds state averages. The district’s remarkable turnaround has given it a national reputation, and hundreds of educators flock each year to Sanger to find out what it took to realize this success.f

Central to Sanger’s current success has been a change in how teachers work: from isolation to collaboration and a shared responsibility for the learning of all students. Instead of just following the textbook, teachers and learning specialists diagnose individual students’ needs, employ evidence-based interventions, and hold one another accountable for results. These practices now define how the district serves the needs of all of its students, including those with disabilities. Sanger’s motto is “Every Child, Every Day, Whatever it Takes.”

To make this more than a slogan, the district uses a technique called “response to instruction and intervention” or RtI2 to provide students with the help they need. RtI2 requires teachers to keep careful track of students’ progress. Faster-paced students are given more difficult challenges. Those who need more time are given extra help, first by their classroom teacher. If they fail to catch up, the amount of help they get increases and may involve learning specialists. A first-grade teacher might work with a small group of students who are weak in phonemic awareness—which is the ability to distinguish among the letter sounds in words. If that doesn’t help, a child might be tutored one-on-one. A computer app might be recommended. Then, the teacher might consult an educational psychologist for other ideas. If the child is still struggling after these approaches, he or she might be screened for a learning disability. Sanger teachers also use a tiered approach to deal with behavior issues in their classrooms, with more intensive help for the children having the most difficulties.g

Sanger is just one of a growing number of districts in the state to take this approach to education. Superintendent Matt Navo says the state could play a role in increasing that number by providing incentives for districts to collaborate with others to put in place policies that support RtI and more efficient supports and interventions for students at every level. He also cautions against the state mandating that districts follow any highly prescribed model. Each one has a unique mixture of students, teachers, and parents, so their collaborations are going to look different.

In Sanger, “the academic return on investment is high compared to what we spent, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a dollar amount,” Navo said. “You can see the improvement in student achievement and can say that the investment has produced greater learning and supports for all students.”h


  1. Sopko, K. M. (2008). Universal design for learning: Implementation in six local education agencies. Project Forum: NASDSE.
  2. Coherence Framework. External link opens in new window or tab. (n.d.). Harvard.
  3. National Reading Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Ed., C. Snow, S. Burns, & Pl Griffin. Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  4. Dykstra, S. (2013). The impact of scientifically-based reading instruction on different groups and different levesl of performance. Educational Philosophy, 3.
  5. The discrepancy model assesses whether a substantial difference, or discrepancy, exists between a student’s scores on an individualized test of general intelligence (i.e., an IQ test) and his or her scores obtained for one or more areas of academic achievement.
  6. Coriella, C. (2010). “Discrepancy” approach results in inconsistent LD identification rates across states. External link opens in new window or tab. Great Schools.
  7. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). How is early childhood trauma unique? External link opens in new window or tab.
  8. Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2008). 21st Century Education and Competitiveness. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF; 1 MB)
  9. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. External link opens in new window or tab.
  10. The Office of Civil Rights noted that more than 400,000 students were suspended out-of-school at least one time during the 2009–2010 school year, representing a staggering loss of instructional hours.
  11. Bradshaw, C., Mitchell, M. & Lead, P. (2010). Examining the effects of schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports on student outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled effectiveness trial in elementary schools. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12(3), 133–148.
  12. See Recent School Discipline Research at the Civil Rights Project External link opens in new window or tab.
  13. Cohen, B. (November 26, 2014). New networks offers guidance on school discipline. External link opens in new window or tab. EdWeek.
  14. Blad, E. (January 14, 2014). Feds call for school discipline to be more evenhanded. External link opens in new window or tab. EdWeek.
  15. McKevitt, B., & Braaksma, A. “Developing a positive behavioral support system at the school level.” Best Practices in School Psychology, V.
  16. See The American Civil Liberties Union, Locating the School to Prison Pipeline (New York: Author, 2008); The Advancement Project, Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth Into the School to Prison Pipeline (Washington, DC: Author, 2010); Daniel J. Losen and Russell J. Skiba, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis (Montgomery, AL: Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010); Matt Cregor and Damon Hewitt, “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Survey from the Field,” Poverty & Race, 20 (2011): 223–237.
  17. See “Positive Behavior Supports: A Discussion,” at Safe and Civil Schools External link opens in new window or tab.
  18. Burgstahler, S. (Fall 2003). The role of technology in preparing youth with disabilities for postsecondary education and employment. Journal of Special Education Technology, 18(4).


  1. Huberman, M., Navo, M., & Parrish, T. (September, 2011). Academically strong districts for students in special education. California Comprehensive Center at WestEd.
  2. Elliott, J. (September 2008). Response to intervention: What and why. External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF) The School Administrator, 8 (65), 11–18.
  3. Special Education within a Multi-Tier System of Supports,” Kansas Multi-Tier System of Supports, Oct. 2010.
  4. Kansas MTSS Overview.
  5. Kansas MTSS Annual Evaluation Report-2013. Executive Summary. WestEd. October, 2013.
  6. David, J. L., & Talbert, J. E. (2013). Turning Around a High-poverty District: Learning from Sanger. S. H. Cowell Foundation.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Interview with Matt Navo, Superintendent, Sanger Unified School District, September 2014.
Questions:   Special Education Division | | 916-445-4613
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 8, 2023
Related Content
  • 2015 Report of California's Statewide Task Force
    The content appearing on the following web pages was originally published in March 2015 as One System: Reforming Education to Serve ALL Students, Report of California's Statewide Task Force on Special Education.
Recently Posted in Special Education
  • CALPADS Special Education Data Spring Roadshows (updated 19-Apr-2024)
    California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) Regional trainings in Spring 2024 to inform local educational agencies (LEAs) with updates and changes to the collection of data for students with disabilities.
  • ACSE Agenda April 17-18, 2024 (updated 18-Apr-2024)
    Advisory Commission on Special Education (ACSE) meeting agenda.
  • A New Pathway to a High School Diploma (updated 04-Apr-2024)
    An Alternative High School Diploma for Students who qualify for the California Alternate Assessment.
  • California's Annual State Application for 2024 (added 22-Mar-2024)
    Annual State Application under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to be submitted by May 22, 2024, for federal fiscal year (FFY) 2024.
  • FMTA Consultant Assignments by Region (updated 20-Mar-2024)
    The Focused Monitoring and Technical Assistance (FMTA) Consultants are assigned geographically and by quality assurance activity to align with the eleven California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA) regions.

  • Cyclical Monitoring for Small LEAs (updated 15-Mar-2024)
    This is the home page for local educational agencies (LEAs) that have been selected for Special Education Cyclical Monitoring.
  • Special Education Resource Leads (updated 08-Mar-2024)
    The Special Education Resource Leads (SERLs) are part of the California Statewide System of Support.
  • Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning (updated 06-Mar-2024)
    Grazer Outstanding Achievement in Learning (GOAL) Award background information and application.
  • FY 2023-24 Federal Grant ER Instructions (added 23-Feb-2024)
    Fiscal Year 2023-24 special education federal grant expenditure report (ER) instructions contain information regarding reporting periods, due dates, payments, and other required documentation.
  • Local Educational Agency Grants (updated 23-Feb-2024)
    Program summaries and information on specific federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants allocated to provide services to individuals with disabilities.