Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

What Are Multitiered Systems of Supports?

By Christina A. Samuels — December 13, 2016 3 min read
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Response to intervention, multitiered systems of supports, positive behavioral supports and interventions.

Proponents of an educational framework aimed at systematically supporting struggling students throw around those terms all the time, but what do they really mean? This glossary helps cut through the fog.

What is response to intervention?

Response to intervention is an instructional framework that focuses on addressing problems early with students who show signs of academic weakness. Among its essential components: high-quality education for all students; universal screening so that teachers can spot children who are struggling; targeted, research-based “interventions” of increasing intensity designed to help students improve in problem areas; frequent progress monitoring so that teachers can see how well students are responding to the targeted interventions, and data-based decisionmaking based on the information gathered from that monitoring.

Where did response to intervention come from?

The elements that make up what we call response to intervention have been around for decades, but the term first showed up in federal law in 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was last reauthorized. In the special education law, the RTI process was put forward as an alternative method of identifying students with learning disabilities. Congress’ intent was to make sure that students diagnosed with disabilities weren’t just the victims of poor teaching.

Over the years, the educational framework has grown beyond the special education field. It is now seen as a method of improving instruction and academic results for all students.

What are the “tiers” in RTI?

Response to intervention is generally conceptualized as different levels of instruction. Tier 1 is the strong instruction that every student in a school should be receiving. Tier 2 includes students who are receiving extra academic support, often provided in small groups. Tier 3 is for students who have severe or persistent needs who require individualized help.

RTI proponents have said that movement among those tiers should be fluid: A student with acute needs doesn’t need to progress through the tiers to get individualized support, for example. And a student who needs some extra support should not miss out on the general instruction that is provided on Tier 1.

What are positive behavioral interventions and supports?

PBIS predates RTI in its inclusion in federal law; it was first introduced in the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA as a research-based framework for supporting children with behavior disorders. As with RTI, PBIS operates on tiers. All students are taught certain behavioral expectations and rewarded for following them, and students with more needs are provided increasingly intensive interventions.

What are multitiered systems of supports?

Districts differ in how they use this term. Some use RTI and MTSS as synonyms, for example. But usually, “multitiered systems of supports” is used as an umbrella term that encompasses both response to intervention and positive behavioral interventions and supports. Schools implementing MTSS are usually trying to tackle both behavioral and academic concerns at the same time, recognizing that they often go hand in hand: A student who can’t understand what’s going on in the classroom is more likely to act out, and a student who is grappling with behavior problems is not going to be able to focus on academics.

How are schools using RTI and PBIS?

School districts have largely adopted the multitiered framework as a schoolwide improvement process because of its focus on screening all children, improving overall instruction, and making decisions based on data. RTI has a stronger research base for early reading, however. District leaders say that setting up a multitiered framework for older children and in different subject areas has been more challenging because there are fewer research-based interventions in those areas and because it becomes more challenging with older students to create time for interventions during the school day.

What does the Every Student Succeeds Act say about MTSS?

The text of the law mentions multitiered systems of supports only briefly, in the context of helping students with disabilities and English-language learners access challenging academic standards. State leaders may choose to use multitiered frameworks as a way to organize school improvement efforts in the improvement plans they must submit to the U.S. Department of Education next year.

Sources: RTI Action Network; Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as What Are Multitiered Systems of Supports?

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