“How can we implement MTSS/RtI when we have an upside-down triangle?”
I hear this refrain from schools across the U.S. that do not have the perfectly distributed groups of students just like that perfectly illustrated Response-to-Instruction/Intervention triangle which shows 80 percent of students receiving and succeeding with core instruction (tier 1), 15 percent needing moderate interventions and support (tier 2), and 5 percent needing significant interventions and support (tier 3).
The unfortunate reality in many schools is that far less than 80 percent of students are mastering academic standards through tier 1 instruction alone. Given this predicament, how can school leaders tackle RtI implementation?
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), which include RtI, are built on the idea that general education instruction should meet the needs of the majority of students. When that isn’t the case, the first place to look is at the curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is happening in general education classrooms and how well these systems align with each other and with state academic standards. The next step is to review the performance and preparedness of the student body.
Disaggregating data is particularly helpful—but don’t just look at overall proficiency rates. Dig into the assessments. Can you look at subtests or subsections diagnostically to break down reading skills into decoding, fluency, identifying key ideas and details, or determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in text? Understanding at this level helps teachers to know that they are not responsible for re-teaching all of the previous grade level’s content; rather, they can and should focus on specific, targeted areas of need. The data should also show at what scale to design the lessons: whole class, small group, or individual level.
We know that not all students come to school with equal levels of preparation. Consider your data carefully—what does it say about your students? Do all of your kindergarteners come to school knowing their letters, numbers, and colors? Do your middle school students understand the concepts of mass, force, and motion? Can all of your 9th graders simplify quadratic equations? If not, what percentage need to learn this? If it’s greater than 20–25 percent, focus on improving tier 1 general education. If 15–20 percent are struggling, consider what interventions are available to address those needs. If fewer than 5 percent of your students are struggling, this can be an area that’s best addressed through individual problem-solving.
Most schools don’t have the luxury of focusing on improving just one of the three tiers for an entire school year. As an assistant principal in Englewood, Colorado told me, “We knew that we needed to focus on our core instruction, but we also had students with significant tier 3 needs that we couldn’t ignore. We tackled both at the same time, and reconciled it by asking ourselves which kids really stand out against our own norms, even though 50 percent of our students are not proficient.” At this school, the general education teachers worked collaboratively during a PLC time to address their core instructional needs, while a smaller multi-disciplinary group tackled school-wide intervention needs.
Knowing where to start with RtI implementation when your triangle is upside-down can be a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Start with your data—let it guide where to focus your energies. Here are some questions to consider:
- What aspects of your core curriculum and instructional practices are addressing the needs of about 80 percent of learners, and what aspects need adjustment?
- Who in your school is best suited to tackle improvements in this area (e.g. leadership team, grade level team, content area team)?
- Do you have certain areas where every year you know you will need interventions available (e.g. attendance, reading decoding, problem-solving)?
- Are your interventions meeting the needs of about 85 percent of the students who receiving them? Do any of your interventions need adjustments (time, frequency, group size, content)?
- Who in your school is best suited to tackle this?
Drawing on her experience as an MTSS/RtI manager at both the state and district level, Dr. Adena Miller helps McREL’s client schools and districts develop their vision and scale-up strategies for implementing, monitoring, and improving systems for student supports and interventions. You can reach Dr. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.