Special Education Explainer

MTSS: What Is a Multi-Tiered System of Supports?

How does MTSS relate to special education?
By Eesha Pendharkar — October 13, 2023 7 min read
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Almost two decades ago, through a reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, emerged the idea that students may need different degrees of support to achieve the same academic outcomes.

When Congress last reauthorized the law, it included an amendment called “response to intervention,” also known as RTI. The initial purpose was to help school personnel develop better strategies to identify students with learning disabilities.

In addition to testing a student on an IQ test or an achievement test, to see if they had learning disabilities, RTI encouraged educators to try to teach that child in a more intensive way and monitor their response to that, according to Doug Fuchs, the Nicholas Hobbs Chair of Special Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. And if the response was strong, that was an argument that the student should not be identified for an individualized education program, or IEP.

Eventually, educators adapted the principles of RTI to general education, putting into place different tiers of support for all students, and what is now known as a multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS, developed.

MTSS essentially offers students who have learning, social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties in general classrooms personalized instruction or support that matches the level of help they need to stay on pace with their peers. If they don’t make sufficient progress, MTSS models require districts to intensify personalized support. Each tier in the framework is supposed to represent a level of intensity of instructional or other support. MTSS is often used in districts as an approach to offer students mental health support, experts said.

What is MTSS?

Multi-tiered systems of supports, known as MTSS, are a framework meant to support students in achieving their best possible academic and social-emotional outcomes. MTSS models include tiers of instructional and other kinds of support, so that all students can make progress by getting the kind of education that meets their needs.

In theory, each student’s needs should be addressed by one of the MTSS tiers. If the tiered system proves inadequate, MTSS should help educators identify which students might need special education services.

“MTSS … is really thinking about, how do we organize our resources—the academic support and the behavioral, social, emotional, and counseling supports—in a school system to make sure that students are getting what they need?” said Rebecca Zumeta Edmonds, managing researcher at the American Institutes of Research, and director of the National Center on Intensive Intervention, a federally funded center focused on helping students who have the most severe and persistent academic and behavioral support needs.

What are the tiers of MTSS?

Generally, MTSS has three tiers.

Tier 1 is core instruction, which all students receive. Most MTSS models say that 80 percent of students should have their instructional needs met through Tier 1, according to Fuchs. Tier 1 should also include social-emotional learning components, according to MTSS4Success, a nonprofit center that supports districts implementing the framework.

At Tier 2, schools should provide small group instruction for students struggling to learn at Tier 1. Tier 2 can include behavioral or mental health supports, if necessary. Of the 20 percent of students who need Tier 2 interventions, 15 percent should have their educational needs met at Tier 2, Fuchs said.

For the five percent of students who don’t respond to Tier 2, schools can offer Tier 3, or intensive intervention, individualized based on each student’s needs. There is no specific program, but Tier 3 should be based on evaluating why a student is struggling and meeting their academic and social-emotional needs, according to MTSS4Success.

How widespread is MTSS?

MTSS is used on some level in virtually every U.S. state and territory, according to Zumeta Edmonds. Thousands of districts use MTSS, according to Panorama Education, an organization that supports districts implementing the framework, but there is no national data to track district-level use.

Most state education agencies offer their schools some level of guidance on using MTSS. Districts then choose to implement MTSS to varying degrees, Zumeta Edmonds said. Schools may also use an MTSS approach to students’ mental health and behavior without applying to academics, she said.

At least one state—South Carolina—mandates the use of MTSS in elementary schools, according to Mitch Yell, a professor of special education at the University of South Carolina. Whether mandating that districts implement MTSS leads to better educational outcomes is still unknown, he said.

Sometimes, a school or district may choose to implement MTSS for a specific content area, such as reading. Others will attempt to do a more comprehensive implementation that involves literacy, mathematics, behavior, and social-emotional supports.

Most commonly, districts will implement the MTSS framework for meeting students’ social-emotional needs, she said.

How does MTSS relate to special education?

MTSS began as RTI, which was meant as a special education reform, Fuchs said.

It was intended to replace the older model of comparing students’ IQ to their test scores and labeling students at the low end of the spectrum as having learning disabilities, according to Yell.

Now that MTSS applies to general education, it can help teachers better identify which students struggle with persistent learning or behavioral challenges. The teams devoted to developing Individualized Education Programs for special education students can use data collected through MTSS evaluations as part of that process, and develop IEPs based on the data collected through MTSS evaluations, according to Zumeta Edmonds.

“Special education can and should be part of the MTSS system and very often that most intensive level of supports can be, or in some cases should be, special education,” she said.

Tessie Bailey, principal consultant for the American Institutes for Research and director of the federally funded PROGRESS Center, which conducts research and advocates for students with disabilities, previously told Education Week that MTSS can help students with learning disabilities be identified earlier.

“The intent is to prevent poor learning outcomes, which means we identify kids earlier so they have supports,” Bailey said.

MTSS has contributed to the early identification of learning disabilities and helped keep the numbers of students with learning disabilities in check, even as the numbers of students in special education have increased, Bailey said.

What’s the difference between an IEP and MTSS?

An individualized education program, or IEP, is a program developed in collaboration with the district and a student’s family for every student with disabilities. Only students with disabilities who need special education services can get IEPs, whereas MTSS is a general framework for all students.

However, an MTSS framework can help educators determine which students may need IEPs for learning disabilities or behavioral issues, Zumeta Edmonds said.

A good MTSS framework can also reduce the number of students being referred to special education, according to Yell.

“If you really have a good system, and it’s working, you should have fewer nonresponders that wind up getting referred to special education, because their needs are being addressed in these earlier tiers of instruction,” he said.

What are the challenges of MTSS?

The biggest challenge of MTSS is its implementation, according to Fuchs, Zumeta Edmonds, and Yell. Schools often don’t have the resources and time to allow for the personalized instruction that tiers 2 and 3 require, Fuchs said. It is also not sustainable to maintain MTSS in schools facing staffing shortages, he said.

“If schools had the resources to build strong tier 2 and tier 3 supports, then in principle, that would be a real contribution and most likely helpful modification of our general education system,” Fuchs said.

“But as much as I support MTSS in principle, as I have watched it play out in thousands of schools across the country, it fails more often than it succeeds.”

That’s because MTSS frameworks require districts to be well-versed in evidence-based instruction for each tier, collect data, collaborate across tiers, and invest resources and time into each tier of support and instruction, Fuchs said.

Some other challenges include training educators to be well-versed in the tiers of MTSS, allowing educators to change their curriculum to make sure it’s tailored to be evidence based, and knowing how to collect and use student achievement data and make decisions based on it.

“If it’s implemented properly, it helps every student in the school,” Yell said.

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