Strong Core Instruction: What it is and How it Can Address Inequity and Achievement Gaps


By: Meg Bowen

While those outside of education often assume that core instruction is aligned with grade-level standards, those of us who work closely with teachers and school leaders recognize that all too often, this isn’t the case.

In many classrooms, core instruction is missing the mark in terms of providing students with the engaging, rigorous learning experiences they need to develop critical 21st-century workplace skills.

In fact, weak core instruction ultimately perpetuates systemic inequity and worsens achievement gaps.

This blog covers the definition of core instruction, MTSS, and RTI, and what each looks like. You’ll also learn red flags and impacts of weak core instruction and how you can improve core instruction with a unique approach.


What is core instruction?

Core instruction, also referred to as Tier 1 instruction, consists of the learning experiences in which all students participate. It does not include special education services, enrichment for gifted students, or intervention programs.


What does Tier 1 core instruction look like?

Students engaged in Academic Teaming during Tier 1 core instruction.

Tier 1 core instruction can look very different from classroom to classroom. It depends on the instructional strategies teachers use and the curriculum they implement.

Core instruction often consists of traditional, teacher-centered strategies such as whole-group instruction, independent practice, and possibly some group activities or interactions. Teachers usually lead and direct students through these activities.

However, some classrooms utilize instructional processes that focus on empowering students to take ownership of their own learning and behavior in core instruction.

One example is student-led academic teaming, which provides students with research-based resources for collaboration. The teacher is responsible for creating tasks for the teams and setting up the structures, but students direct their own learning and support one another.

When students play direct roles in their own education, it makes teaching easier and learning more fun. Student-led active learning engages and motivates K-12 students. This is especially important for remote students returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms, because they may have become more passive during distance learning.

In addition to the different instructional strategies teachers use, curriculum is also a factor in core instruction. What sort of academic tasks are students doing? Are the tasks fully aligned to the standards and at the correct taxonomy level? Are all students working with grade-level texts and resources?

It’s important to keep in mind that exposing students to grade-level texts is not enough – students must also be equipped with the supports to access those texts. Ideally, students can receive those supports within Tier 1 core instruction without being pulled out into academic interventions.

In the end, defining what effective Tier 1 core instruction looks like is dependent on student outcomes. All students must meet their learning targets for every lesson. All learning targets should be aligned to the intent and rigor of the standards at the students’ grade level. When those criteria are met, core instruction is working.


What is Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS)?

In Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS), students who are not demonstrating proficiency in grade-level content – despite being taught in the same manner and being given the same level of support as other students – are provided with targeted intervention as early as possible.

Typically, some type of universal screening is administered early in the school year to identify students who may need additional layers of support and intervention.


Core Instruction Power Pack

Preventing Learning Gaps Through Engaging Core Instructions

View Demo



What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?

While MTSS includes areas such as attendance and behavior, Response to Intervention, or RTI, denotes a specific focus on academic progress, which is most directly impacted by the quality of core instruction.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that poor attendance and behavior issues can also be symptoms of weak core instruction, exemplified by low student engagement (more on that below).


What are the symptoms of weak core instruction?

Students sit in class bored and disengaged during weak core instruction.

One of the easiest ways to spot weak core instruction is by noting the percentage of students in Tier 2 or Tier 3 academic interventions within MTSS or RTI.

According to the New York State Education Department’s Minimum Requirements of a Response to Intervention Program, five to ten percent of students should be in Tier 2, meaning they are receiving targeted small group instruction in addition to core instruction.

One to five percent of students should be in Tier 3, where they receive even more intensive instructional support in addition to core instruction and Tier 2 support (New York State Education Department, 2010).

If more than 20 percent of students are not mastering grade-level standards despite differentiated core instruction, this is a red flag that Tier 1 core instruction is the issue.

Other red flags include students who remain in intervention year after year or the overrepresentation of specific subgroups within Tier 2 and Tier 3. If core instruction is only working for a specific subgroup, such as affluent students, their success could be due to factors outside of school rather than solid core instruction.

An achievement gap that grows over grade levels rather than shrinks is another sure sign that core instruction is not up to par. While students enter school with a wide range of experiences and corresponding disparity in skills and knowledge, each year they are enrolled in school should be helping to level the playing field if core instruction is strong.

Conversely, if certain subgroups are underrepresented in advanced coursework, this likely signals an issue with core instruction as well.

For example, if African American males are underrepresented in honors-level classes, this may indicate a lack of culturally responsive pedagogy or low expectations for students of color resulting in less rigorous instruction and less engaging tasks.

Another symptom of weak core instruction is low student engagement, motivation, and participation.

When students are appropriately challenged and instruction is engaging and interactive, students want to be in class. They are too busy thinking, discussing, and solving problems to consider inappropriate ways to entertain themselves or others.


Core Instruction Power Pack

Preventing Learning Gaps Through Engaging Core Instructions

View Demo





What are the true costs of weak core instruction?

Weak core instruction is costly in many ways beyond the immediate financial impact on schools that are spending vast sums on intervention programs and staffing for those programs.

The hidden costs of weak core instruction include higher dropout rates, lower college enrollment, increased expenditures on social programs for adults who are underemployed, and lower levels of life satisfaction among our population.

