How does Special Education fit into MTSS?

A Teaching Aside

My idea for this blog comes from a few quotes I heard in a class where we were talking about supporting students in the classroom. The quotes are as follows:

If 20% of students are at benchmark, you have to intervene with the other 80%. That intervention is called high quality core instruction.

You can’t intervene your way out of poor core instruction. If intervention succeeds, the kids return to poor instruction and fail anew.

I actually do not read these statements in any way as a dig at general education teachers. I interpret them as a dig on special education classrooms, wherein we often can have great individualized interventions, but we can fail miserably at core instruction. For all the gains we get in our interventions, we fall behind in our core instruction and our net gains can be depressingly minimal.

These ideas impact me because I believe wholeheartedly that we overuse special education. I also believe oftentimes we do not let students in special education have access to quality core instruction and thus hold them back and prevent them from working themselves out of special ed.

What is Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)?

From the Utah State office of Education, Utah’s implementation of MTSS can be defined as follows (source):

A multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS, is a framework for integrating assessment and intervention to maximize student achievement, reduce behavior problems, and increase long-term success (National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRI], 2010). The combination of systematic implementation of increasingly intensive intervention, sometimes referred to as tiers, and carefully monitoring students’ progress distinguishes MTSS from typical prevention measures. In an MTSS framework, emphasis is placed on ensuring that interventions are implemented effectively. This is often referred to as implementation integrity or fidelity.

In more colloquial language, MTSS is a three-tiered approach to providing quality instruction to meet the individual needs of all students. This model combines a standard system of assessment with high-quality instruction. Varying levels of interventions and services are designed for those students who are struggling. These levels are called tiers of instruction. The three tiers are on a continuum that is fluid, as the student’s level of need dictates the level of support.

The following are the necessary components of MTSS:

  1. Evidence-based practices for academics and behavior – this means we use the best teaching methods that have been shown to work and favor curricula that have an evidence base.
  2. Instructionally-relevant assessments – this means we progress monitor the students using assessment tools that make sense in the class and specifically assess the topics being taught.
  3. Team-based problem-solving – this means the pressure is not all on the teacher. A school wide team works together to plan for and work toward student success.
  4. Data-based decision making – this means data collected by assessments are what we use for decision making. We take these assessments and the student’s classroom performance and use those data streams to make decisions.
  5. Evidence-based professional development – this means we teach teachers how to implement these programs and how to properly intervene to facilitate student success.
  6. Supportive leadership – this means school and district leadership are on board with the team based decisions and will provide any necessary support.
  7. Meaningful parent and student involvement – this means parents are a key part of the decision making team. Students can (and in my opinion should) also be involved.

These are the three “Tiers” in MTSS:

  • Universal (Tier I) represents those supports provided to all students. Tier I practices should be implemented with fidelity prior to addressing practices for Tier II or III
  • Targeted (Tier II) represents additional supports provided to remediate or accelerate student success. This is usually through small group instruction of 6-8 students for 20 minutes a day as a general reteach.
  • Intensive (Tier III) represents individually-responsive supports intended to further remediate or accelerate student success and do not necessarily equate to special education services. Individually-responsive supports are developed based on individual need but may be provided in a small group or individual format. This is usually through very small group (1-4 students) instruction for 40-50 minutes a day to address specific, individual needs.

Critically, Tier II and III supports are provided in addition to, not in place of, Tier 1 instruction. Sadly, this particular factoid is easy to lose in how we talk about MTSS Tiers. We casually say 80% of students are in Tier I, 15% are in Tier II, and 5% are in Tier III. This is not true. More precisely, Tier I is sufficient for 80% of students to access the curriculum, Tier I + Tier II is sufficient for an additional 15% of students to access the curriculum, and Tier I + Tier II + Tier III is sufficient for another additional 5% of students to access the curriculum (Tier III can replace Tier II). So to rephrase another way, Tier I is given to 100% of students. Tier II is given to 15ish% of students in addition to Tier I instruction, and Tier III is given to 5ish% of students in addition to Tier I instruction.

It is my opinion that we can easily fall into the mistake of mis-stating the nature of the Tiers because of the confusing structure the MTSS diagrams take (see below, left). If we see a pyramid, we separate it into three chunks and separate them-it is only natural. I prefer stacked triangle formats or else circles inside of circles for the MTSS diagrams as they better convey the nature of MTSS Tiers (see below, right).

