Response to Intervention (RTI) and the Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) are data-driven, systemic approaches to providing instruction and intervention at varying levels of intensity based on individual student needs. These models were born out of the necessity for more objective ways to identify students with a learning disability and have since evolved into a more holistic practice that aims to better meet the needs of all students through a streamlined, data-driven approach.
While equity remains at the heart of these models, they remain unproven to have a positive impact on promoting equitable student outcomes. Based on data we’ve collected through the Branching Minds platform and with a close examination of these practices across our district partners, it appears that the systems and structures of RTI and MTSS alone are not enough, and districts need to adopt an equity-focused, self-reflection process that guides their decision making through these practices in order to ensure equitable student outcomes.
RTI/MTSS and Equity
The acronyms MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) and RTI (Response to Intervention) are ubiquitous in today’s K-12 institutions, yet the practice and, importantly, the purpose still remains murky in the eyes of many educators.
Our district partners from across the country often describe MTSS and RTI as tiered systems of support, a process to refer students for special education, just best practices in teaching, or a way to meet the holistic needs of students. Rarely, however, do we hear them discussed as practices to promote equity and reduce disproportionality, despite their origins being grounded in that purpose.
Disproportionality and the Origins of RTI/MTSS
Disproportionality is the under-or over-representation of a particular group of students placed in Special Education (SpEd). Historically, the U.S. has seen an overrepresentation of African American students placed in SpEd with a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) diagnosis relative to their representation in the school population. There is still an ongoing debate about how disproportionality should be calculated and whether or not disproportionate SpEd placement is a necessary byproduct of particular groups of students requiring more support (see Brookings report for discussion).
It’s important to recognize that an SLD designation is intended for students who have neuropsychological differences that interfere with an ability to learn in traditional ways. Therefore, by over placing a particular group of students in SpEd, we are signaling to them that they are not capable of success in a traditional classroom. Alternatively, we can look at disproportionality as an issue that needs to be addressed in how we are supporting that population and/or identifying them as having an SLD.
The Department of Education in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) chose the latter approach and required all states to use a more systematic, data-driven approach for identifying students for having an SLD. This mandate resulted in many school districts adopting an RTI or MTSS framework.
How RTI/MTSS Models are Designed to Improve Equity
Beyond just encouraging educators to make “data-driven” decisions, there are specific components and best-practice recommendations in RTI/MTSS that are intended to help educators promote equity.
1. Use evidence-based, culturally responsive core instruction.
Students from different backgrounds may come to the classroom with vastly different life experiences and understanding of cultural references. We know that students are able to have a deeper learning experience when they are able to connect new information with previously held knowledge, so it becomes really important to use material and examples that resonate with each student. Understood.org has useful guidance on how to provide more culturally responsive instruction.
2. Use a screening assessment to preemptively, and objectively identify students who are in need of additional support.
Our perceptions of performance and expectations for students can vary based on a myriad of factors—both conscious and not—that can influence our decision as to whether a student is falling behind and needs additional support. In order to ensure that we are accurately identifying students who need support, it is critical to periodically administer a screening assessment as means to objectively flag students who may be falling behind so that we can intervene early. (See our webinar on best-practice recommendations.)
3. Use a progress monitoring assessment to evaluate if the student is showing adequate growth in response to our support.
Much like why we need screening assessments to objectively identify students, our perception of adequate progress can vary across students, so it is important to have objective measures of student growth as well.
Despite these practices being widely adopted across the country, there’s no clear evidence that at a scale they are reducing disproportionality in special education placements, nor are they closing the racial achievement gap. At Branching Minds, we examined data collected from over 300,000 students across 6 states and found that even when districts have a solid RTI/MTSS practice in place, they have inequities in their implementation.
Specifically, we found that struggling African American students are disproportionately underrepresented in the group of students who are receiving support. In other words, students of color are much less likely to receive support than their struggling Caucasian peers (see infographic).
A closer examination of our data revealed that there are certain schools and districts that have implemented these practices equitably and we found some critical differences in their approach. One key difference worth highlighting is that these district and school leaders didn’t let their practice get lost in the process. MTSS is a framework that provides us with systems and structures to make the most informed and objective decisions we can, but it’s not an algorithm that makes these decisions for us.
Protocol and predetermined decision criteria are not meant to remove or excuse educators from the decision-making process, they are intended to aid them in the practice of problem-solving. In the most “data-driven” practice, educators still are—and should be—the ones using the data, combined with their knowledge of the student, to decide what is best for their learning needs.
In the settings where we see equitable MTSS implementation, educators take ownership of the practice and engage in honest reflection and discussion of their decision-making process and whether or not it is working in the best interest of each and every student.
Dr. Dundas is the Chief Learning Officer of Branching Minds, where she pursues her mission to bridge the gap between the science of learning and education practice. Dr. Dundas has a Ph.D. in Developmental and Cognitive Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University where she conducted research on how the brain develops when children acquire visual expertise for words and faces. Her research also explores how the relationship between neural systems (specifically language and visual processing) unfolds over development, and how those dynamics differ with neurodevelopmental disorders like dyslexia and autism. She has published articles on that subject in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuropsychologia, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, and Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Dr. Dundas also has a M.Ed. in Mind, Brain, and Education from Harvard University; and a B.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh.