June 19, 2014

By Alexa Posny, PhD, Former Chief State School Officer

A question that I constantly wonder about is this: What does it look like when teachers are truly making a difference in the lives of each and every one of their students?

Improving learning starts with knowing the academic and behavioral needs of each and every student. It also means engaging students and their families in the learning process, while knowing that educators themselves make one of the most significant contributions to long-term student success in school.

Over the years, I have visited many schools and chatted with both students and teachers about what they think makes a difference. While visiting a school in Maryland, I asked a student, “What is it your teachers did to help you be successful?” His answer was simple and honest, “They cared. They took the time to figure out what I needed.” With all of our attention in education on programs and policies, he reminded me of the most critical aspect: recognizing the difference that an effective, caring, and competent teacher makes.

How can we do this? First of all, we must believe that each and every child can learn and achieve to high standards, both academically and behaviorally. This means we have to build a system of prevention, support, and early intervention to ensure all students are learning from the instruction they receive.

Here’s what we know:

  • The earlier school staff can assess students’ needs and identify those with difficulties, the quicker and less expensive it is to help struggling learners catch up.
  • The longer a student goes without assistance, the longer the remediation time and the more intense the services must be.
  • There is emerging evidence that many students who struggle in the early grades cannot catch up if we wait until they are nine years of age to deliver intensive remediation.

Across the nation, schools use a variety of different interventions and ways to monitor student learning under the names of “early intervening services” and “response to intervention.” One of the most compelling is a formal Response to Intervention (or “RTI”) model, which is a way of screening children, early in their schooling, to help educators identify those who may not be responding to instruction–and thus may be at risk for failure. The technique allows schools to provide students with more intensive support–and monitor their progress—in every classroom.

What makes RTI different and successful is that it’s focused on each child’s achievement through the use of problem solving. It uses evidence-based practices that help meet the needs of every child, practices that include effective instruction and differentiated curriculum. It’s based on sound screening data and progress monitoring resulting in data-based decision-making. And of critical importance, it is timely and informative. When implemented well, RTI can enhance how all students are taught. By viewing RTI as a whole-school or whole-district approach that involves multiple tiers of increasing supports and interventions, teachers continuously monitor how students are doing and provide assistance as soon as it’s needed. It is not just another initiative or another label.

While RTI is an instructional framework focused on student response to instruction and intervention, it has become interchangeable with “Multi-Tier System of Supports” or “MTSS.” MTSS is an instructional framework, yet it differs in one major aspect—it is far more comprehensive. Simply put, MTSS is the guiding framework for school improvement activities that includes a continuum of increasingly intense research-based interventions provided to students that respond to their academic and/or behavioral needs. It includes the early identification and quick response to the needs of any struggling learner, is prevention-oriented, and resolves the disconnected nature of the supports within our schools. The outcome is to ensure that each student achieves to high standards.

So how is MTSS more comprehensive than RTI? Here are some ways:

  • MTSS addresses academic as well as the social, emotional, and behavioral development of children.
  • MTSS provides multiple levels of support for all learners (e.g., struggling through advanced).
  • MTSS aligns resources and support for students receiving instruction and for teachers and support staff delivering the instruction.
  • The MTSS framework is an educational systems “paradigm shift” continuously focused on sustainable, overall school improvement.
  • MTSS benefits from continued support for teachers in delivering instruction, utilizing and developing effective curriculum, administering assessments, and using data to guide instruction.
  • MTSS focuses on intervention, yet it has a stronger goal of prevention.
  • MTSS requires teachers, administrators, district personnel, and student support specialists with a more collaborative and cohesive culture.

Over forty states and school districts—including the states of Kansas and Utah and the school districts of Los Angeles and Boston—have adopted an MTSS framework. While we will continue to hear the terms RTI and MTSS used interchangeably, we should recognize that MTSS brings in additional support systems to student learning, resulting in systemic alignment and support, and provides opportunities for all students to succeed and excel. Most importantly, ALL students benefit when using an MTSS model, especially when it is implemented with fidelity.

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