MTSS: A student-support wonder worker? Or a delay tactic before students can get Special Education services?

Hi teacher friends, how is it going with supporting struggling students in your classroom and at your school?

Most of you and your fellow teachers are discussing struggling students in groups during PD, and no doubt you’ve heard the meeting called “MTSS.” Perhaps you’ve heard teachers debating whether MTSS is working. Maybe you even wonder yourself.

MTSS (or Multiple Tiers of Student Support) is an initiative designed to bring together teachers and the support staff who can help them to focus on students who need help. It is supposed to be a coming together for mutual aid – a teacher seeking ideas and extra hands, and support staff who may need to know more about students in their caseload. These meetings may also lead to referral for additional services.

In my experience, this works well enough. Except … this being school, sometimes it doesn’t go quite as planned.  

The complicated nature of the MTSS initiative can leave teachers unsure about where they are in the process and what the steps are meant to lead to. In our school, MTSS tends to be the first step to possible referrals for special education services, although I’ve been told it doesn’t have to be. But if a student is referred, and nothing happens, does that mean MTSS doesn’t work?

I have been told that the answer is to re-refer. Students can go through MTSS twice in a year or even more.

The fact that I didn’t really know this until last week suggests that maybe many teachers are foggy on the MTSS process and where, in the best possible world, the MTSS road is supposed to lead. 

I’ve found several articles that answer good questions about MTSS.

Did MTSS Come from Combining RtI (Response to Intervention) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports)?

Well – sort of. Read more in RTI, PBIS and MTSS – an evolution or a revolution?

What are the core driving beliefs behind MTSS?

There are six foundational beliefs driving MTSS:

  1. All Children have the capability of meeting grade level expectations
  2. MTSS uses a preventative model
  3. MTSS places emphasis on validated or research-based techniques to improve results
  4. MTSS uses data
  5. MTSS instructional practices must be designed to meet students’ unique needs.
  6. MTSS is pro-reform tool for school culture.

Now we can see one reason why MTSS might be raising eyebrows. That number one foundational belief is *very* unpopulat with teachers.  But I say let’s just let it go, it’s not necessary to challenge it. After all, discussing whether all students can meet grade level expectations is like discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It may ultimately be answerable, but even if it is, it doesn’t change anything.

Is it possible that school districts could use MTSS to gatekeep access to Special Education Services?

Unfortunately, yes. However, this is pretty much true of all the methods we use to discuss and test students for special education services.  Here’s a website from the state of Nebraska that makes it pretty clear that MTSS could be used in a gatekeeping function there:

“A deeply implemented MTSS must be in place prior to disability determination…”

And if MTSS is not up and running? Well, I guess we’ll just continue with the student in the classroom doing what they’re doing and see if they get better on their own … back to meditation on Our Imperfect World.

Does this MTSS have anything to do with the three tiers of instruction idea?

Well, it’s part of the initiative’s history. For more info, read Emergence of three tiers of instruction: An idea that was first put forth at the University of Oregon in 1995 by Dr. Hill Walker.

What is the timeline of the development of RTI and MTSS?

These initiatives, it’s worth remembering have their beginning in the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975), as well as NCLB (No Child Left Behind act of 2001), and ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015)

Here is a Timeline of history of RTI and MTSS.

Who is making us do MTSS anyway?

Your District is the one which decides to do MTSS.

Well do they *have* to do MTSS or can we all get out of it if they let us?

Districts have to do something so they can show they are complying with IDEA and ESSA. MTSS is the current best-practices approach to meeting the mandates of these laws which demand efforts toward equity in student achievement. In other words, the District doesn’t exactly *have* to do MTSS, but if they didn’t, they’d just have to do something else. Right now 49 out of 50 states are using it according to one report I read.

What are the *tiers* in *multiple tiers of support*?

Although you might think of the tiers as referring to first, second and third tiers, which we’re all familiar with now from RtI, the tiers of MTSS are more fluid and more various. Tiers could include a socio-emotional group with a paraprofessional or walks with the behavior interventionist or reading groups with the homeroom teacher or working with a buddy. Multiple tiers mean various options. Why didn’t they call it “various options for student support?” Well, perhaps the designers wanted to re-use the idea of intensification of support that was originally introduced with RtI. It might be safe to say that MTSS is the natural child of RtI and PBIS … it does look that way to me.

Okay, well is this MTSS working better than RtI?

Before I answer that I want to say that as far as I can see, RtI was never widely and completely implemented. It was talked about, it was suggested, and lists were made up, but the true scope of RtI and the level of student support it envisioned were simply more than most Districts were willing to pay for. It was frustrating to watch for an everyday teacher like me.

As for whether MTSS works better, there doesn’t seem to be any easy answers on the web. That means one of two things.

  1. It isn’t working and so they’re not talking about it. (You know this is the graveyard of many, many teaching initiatives in the past 50 years. Or
  2. There’s no real way to test whether it’s working, or people can’t agree on what would *mean* it is working, and so they’re not telling us. This one is probably more likely.


So, my suggestion to school team members who are struggling to understand this process, teachers who are irritated about extra paperwork, and parents who wonder if this is going to speed up or slow down their kids getting extra help, I can only recommend patience and due diligence. Asking questions. And not always doing things the easy way.

If a student is seriously struggling, it’s unlikely that the problem is going to be fixed by letting him sit by the door or bring a stuffie to school. Knowledge gaps are fixed by instruction, and big knowledge gaps are, by and large, fixed by large amounts of instruction or not fixed at all. So if MTSS allows us to reach that process of bringing solid instruction to students who need it, then MTSS is what we need.

Certainly more hands on deck will bring stronger results. One of the situations that schools struggle with is problems with communication and understanding ways to meet student needs. MTSS definitely takes a step in the right direction in its mandate that all stakeholders have a chance to meet and talk.

I guess I conclude that MTSS, although confusing enough that I didn’t quite understand it before I wrote this essay, is clearly a solution, although perhaps not a complete one, to a long-stranding problem of gaps in student learning. I pledge to trust the process in future and hope that colleagues, as they understand it better, will do the same. After all, we are educators. And I think there is something in the teacher mind – at least when we’re most healthy — that leads us to believe in process and in routines.

Even new and improved ones with confusing acronyms as names.

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