RtI, PBIS, and MTSS: An evolution, a revolution, or roses by other names?

If your state is anything like Colorado, Florida, or Michigan, an educational revolution is occurring—or perhaps it would be more apt to say, an evolution is occurring—with districts making the shift from using Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), to using Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).  

If you’ve been in education for any length of time, you’ve seen many innovations and initiatives come and go. In the book Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success, Bryan Goodwin compares the amount of information bombarding teachers to signal noise, the static crackles that interfere with clear reception on your radio. He writes, “…the preponderance of reports, information and ideas in the field of education may have the effect of drowning out the big ideas—the key underlying principles of what’s most important when it comes to improving the odds for life success for all students.”

So, is this shift from RtI and PBIS to MTSS simply static leading to more confusion, or is it more significant than that? To gain some insight, let’s take a look at the traditional use of the terms and the implications for educators today.

RtI gained popularity after the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in 2004, which prompted educators to identify students with specific learning disabilities by measuring their response to scientific, research-based instruction. While there’s no commonly agreed upon definition of RtI, there is general consensus that the framework should include a multiple tiers of instruction and interventions, and the use of data and assessment to inform decisions and problem-solving at each tier. Ideally, RtI is a preventative, proactive, school-wide framework designed to address efficiently the needs of all students with an appropriate level of intensity to ensure strong outcomes.

McREL_MTSS Blog Pull Quote-01PBIS has been around a bit longer than RtI, and there is more consensus regarding its definition and characteristics. PBIS is defined as a framework for enhancing the adoption and implementation of a continuum of evidence-based interventions to achieve academically and behaviorally important outcomes for all students. Key characteristics include using research-based practices to support students across all school settings  (school-wide, non-classroom, classroom); establishing a continuum of behavior support practices and systems including universal screening, progress monitoring, team-based decision-making rules and procedures, and monitoring implementation fidelity; and using relevant data to guide decision-making.

Both RtI and PBIS have great strengths and research to support their use, but each also suffers from serious misconceptions. Because of the emphasis on using RtI for identifying students with learning disabilities, in many places it has become a set of hoops to jump through to get kids into special education, rather than a framework for addressing the needs of all learners. PBIS, on the other hand, is often misunderstood to be a ‘token economy’ with the use of tangible rewards for motivating students to do what they should be intrinsically motivated to do, rather than the direct instruction of behavioral expectations and providing students with descriptive feedback on how they are doing.

Another common point of confusion is whether RtI is inclusive of behavior and social-emotional interventions, or if those are a part of a separate system. In schools that problem-solve academics separately from behavior, students are sometime discussed in great depth by two different groups of people, both with great intentions, but not communicating and collaborating effectively. The end result: two sets of interventions not leveraging the benefits of each other (and sometimes working at odds with each other).

And that’s where MTSS comes in. Proponents like the name better than RtI, because it describes what the framework really is about—a multi-tiered system designed to support student outcomes; it’s what we should have called it from the start. Additionally, MTSS integrates academic and behavioral supports. In other words, rather than problem-solving academics in one room and behavior in another, teams work together to consider how academic challenges may influence observed behaviors, and vice-versa (whether for the whole school, small groups, or individuals). Other than that, the key characteristics of RtI and MTSS are the same: use of a continuum of evidence and research-based instruction and intervention practices to support students across all school settings; using relevant data or information to effectively and efficiently problem-solve; and establishing a continuum of practices and systems.

Now, we find ourselves back at the original question: Is this a revolution or an evolution? I think the answer is: It depends on how RtI and PBIS have been used in your school or system. If your educators see RtI as a means for getting students into special education, or if your teams consider behavior in isolation from academics, then this shift to MTSS is probably significant. However, if your implementation looks a lot like the definition of MTSS (integrated, preventative, problem-solving approach), then the shift is likely mere semantics.

Either way, what matters most in the end is not what we call it, but what we actually do and the results we achieve for our students.


Miller_Adena_2015_2070Drawing 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 strategies for implementing, monitoring, and improving systems for student supports and interventions. You can reach Dr. Miller at amiller@mcrel.org or 800.858.6830.


Righting your RtI/MTSS triangle

“How can we implement MTSS/RtI when we have an upside-down triangle?”

RTI Triangle_OT-01I 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.

RtI_Blog Pull Quote_OT-01Most 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:

Tier 1:

  1. What aspects of your core curriculum and instructional practices are addressing the needs of about 80 percent of learners, and what aspects need adjustment?
  2. Who in your school is best suited to tackle improvements in this area (e.g. leadership team, grade level team, content area team)?

Tier 2/3:

  1. Do you have certain areas where every year you know you will need interventions available (e.g. attendance, reading decoding, problem-solving)?
  2. 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)?
  3. Who in your school is best suited to tackle this?


Miller_Adena_2015_2070Drawing 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 amiller@mcrel.org.


Helping students train their inner voices

IStock_000022895993_LargeWhen it comes to asking questions in the classroom, the most important voice may be the one that you don’t hear. As McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin writes in the September issue of Educational Leadership, while we know teacher questioning is key to student learning, research suggests what matters more are the questions that students ask themselves.

