The movement toward a Multi-Tiered System of Supports is gaining momentum across K-12 education in the United States, from individual school improvement to state-wide adoption.
Below, we've summarized everything you need to know about MTSS. Explore the definition and history of MTSS, how educators are using MTSS drive equity, and the role of MTSS in overcoming the challenges of learning loss in a remote or hybrid environment during the 2020-2021 school year.
What Is MTSS?
A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) provides a guiding framework for educators, school, and district leaders to remove barriers to learning at the systems level, use evidence-based practices to support the whole child along a tiered continuum, and make decisions for targeted and intensive interventions based on data.
The multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) framework has been highlighted as a critical lever of improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which calls for the use of evidence-based interventions and data-driven progress monitoring for students.
Researchers believe that a multi-tiered system of supports originated in the public health field (Walker et al, 1996) in which universal practices, such as hygiene and handwashing, existed at the Tier 1 level and were supplemented by Tier 2 and Tier 3 medical interventions.
In K-12 education, key tenets of the MTSS framework include: all students are capable of grade-level learning with adequate support; decisions and procedures are driven by school and student data; and implementation occurs school-wide and requires stakeholder collaboration (Harlacher et al, 2014).
While traditionally visualized as an MTSS pyramid, many school districts are shifting towards an “inverted” MTSS pyramid to convey the importance of Tier 1 universal supports.
Portland Public Schools (Oregon) Inverted MTSS Pyramid of Student Supports
Additionally, many Student Services teams, such as the team at San Bernardino City Unified School District in California, are applying the tiered supports model for staff as well as students.
San Bernardino City Unified School District (California) MTSS Pyramid of Student and Staff Supports
MTSS vs. RTI vs. PBIS
To understand today’s iterations of the MTSS framework, it’s important to understand the evolution of RTI and PBIS models for student supports.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), popularized by the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997, was initially established to provide behavioral interventions for students demonstrating specific “behavior disorders.” PBIS has since shifted to emphasize school-wide practices and expectations that help all students to develop prosocial behavior.
Response to Intervention (RTI) emerged from the reauthorization of The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 as an alternative to the discrepancy model for identifying Specific Learning Disabilities. RTI is a process for determining the effect of tiered interventions on student academic learning.
Schools are now incorporating aspects of both PBIS and RTI into the MTSS framework. A multi-tiered system of supports is a holistic system ultimately designed to remove academic, behavioral, and social-emotional barriers, and to meet the needs of all learners to become college and career ready.
A strong MTSS may build on RTI and PBIS systems through a proactive approach to supporting all students, including partnerships with families and wraparound services to support the whole child.
This structural approach shifts the onus from students to systems. Dr. Katie Novak summarizes this key difference between RTI and MTSS:
While RTI was designed to focus on identifying and supporting students who have disabilities, MTSS moves away from this thinking toward the idea that schools and districts themselves have disabilities in their systems that prevent students from learning.
In the words of the MTSS team at Everett School District (Washington): “We fix systems, not students.”
Kent Mcintosh, an expert on MTSS, highlights the implementation benefits of a holistic framework for educators:
Rather than adding yet another initiative to crowd out the to-do lists of teachers and administrators, MTSS helps to connect existing efforts and systems across domains and integrate the supports already provided to students into a seamless whole.
School districts implementing MTSS prevent students from slipping through the cracks by eliminating silos and giving educators a holistic view of each student across academics, behavior, and social emotional wellbeing. The integration of student supports can also help educators reduce the inefficiencies of competing initiatives.
MTSS Tiers in the 2020-2021 School Year
Educators often refer to Tier 1 supports as “universal” because they are provided to every student. Examples of strong Tier 1 supports include high-quality core instruction, embedding social-emotional learning into curriculum and assessment, and cultivating a positive and inclusive school climate. Many school districts create Tier 1 school climate teams or embed Tier 1 supports into school improvement planning.
