MTSS/RTI: The Power to Transform Schools and Districts



While Response to Intervention (RTI) may have stemmed from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as an alternative to the discrepancy model for identifying students with learning disabilities, many schools and districts across the country have realized that when they pair RTI with a Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS), the result is a reform methodology that not only provides better supports for students who struggle academically, but improves instruction and outcomes for every student. MTSS provides consistent methods to identify students who struggle, target tiered instruction and intervention supports, determine progress, and support professional learning efforts of staff. RTI provides a consistent methodology for evaluating the effectiveness and success of that system of supports. Both MTSS and RTI are needed to ensure the success of every student in a school or district.

The increased rigor of college and career-ready standards (i.e. CCSS) and the assessments that measure student success with those standards (i.e. PARCC and SBAC) will stress even the most sophisticated system of supports. These include supports to ensure student and teacher success. Will your school and district be ready when the percent of students identified as “struggling” or needing additional support to be successful goes from 25% to 50% or even greater? A strong MTSS/RTI framework has the power to help every school and district feel confident that they can tackle this challenge. This post and the ones that follow, will focus on the principles of a comprehensive MTSS/RTI framework, as well as help schools and districts to assess their readiness for full implementation and avoid some common pitfalls. One of the most common pitfalls is the assumption that simply applying a “research-based” intervention will guarantee success.

Why “Research-Based” Instruction and Interventions Sometimes Fail

In my work with schools and districts across the country, I often see large investments in multi-tiered supports aimed at improving student achievement. These supports include research-based academic and behavioral interventions, staff to provide those interventions, and professional learning opportunities for those staff. In many cases, the same set of supports produces great results in one school or district and poor results in another. Many of these supports are often discontinued when they “fail” without problem-solving to determine “why” they didn’t achieve the desired result. In my experience, the “implementation” of those supports is often the distinguishing feature in successful schools and districts. A number of implementation factors often determine the success of a research-based instructional approach or intervention. These include:

  • Amount of initial professional learning support provided to teachers and staff;
  • Level of “ongoing” instructional coaching support provided to teachers and staff;
  • Fidelity and adaptability with which the intervention is provided;
  • Differentiation in intensity of support targeted to the needs of students;
  • Frequency and validity of progress monitoring to know when to adjust supports; and
  • Number of competing initiatives that diffuse time, resources, and support.

Before we say that the instruction, intervention, approach, or teacher failed, it is critical to ensure through problem-solving that one of these implementation factors has not undermined our success. This problem-solving process can also support schools and districts to fine tune supports and eliminate those that do not result in success for teachers and students. This will ensure that both your MTSS and your RTI process provide the greatest return on investment.

Using Assessments to Drive Instruction

One of the most fundamental, yet most often misunderstood principles of MTSS/RTI is the idea of using assessment data to drive instruction and intervention decisions. In order to have a comprehensive MTSS/RTI framework, schools must make available an array of assessments including those used for screening, progress monitoring, ongoing progress monitoring, and diagnostic purposes. While the ideal would be one or even two assessments that meet all these purposes, no such assessments currently exist. In spite of this, many schools and districts attempt to “multi-purpose” assessments. This multi-purposing often leads schools to make erroneous assessment-based decisions that have large impacts on students. It is critical that schools invest wisely in assessments and ensure that decisions start with the purpose of the assessment. In my next post, I will share some easy to apply principles for choosing and appropriately using assessments as a critical component of MTSS/RTI.
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