MTSS diagrams. On the left is the traditional diagram that looks a lot like Tier I ends where Tier II begins, etc. On the right is a diagram I like a whole lot more because it shows that additional Tiers are supplemental to Tier I.


So where does Special Education fit into this?

It has become commonplace in education to abandon the 5% needing Tier III intervention as kids that are the responsibility of the special education department. This is a problem. I say this is a problem because special education is not included in the MTSS pyramid/Tiers. Special education referrals occur after Tier III interventions prove to be insufficient to meet the needs of the student. In other words, their needs for individualized, differentiated instruction go beyond that accessible in the general education classroom.

To give an example, here are the general steps to refer a student for part time special education services (i.e., Resource) for academics:

  1. The classroom teacher teaches the class using high quality evidence based instruction, preferably direct or explicit instruction. For 80% of the students this is sufficient to access the curriculum and be successful.
  2. The classroom teacher teaches the class using high quality evidence based instruction, preferably direct or explicit instruction. For 20% of the students, the teacher pulls them aside in groups of 6-8 and provides a 20-30 min reteach 4-5 days a week. This is sufficient for an additional 15% to access the curriculum and be successful.
  3. The teacher identifies the 5% of students not accessing the curriculum successfully when provided Tier I and Tier II supports. The teacher communicates this to the school Student Support Team and they develop a plan for Tier III intervention and data collection for these students to specifically monitor progress. Parents are notified of possible academic concerns at this point.
  4. The classroom teacher teaches the class using high quality evidence based instruction, preferably direct or explicit instruction. For the 5% of students for whom Tier I and Tier II instruction were insufficient to access the curriculum, the teacher pulls them aside in groups of 1-4 and provides a 30-45 min of individualized, differentiated reteach 4-5 days a week. This is sufficient for the additional 5% to access the curriculum and be successful.
  5. Any students not successfully accessing the curriculum after Tier III interventions are referred to the special education department for the assessments required to receive special education services.
  6. Once qualified for special education services, the students are provided with even more intensive, individualized services. Care is taken to not deprive students of Tier I core instruction.
Why do I get excited about all of this?

I get excited because I like to turn systems on their heads. My last post was about my plans to develop a rubric to help students transition out of full time special education services and into the general education setting. To be more precise, my plan with that rubric is to maximize the access of students in special education to high quality general education Tier I instruction. I wholeheartedly believe that the best teacher for a 3rd grade student is a 3rd grade teacher. They can focus in on the skills required for mastery of the 3rd grade curriculum. When special education teachers have to differentiate across multiple grade levels, we teach less well than if we were able to hone in on a single grade like the general education teachers. What I mean by this is that special education is a supplement to general education; not a replacement. I actually think of myself as a sort of Tier IV in the three tiered system.

My turning of MTSS on its head works as follows: I look at my students’ academic and behavioral performance and compare them to their peers.

  • If my students appear like they should be receiving Tier I and Tier III support, then I send them to the general education classroom for core instruction, and they return to me for supplemental instruction (the general education teachers often do not have time to provide more Tier III interventions than they already do). If the students are in a self-contained special education classroom, I will work with the resource teacher to provide Tier III interventions for my students by having them join the appropriate resource group-and as a resource teacher I provide that support for the self-contained classrooms.
  • If my students look like they should be receiving Tier I and Tier II support, then I send them to the general education classroom for core instruction as well as for Tier II instruction. I can do this because in a group of 6-8 students, the addition of another student is not all that disruptive. I progress monitor them to verify they still only require Tier II interventions.
  • If my students look like they should be receiving only Tier I, then I work as hard as I can to give them access to all day mainstreaming or change of placement to general education. It sounds illogical that this may happen, but it happened last year and I am seeing it again this year.

It is through these means I can use the general education/district wide MTSS to better the education of my students. The MTSS framework is optimistic because the Tiers are based on data, not judgment. Using the MTSS framework to guide mainstreaming also will help and support the special education students that can succeed in school. The students also have the opportunity to learn that the general education teachers are there to help them-and that is an essential lesson every student should have the opportunity to learn.




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