By Tessie Roes Bailey
March 05, 2018

Educators are notorious for getting excited about new buzzwords or programs. And if you are like me, you were really excited the first time you were introduced to response to intervention (RTI) or multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). Like me, you probably thought to yourself, ‘is this going to just be another fad?’ or ‘can we really do this?' Until the last couple of years, I am not sure we really knew answers to those questions. However, after a recent review of the national and state landscape, I think we can safely say MTSS/RTI is here to stay.

Almost 15 years ago, the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act introduced the concept of RTI as an alternative to the discrepancy model for eligibility determination. Although it initially appeared to be a special education only initiative, the U.S. Department of Education made clear at the time that MTSS/RTI aligned with requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and, when implemented effectively, was a school-wide prevention model.

Since then, numerous studies have found that tiered systems of support can result in sustained academic performancereduced behavior problemsreduced inappropriate referrals to special education, and improved graduation rates. In fact, Hattie ranked MTSS/RTI as the sixth (out of 195) most influential variable on student achievement. Growing evidence also suggests that MTSS/RTI, when implemented with integrity, is an effective school improvement model. Unfortunately, schools claiming to implement MTSS/RTI across the country do not always see these benefits. A widely publicized Institute of Education Science funded evaluation of RTI seems to shed some light on why. In a review of 146 schools, the authors found that while 86% of schools claimed to be fully implementing a tiered framework, first grade students who were identified as at-risk through screening measures were falling further behind. Critics of this study have noted that a large majority of schools claiming to be implementing RTI were not. There appeared to be a lack of distinction between Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports, and it was unclear if students received validated interventions once identified. 

Concerns about the study results and struggles with initial implementation could have stopped implementation on MTSS/RTI in its tracks, but it didn’t. Instead, it helped us realize that what we implement is just as important as how we implement. To support implementation of MTSS/RTI, numerous federal centers have been funded to support MTSS/RTI model development -- the what – and successful implementation – the how. You may be familiar with the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring (NCSPM, 2002-2007) and  National Center on Response to Intervention (NCRTI, 2007-2012), which provided the foundational understanding of what we currently call MTSS/RTI. But, did you know there are current national centers that are helping states and districts scale up MTSS/RTI?

  • MTSS Center formally the Center for RTI and NCRTI, continues to provide resources, tools, coaching, and training to support states, districts, and schools in their efforts to implement MTSS/RTI with fidelity. Since 2007, the Center has assisted hundreds of school districts in more than 40 states across the country.
  • National Center on Intensive Intervention (2011 – present) supports state and local education agencies, universities, practitioners, and other stakeholders in implementation of intensive intervention (e.g., Tier 3). They will be working with up to eight states intensively over the next few years.
  • National Center for Systemic Improvement is working with 32 states and territories that have included MTSS/RTI in their State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP). These states have listed MTSS/RTI as part of their strategy for improving outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • CEEDAR Center (2012 -present) has been working with states and educator preparation providers to ensure that new educators are prepared to teach and lead in MTSS/RTI models. The Center provides course materials and innovation configurations for program evaluation.
  • State Implementation and Scaling-up of Evidence-based Practices (SISEP) Center provides tools and resources for supporting states and districts in scaling up evidence-based innovations, like MTSS/RTI.
  • Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior and Interventions and Supports, commonly known as the PBIS Center, supports schools, districts, and states to build systems capacity for implementing a multi-tiered approach to social, emotional and behavior support.

Has all of this made a difference? A review of department of education websites for all 50 states and D.C. indicate that it has. Although the terminology varies across states, every state references initiatives or guidance related to implementation of tiered systems of support. Some states are actively funding statewide initiatives through local or external funding. For example, 22 state recipients of State Professional Development Grants from 2015 – 2017 are directly supporting schools and districts in implementing school-wide tiered systems of support, in reading, math, and behavior.

And if you are still not convinced that MTSS/RTI is here to stay, check out this final fact. The Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA), which is the federal legislation for public education, references “multi-tier system of support” five times, and most importantly about its use in literacy in kindergarten through grade 12 as an allowable use of grant funds [Sec 2224(e)(4)]. Furthermore, ESSA makes clear that a multi-tier system of support is recognized as an approach for improving outcomes for students with disabilities and English language learners [Sec 2103 (b)(3)(F)]. Seven states have explicitly included MTSS/RTI in their ESSA plans to ensure students with disabilities are successful. Prior to this recent reauthorization of ESSA, ‘response to intervention’ or ‘multi-tiered system of support’ had never appeared in federal law or regulation.

Now that we can all agree that MTSS/RTI is here to stay, we must focus our efforts on helping schools and educators implement a tiered system of support with fidelity. We all– state education agencies, technical assistance providers, institutions of higher education, professional learning providers, and local education agencies – must work together to ensure that MTSS/RTI not only stays but leads to sustained improvements in outcomes for all students.