By Tessie Rose Bailey
September 20, 2019

Does it seem like everyone’s talking more about MTSS and less about RTI? If you said yes, you would be right. In March 2017, I began analyzing state department of education’s use of the terms response to intervention (RTI) and multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to describe a schoolwide, integrated tiered system of support. At that time, the prevalence of RTI versus MTSS was not well known and the inconsistent use of the terms was delaying or inhibiting effective implementation (see Charlton and colleagues). The initial analysis of state websites revealed that over a decade after RTI was included in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act more states were using MTSS (41%, see Table 1) than RTI (33%) when referring to tiered support systems. Check out the images below to see how states’ use of the terms have shifted over the last three years.

Prominence of RTI or MTSS on State Websites as March 2017

Graph of states using MTSS (MT, ND, WY, CA, AZ, UT, CO, KS, MO, SD, MI, VT, IL, LA, MS, FL, NC, OH, PA, MD), RTI (OR, ID, NV, AK, NM, TX, AR, NE, TN, AL, GA, SC, DC, NY, NH, ME), other state specific terms (NJ, MA, CT, VA, WV, KY, OK, HI, WI) or not specified (WA, MN, IA, IN) as of March 2017.

Prominence of RTI or MTSS on State Websites as of January 2018

Graph of states using MTSS (OR, CA, MT, WY, UT, AZ, CO, ND, SD, KS, MN, IA, MO, LA, MI, IN, TN, OH, MS, PA, NC, SC, FL, WT, MD, RI)), RTI (NC, ID, AK, NM, TX, NE, AR, AL, GA, NY, ME, NH, DE, DC), other state specific terms (MA, CT, VA, WV, KY, OK, HI, WI) or not specified (WA) as of January 2018.

Prominence of RTI or MTSS on State Websites as of February 2019

Graph of states using MTSS (WA, OR, CA, MT, WY, UT, AZ, CO, ND, SD, NE, KS, MN, IA, MO, LA, MI, IN, IL TN, OH, MS, PA, NY, NC, SC, FL, WT, MD, RI, DE)), RTI (NC, ID, NM, TX, NE, AR, AL, GA, NY, ME, NH, DE, DC), other state specific terms (MA, NJ CT, VA, WV, KY, OK, HI, WI) or not specified (AK) as of February 2019.

Table 1. Break down by year of review

This graph illustrates the change in language over time. In 2017 21 states used MTSS, in 2018 27 states used MTSS and in 2019 32 states used MTSS. In 2017 17 states used RTI, in 2018 14 states used RTI and in 2019 9 states used RTI. Nine states used other names across all three years and in 2017 4 states did not specify and in 2018 and 2019 1 state did not specify.

As seen in the images above, the prevalence of MTSS has continued to grow while the use of the term RTI has steadily declined. In fact, in the last three years nearly 50% of state education websites shifted from using the term RTI or RTI/MSS interchangeably to predominantly using the term MTSS, including at least five states (i.e., WA, NE, GA, NY, DE) in the last year alone. For some, like Montana and Georgia, this shift resulted as part of the implementation of their state professional development grant (SPDG). For others, like California, there was a need to align academic and behavior supports under one seamless tiered system called MTSS. Interestingly, during this time there was no change in states that use personalized versions of a ‘tiered system of support’ [e.g., Oklahoma Tiered System of Support (OTISS), Virginia Tiered System of Support (VTSS), Kentucky System of Interventions (KSI) or Connecticut Scientific Research-Based Interventions (SRBI)]. Perhaps this personalized approach assists the state in distinguishing its model more clearly than those states that use the generic terms of MTSS or RTI.

Is the RTI to MTSS terminology shift likely to continue? Most likely yes, especially given the increasing local use of the term MTSS in some states still using RTI, like Texas or Alaska. In fact, education service centers in Texas are hosting MTSS conferences, and districts in more populated areas of Alaska, like Anchorage and Fairbanks, promote MTSS only on their website.

Why the Shift from RTI?

There could be many reasons why MTSS is gaining popularity over RTI. Below are some common reasons shared in recent state convenings hosted by various national centers.  

  • Need to rebrand ‘RTI’, which became synonymous with special education. Initial implementation of RTI was supported in many states through IDEA funds, like comprehensive coordinated early intervening services or state professional development grants, and overseen by special education divisions within district and state education agencies. As a result, RTI unintentionally became associated with special education practices rather than a school-wide prevention framework as intended. In some states like Kansas, RTI is only used in reference to the eligibility determination process for students with learning or other disabilities.
  • MTSS integrates academic and behavior tiered models. For many years, positive behavior intervention supports (PBIS) and academic RTI functioned as two separate systems in most states. The National Association of School Psychologists and others promoted MTSS as way to integrate academics and behavior into an aligned framework. Many current images of state MTSS model demonstrate how academic RTI and PBIS fit within MTSS, like California.
  • MTSS is more comprehensive than RTI. In some states the evolution from RTI to MTSS reflects the need to describe a more comprehensive, support system of prevention. For example, Colorado found that MTSS more appropriately described the prevention framework that expanded beyond academic and behavior instruction and intervention. It included necessary partnerships, and shared leadership.
  • Preference for MTSS in federal guidance and messaging. Although the U.S Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) described RTI as the schoolwide multi-tiered instructional framework for addressing academic and behavior needs of all students in a 2011 memo to State Directors of Special Education, more recent communication suggests a shift to MTSS. In a 2015 Dear Colleague Letter, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) referred to RTI as the academic tiered approach while using MTSS to describe the overarching tiered framework that would encompass RTI as an academic model and positive behavior interventions supports (PBIS) as the behavior model. For many, the inclusion of ‘multi-tier system of support’ [see Sec 2224(e)(4) and Sec 2103 (b)(3)(F)], and no reference to RTI, signaled that MTSS was the preferred approach.

Does it really matter what terms state’s use? Charlton and colleagues’ findings suggest it does. A common language across systems (i.e., federal, state, district, school, educator preparation) is essential for sustaining successful implementation of effective practices, including tiered system of supports. Whether one state’s MTSS model is the same as another is a bigger question for a future blog.  Stay tuned!