For the 2020-2021 school year, school districts such as D.C. Public Schools are leveraging trauma-responsive practices to strengthen relationships and provide students with safe spaces to handle trauma related to the public health crisis and incidents of racial violence.
Additionally, school districts such as Portland Public Schools (Oregon) leverage a culturally responsive Tiered Fidelity Framework to guide effective implementation of Tier 1 best practices. PPS also considers student and community voices as levers for improvement of Tier 1 practices such as disciplinary policies, professional development, and classroom procedures.
Especially in a remote setting when students and educators may not be physically together, strong Tier 1 practices are essential for strengthening school climate, relationships, and classroom instruction. This school year, educators are employing creative techniques to foster belonging and strengthen their Tier 1—from Bitmoji Classrooms, to Virtual Culture Boxes, to Virtual Check-Ins.
Tier 2 supports are targeted services delivered to students who are not responding to Tier 1 supports. Typically, around 15 to 20 percent of students will receive Tier 2 support. Schools often convene Student Support Teams (SST) or Student Intervention Teams (SIT) to identify at-risk students who need Tier 2 support and use data from multiple domains to determine appropriate interventions. Many schools establish data "cut points” across academics, behavior, attendance, and social-emotional learning to determine when a student needs to be placed in Tier 2.
In the 2020-2021 school year, Restorative Justice is becoming more prevalent in tiered frameworks. In a school setting, the goal of Restorative Justice is to strengthen relationships, prevent inequitable disciplinary outcomes, and cultivate students’ own social-emotional competencies as students engage with peers to resolve conflicts. For example, at Portland Public Schools (Oregon), Tier 2 examples of Restorative Justice include Responsive Circles, Restorative Inquiry, and Celebration and Honoring Circles.
Many school districts are also adjusting Tier 2 interventions to meet students' present needs in a hybrid or remote learning environment. For example, San Bernardino City Unified School District (California) is redefining their Counselor Essential & Optional Tasks during COVID-19 to provide further clarity for staff.
Tier 3 supports refer to intensive services that one to five percent of students receive if they continue to struggle and require even more support. It is also for students who are undergoing more of an acute crisis, such as the death of a parent.
In the era of COVID-19, school districts are ensuring that counseling and wellness teams can provide critical mental health, physical health, and crisis response supports to students and families in need. See below for templates and examples from San Bernardino City Unified School District.
How MTSS Works: Components of MTSS
MTSS Data Collection
An underlying principle of MTSS is that prevention and early intervention are most effective. Schools doing MTSS well use universal screening processes to systematically identify which students need targeted supports. MTSS interventionists then use data across academic performance, behavior, attendance, and social-emotional learning to source the right intervention strategy from a whole-child perspective.
An MTSS software platform can help educators filter through assessment, coursework, attendance, behavior, and SEL data to quickly identify at-risk students, facilitate collaboration between caring adults, and monitor progress. According to LaTonya Robinson, Director of Equity and Intervention at Oxford School District, having a whole-child MTSS platform can make a difference: “For the first time ever, we’ve been able to unify our academic and behavior intervention programs, collaborate on intervention plans in one place, and work directly with SEL data to support our children and teachers.”
MTSS Support Teams
At its heart, MTSS is a collaborative process that relies on teams of educators to help students meet goals. School-based teams typically incorporate time to evaluate and strengthen Tier 1 practices that support all students, as well as to review early warning indicators for students in need of Tier 2 or Tier 3 interventions. For students with action plans, Student Support Teams meet regularly for progress monitoring and to determine if the student has met the goal of the intervention. Support teams are also critical in establishing and monitoring systems for Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions. Across multiple school teams, a single system of record can help educators collaborate effectively, share intervention plans, and monitor progress.
According to the Tiered Fidelity Inventory framework employed at Portland Public Schools, a Tier II, or combined Tier II/III, team might include a Tier II systems coordinator and individuals able to provide applied behavioral expertise, administrative authority, knowledge of students, and knowledge about operation of school across grade levels and programs. Additionally, members should reflect student and community demographics.