Self-questioning, Goodwin explains, is something effective learners do naturally. For example, say you’re watching a science program on TV and you hear an astronomer explain that much of the starlight in the night sky comes from stars that may no longer exist. A little voice in your head might say, Wait, I don’t get that as you reach for the remote and rewind the program to listen again. This voice helps us connect what we’re learning with what we already know, look for the “big ideas” and connect them back to ourselves, and ask more questions that extend learning.

Fortunately, this kind of self-questioning is something teachers can train all students to do. Goodwin notes several research studies that support the effectiveness of such training—in one study, for example, a teacher named Alison King trained a class of 9th graders to ask themselves higher-order comparison-contrast questions, causal-relationship questions, and analysis questions while listening to history lectures. Comprehension tests showed that those students significantly outperformed their peers who did not receive the training.

Not only that, Goodwin points out, but such interventions don’t require much time to do and the effects appear to stick. In King’s study, the training took a mere 90 minutes and, when students listened to a subsequent lecture without any prompts about self-questioning, they still showed higher levels of comprehension.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.


Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work

IStock_000021923625LargeA new report on a two-year study conducted by TNTP on the effectiveness of professional development (PD) for teachers suggests that much of the available PD is ineffective in helping teachers improve, and that vast resources are being spent on programs that don’t stick.

Our experience in working with districts and regional/state agencies has been that some PD works, and some doesn’t.

What doesn’t work, in our experience, are those PD activities that are “siloed.” These are sessions or efforts that have little or no direct connection to a school or district’s improvement goals, and aren’t built on a researched, proven framework. They may have ignited a spark of enthusiasm or interest among participants in the moment, but when learnings and take-aways aren’t embedded into daily practice, they become easily forgotten or ignored. Outcomes are not monitored and analyzed, and the focus might shift or a new spark might ignite after a year or two.

Teachers who have been in education for a while see many PD programs come and go, often with little time to fully develop, implement, test, and master the new processes. Because of this, unfortunately, I’ve heard about cases of veteran teachers who advised newer teachers to wait a new PD program out, knowing that the PD pendulum will likely swing in a new direction soon enough.

PD that does work is driven by, and aligned with, strategic plans and an assessment of staff needs. Session content is founded on research and proven frameworks. The delivery of the professional learning is thoughtfully planned and spread throughout the school year, giving participants time to hone their use of the new strategies and establish a sequence of learning and mastery for each concept. Implementation is monitored, feedback is given, and effect on professional practice and student learning is measured. The spark is fed and fanned into a sustained flame.

The following components of effective PD can yield better, long-lasting results:

      • Relevancy over time
      • Practical application
      • Conducted by professionals with classroom experience
      • Immediate application of the new learning with students
      • Buy-in and support from administrators who incorporate the same practices into their own work

Here’s an example of this more systemic approach in action. The Florida Department of Education embarked on a statewide initiative a couple of years ago to provide more effective PD systems for teachers, focusing on protocol standards across four strands: planning, learning, implementing, and evaluating. McREL helped the department with this initiative, focusing on data-driven, systemic planning that assessed PD needs, monitoring each stage of implementation, and evaluating the impact of the PD on classroom practice.

Paramount to every aspect of the process was the development of a common language in which PD was discussed, with clear definitions about what success was and how it would be measured. This framework enabled districts to collaborate with each other throughout the process, encouraging feedback that further informed the improvement process and helped districts align their policies and practices on curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

To read more about good PD system practices, check out these additional blog posts by my colleagues at McREL:

You might also be interested in this response to the TNTP study from three educators who question its findings and explain their position. 


AblaCheryl_6851_webCheryl Abla is an education consultant and product manager for McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.


Are your school improvement efforts stuck? Try an inside-out approach

IStock_000021258674_LargeAt one point or another, most educators find themselves in a school improvement effort that gets “stuck.” Frustratingly, this often happens after some initial success—and then, improvements reach a plateau or even slide backwards. In an article in the June online edition of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin looks at why this happens and what schools can do to get back on track.

The problem, Goodwin asserts, is that schools often latch on to a solution that works in the short term without understanding why it’s working. When efforts start to stall, they are then unable to adjust. For example, a school may adopt a new curriculum that leads to quick improvements in student achievement. But, a few years later, achievement stops improving and, unsure why, the school may either double down on implementation or drop it altogether and replace it with something else.

McREL's Success In Sight® Improvement Cycle
a similar improvement process cycle

High-performing schools, he explains, aren’t wedded to specific programs and, instead, adapt what they have to align with student needs. They know, for example, that their initial success was not just because of the program but because they had made their curriculum consistent and aligned.

Making long-term, meaningful changes require what Goodwin calls an “inside-out approach” to school improvement. The elements of this approach include a deep understanding of the problem, rapid-cycle improvement (studying a solution, improving it, studying the improved solution, etc.), and peer observation and coaching.

 You can read the entire article here.

Posted by McREL International.