According to Dr. William Sanders’ research in this area, students who are subjected to just one year of ineffective core instruction often never recover academically – even when they receive high-quality core instruction during subsequent years.

Conversely, students who receive strong core instruction for three consecutive years typically outscore their peers by up to 44 percentage points on achievement tests (Sanders & Rivers, 1996).

Even more disturbing is the fact that underachieving students are more likely to be taught by less experienced or less qualified teachers, according to Pamela Tucker and James Stronge in their book, Linking Teacher Evaluation and Student Learning (2005).

As a result, even some students who receive A’s and B’s in high school find themselves woefully underprepared for the rigors of college work if the core instruction they received was watered down.

In the table below, you can review a summary of the red flags and corresponding impacts of weak core instruction.

Summary: What does weak core instruction look like and how does it affect students?
Red Flags Negative Impact
More than 20% of students are not mastering grade-level standards Student achievement gaps begin to form and widen
Students are placed in Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions year after year and achievement gaps grow Inequity persists as students – especially from underserved populations – miss out on Tier 1 core instruction
Students have poor attendance and behavior issues Students become disengaged and discouraged, and eventually may give up on their academics and even drop out
Certain subgroups are overrepresented in interventions and underrepresented in advanced coursework Schools inadvertently perpetuate systemic inequity and students do not receive the support they need
“Watered down” instruction that does not meet the intent and rigor of the standards Students enter college and the workplace unprepared and face social, financial, and personal struggles as a result

The common root cause? Weak core instruction must be strengthened.




How to improve Tier 1 core instruction in the midst of a crisis

Masked students and teachers greet one another in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As schools are still coming to grips with how to keep everyone safe while continuing their educational mission during a pandemic, now may not seem like the best time to focus on strengthening core instruction.

The truth is, now is the most critical time to begin core instruction work!

Study after study is showing that remote learning is not working for most students and learning gaps are increasing exponentially as a result (Goldstein, 2020; Hobbs & Hawkins, 2020).

With the COVID-19 vaccine in sight, this is exactly the right time to equip teachers to provide high-quality, engaging core instruction so we can accelerate learning and get students back on track as quickly as possible.

As a result of the pandemic and remote instruction, teachers who may not have been open to learning more effective instructional strategies are now eager to understand how to increase student engagement and learning. Teachers are keenly aware that what was working before is no longer making the grade.

Most school leaders also recognize that what was considered to be “working” before was not actually hitting the mark either; even many “A” schools had glaring disparities between subgroup performance, which the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, brought to light.

With teachers ready to approach professional development with a growth mindset, the next logical obstacles to improving core instruction are time and money.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, funding is providing schools with a unique opportunity to shore up core instruction by bringing in expert support for professional learning and coaching, something many schools would not otherwise be able to afford.

Time has been the most challenging hurdle up to this point, as teachers have been stretched to their limits teaching students in person and virtually, creating instructional materials for hybrid learning, and maintaining office hours all while keeping up with parent communication.

Many schools have found creative ways to provide professional development in one-hour segments two to four times a month, giving teachers time to digest and apply what they have learned while also eliminating the need for substitutes or time out of the classroom.

Other schools are making plans now to capitalize on summer break by providing teachers with the support and training they need to begin the upcoming school year focused on strong core instruction.



A unique approach to sustainable, strong core instruction

Teacher engages in virtual professional development with her computer and notebook.

The hard truth is that there isn’t a package of materials with a set of directions or a script that is going to significantly change what is happening in classrooms.

Most school districts have experienced the endless parade of “silver bullet” solutions that have not had any lasting impact on the quality of core instruction.

Learning Sciences International (LSI) takes a unique approach. LSI’s mission is to ensure equity, access, and rigor for all students, which drives our work and informs the way we approach improving core instruction.

Our unique, interactive, engaging professional learning experiences are led by experts in the field who have been where today’s teachers and school leaders are. Our faculty members are former superintendents, principals, and curriculum specialists who have successfully led school turnaround efforts and understand what it takes to move the needle.

Our work is grounded in adult learning theory and includes application, practice, and coaching to ensure the learning sticks. We partner with schools and districts, providing a seamless continuum of services and support and ensuring transparency and open communication with all stakeholders.

We’ve had success in diverse districts across the U.S. and are eager to roll up our sleeves to help teachers reach their goal of ensuring all students are engaged in high-quality learning that aligns with grade-level standards.

When done right, core instruction is truly where the magic happens: teachers enjoy their craft, students reach their full potential, and the economy and society benefit as a result.


Core Instruction Power Pack

Preventing Learning Gaps Through Engaging Core Instructions

View Demo







 Goldstein, D. (2020, June 5). Research shows students falling months behind during virus disruptions. New York Times.

Hobbs, T. D., & Hawkins, L. (2020, June 5). The results are in for remote learning: It didn’t work. Wall Street Journal.

New York State Education Department (2010). Minimum requirements of a response to intervention program (RtI).,class%20receive%20Tier%202%20intervention

Sanders, W. L., & Rivers, J. C. (1996). Cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student academic achievement (Research Progress Report). University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center.

Tucker, P. D., & Stronge, J. H. (2005). Linking Teacher Evaluation and Student Learning. ASCD.




About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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