MTSS District Support
Because MTSS is, by definition, a system-wide practice, school district leaders support effective MTSS practices through communicating a unified vision. District-level support for MTSS must include long-term planning, program evaluation, resource allocation to schools, and professional development.
School districts such as San Angelo Public Schools (TX) and Liberty Public Schools (MO) anchor their MTSS vision on a portrait of a graduate, a holistic picture of the skills and mindsets that will make their graduates successful in college and beyond. School districts such as Portland Public Schools anchor their vision in Racial Equity and Social Justice. While the vision may be unique to your district, anchoring and communicating a clear vision is important to overcoming silos that have traditionally existed between Student Services and Curriculum and Instruction.
District-level MTSS teams can also meet regularly to evaluate fidelity of implementation and intervention efficacy. Implementing MTSS with fidelity is linked to improved student outcomes. For this reason, many districts use frameworks such as the Tiered Fidelity Inventory to ensure schools are consistently and effectively meeting the needs of all students.
Increasingly, districts are adopting system-wide MTSS data systems to drive continuous improvement and monitor student outcomes. A central system can support educators and administrators in triangulating student data to better understand root causes of present challenges. It can also enable collaboration around interventions to support student needs. Additionally, having a unified data system means that academic, behavioral, and SEL data will follow students as they transition from elementary school to middle school to high school, preventing students slipping through the cracks during key transitions.
MTSS and Educational Equity
Equity is deeply embedded in the MTSS framework — which, at its core, provides a set of systems, structures, and practices to build a positive, equitable, and inclusive learning environment for each student. An MTSS that advances equity gives all students access to a great education in the most inclusive environment possible. This access is provided using universal screening and progress monitoring data to start a student in the least intensive support environment, and adding or removing that support as needed.
The practice of data-based decision-making and documentation of MTSS interventions can support the reduction of bias in schools. The use of data in MTSS can uncover disparities in interventions provided based on race, ethnicity, or other student group identifiers— leading to over-referrals for discipline or special education.
The emphasis of a strong Tier 1 through a positive and inclusive school climate also drives equity. When examining the proportion of students requiring additional Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, first check that your Tier 1 is truly equitable and inclusive. In addition to looking at disparities in discipline and academic achievement, consider surveying students and staff about their perceptions of equity and inclusion at school.
MTSS and Social-Emotional Learning
An important priority for many districts this school year will be to support the whole child through social-emotional learning (SEL). The MTSS framework complements this work with its focus on whole child supports across social-emotional wellbeing, academics, and behavior.
MTSS requires educators to deeply understand how our students are doing academically, socially, and emotionally in order to deliver the right intervention at the right time. For example, school districts such as Oxnard Public Schools (CA) engage in data-driven decision-making around SEL supports to advance the social and emotional development of all students and adults within their tiered support framework.
MTSS and COVID-19 Learning Recovery
NWEA predicts that, due to the "COVID slide," students will return in the fall with roughly 70 percent of learning gains in reading achievement relative to a typical school year and roughly 50 percent of learning gains in mathematics. As COVID-19 continues to affect schools and communities, educators are challenged to support students experiencing learning loss and to prevent the widening of achievement gaps in hybrid or remote learning settings. How can the MTSS model keep students on track with grade-level standards? In many cases, school districts use assessments to identify students who are falling behind. In a remote environment, however, access to assessments can be problematic. Even schools with comprehensive assessment data may need to adapt their existing cut points and decision rules to ensure that intervention resources go to the 15-20 percent of students with the greatest need.
In the context of COVID-19, school leaders like Heather Fuger, elementary school principal at Iowa's Central Lee Community School District, are encouraging educators to identify and deploy MTSS interventions that are proven to drive results:
One of the things we're doing at Central Lee right now is taking inventory of our most effective literacy interventions for word accuracy, fluency, and other skills. What interventions were working the best before school buildings closed? When it comes to next school year, we can't afford to wait for six weeks to see if an intervention is working. We need to focus on the interventions that we're good at and that have already been successful for our students... and let go of the interventions that aren't working.
For students who don’t reach the Tier 2 intervention threshold but still may face challenges related to learning loss, strengthening Tier 1 becomes even more critical. According to Emily Maciá, former principal at Achievement First (NY), certain Tier 2 interventions may need to become Tier 1 supports during this time. For example, in elementary school, do literacy circles become a universal support? In middle school and high school, does it make sense to provide all students with text guides or guiding questions to get them back in the habit of analyzing text?
Many educators are also using social-emotional learning strategies to ensure that, at the Tier 1 level, students are engaged in virtual learning and have a growth mindset to overcome challenges in literacy and other core academic subjects.
Examples of MTSS in Action: Strategies from School and District Leaders
A growing number of schools and districts are prioritizing tiered frameworks to ensure that educators are delivering the right interventions to students at the right time. This work includes setting up data systems, mobilizing human resources, and aligning staff around goals and expectations for MTSS.
While each district is at a different stage in this journey, there's a lot to learn from the processes, strategies, and tools being used today to implement MTSS.
Below, take a look at how innovative schools and districts across the country are paving the way forward for MTSS and changing what it means to prepare students for bright futures.
Explore how education leaders are serving students' academic, social, and emotional needs within a structured system of supports that works for their school or district.
Getting Started With MTSS at San Angelo ISD - District and school leaders in San Angelo, Texas share their MTSS vision, journey, and systems for collaboration during distance learning.
How Everett Went from a 62% to 95% Graduation Rate with MTSS and SEL - The Director of Equity and Interventions of Oxford School District shares how the Student Success Platform has transformed her district's MTSS.
All Means All: How Oxford SD Supports the Whole Child and Whole Teacher This School Year - The Director of Equity and Interventions of Oxford School District shares how the Student Success Platform has transformed her district's MTSS.
6 Best Practices for MTSS Interventions from Ogden School District - Administrators in Ogden, Utah share their playbook for delivering MTSS interventions.
Data Interoperability for MTSS in Morris School District - Learn the six steps to aligning data in a MTSS from Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast in Morris, New Jersey.
Coordinating the MTSS Process at Penn Yan Central School District - Read about the MTSS process in Penn Yan, New York and how the leadership team coordinates school-wide practices and expectations.
Distance Learning Intervention Menu - 41 evidence-based interventions to implement MTSS/RTI during hybrid or distance learning
SEL Interventions Toolkit - Use These Intervention Ideas to Build Student Belonging and Accelerate Learning Recovery
3 Questions Every Data-Driven MTSS Team Must Ask Weekly - Use These Questions to Drive Your Next Student Support Team Meeting (Remote or In Person!)
42 MTSS Intervention Strategies to Bring Back to Your Support Team - See a list of student intervention ideas curated from educators across the country.
5 Biggest Challenges of MTSS: How Districts Are Responding - School and district leaders share how they're working to address the biggest obstacles of getting started with MTSS.
The Key to Delivering Dynamic Student Support in Groton Central School District - Learn how New York's Groton Central School District uses real-time data on the whole child to deliver dynamic students supports.
The State of MTSS in Education: Infographic
Many schools and districts are starting to explore tiered intervention frameworks. Yet, bringing MTSS strategies to life presents many challenges.
This infographic shares insights from more than 400 educators and administrators on the state of MTSS in education today. Learn what K-12 education leaders are saying about the opportunities, challenges, and benefits of implementing a tiered support system.
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Guide: Solving 5 Biggest Challenges of MTSS
Download this guide to learn how school and district leaders are overcoming the biggest obstacles of getting started with MTSS.
Webinar: Level Up Your MTSS
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Case Study: Scaling MTSS in Ogden School District
Explore this interactive case study to learn how Ogden School District (UT) is building MTSS from the ground up to support the whole child.