“Around 15 percent of the world’s population, or estimated 1 billion people, live with disabilities. They are the world’s largest minority.”
- United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs
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Special education and MTSS both provide support for students within the classroom. But MTSS and special education (SPED) are not the same things. Both are rooted in the foundation of creating an equitable learning environment for all learners. However, MTSS is a system of support for all students. Special education is an extensive framework of resources, laws, specialized services, and staff designed to support the education of millions of students identified with a qualifying disability.
But that does not mean the two exist independently of one another. MTSS is designed to meet the needs of all students. The essential components built into a system of MTSS are created to help all learners access grade-level content, receive timely intervention, and guide educators in data-driven decision-making. Let’s dive a bit deeper.
In Branching Mind’s ultimate guide to MTSS, MTSS is defined as “a collaborative, evidence-based, approach to differentiating and personalizing instruction and intervention, across academics, social-emotional learning and behavior for all students—so that every student can achieve academic and life success.”
The inclusion of a robust Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework within a school setting can aid in a district’s endeavor to provide an equitable education for all students, including students with disabilities.
This cycle is based upon supports, ranging from evidence-based interventions, instructional tools/strategies, MTSS staff, and data collection tools. Built upon a problem-solving process, MTSS provides a learning environment that prioritizes inclusion, prevention, intervention, and systematic data analysis. This system supports all areas of a student’s well-being: academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs.
Special education is how students challenged with disabilities receive specialized support. As I stated above, it’s an extensive framework of resources, laws, specialized services, and staff designed to support the education of millions of students that have been identified with a qualifying disability.
Federal and state laws protect students with disabilities, and ensure that these students receive a free and appropriate public education that targets their needs. One example of these laws is the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). To learn more about this law and how it provides specialized services for eligible students, check out the Department of Education’s IDEA website.
In practice, SPED programs ensure that students with disabilities are identified, evaluated, supported, and provided access to free, public education. One of the structures in place to provide this support includes creating an individualized education plan (IEP) to assist in a student’s learning.
The IEP is a written plan that describes the individual learning needs of a student with disabilities and the SPED services, supports, aids, accommodations, and modifications that will be provided to that student. This legal document sets goals and standards for monitoring these goals and student progress.
An IEP follows a student, even if that student changes districts, and is consistently updated to reflect the most current data available. While you can dive much deeper into this topic, this provides a brief understanding of these three frameworks of support.
MTSS and special education both have:
Under MTSS, skill deficits or skill needs are identified in students through the use of universal screening assessment data and provided targeted intervention and resources with Tier 2 and Tier 3. All students, including students with disabilities, receive support through this identification process by utilizing universal screening data, tiered resources, and interventions. With special education, students eligible for special education receive targeted and individualized support and resources.
Students receiving Tier 2 and Tier 3 support in MTSS receive an intervention plan. Students receiving special education services will have an accompanying IEP, with identified goals.
An MTSS team includes an administrator, a facilitator, a content representative, a specialist, and a classroom teacher. In special education, the team often includes a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a speech-language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a social worker, and a nurse. Both depend on the collaboration and teamwork of skilled professionals to provide targeted services and support for struggling students.
MTSS supports all learners. MTSS helps us understand if our core instruction is meeting the needs of most of our students. MTSS helps us see which of our students need a little extra support and who may need a lot of help.
At the foundation, general education should always provide strong, differentiated core instruction at the Tier 1 level to allow 100% of students access to grade-level instruction, which MTSS uses as its core. Tier 1 is provided for all students, all the time.
Universal screening assessments and diagnostic data provide insights into current students' needs and skill gaps. This data then directs the amount of scaffolding provided at the core instructional level and identifies students who need additional instruction and intervention to master the content.
MTSS is a timely and continuous process of identification, intervention, and analysis that can work in conjunction with special education programs and services. While students with disabilities continue to receive targeted services through a SPED program, these students also receive targeted resources and instruction with the system of MTSS.
In addition, MTSS data that’s used to improve the effectiveness of a student's instruction/intervention may also be used as part of the evaluation procedure for a special education referral (depending on the legal requirements related to special education referrals).
An MTSS Management Platform and a Special Education Management System can co-exist within a district. Both of these tools can be utilized to support student needs. However, they are both distinct tools serving different needs.
An MTSS Management Platform, such as Branching Minds, is utilized to help districts manage the complex processes and reporting requirements for all students. For example, Branching Minds helps districts to:
In contrast, a Special Education/IEP management system is designed to draft, revise, and distribute IEPs and Section 504 Accommodation Plans. This aids districts in managing the complex processes and reporting requirements for students who are enrolled in special education services. Services of these systems include:
MTSS is for all students, including students who have an IEP. While students with disabilities continue to receive support through special education services, MTSS provides support to all students in academic, behavioral, and social-emotional skill areas. A student with an IEP has access to tiered interventions and resources to support their access to grade-level content.
Universal screening assessment data is utilized to identify all students who need support and intervention. But an IEP does not automatically denote that a student with an IEP needs Tier 2 or Tier 3 support.
While a Special Education/IEP management system can help monitor progress and data for a specific topic a student has an IEP in, that student could also need support in other topics, which may not be represented in a special education system.
MTSS is helpful for continuity of support, and IEPs don't always tell educators specifically how to differentiate their support for students. Teachers also don't always have access to the IEP to know how they can support that student alongside the special education teacher. When providing holistic support to students and bringing Special Education students closer to the classroom, it helps to have a platform like Branching Minds that supports an "all students may be in need of support" mindset.
Key takeaways from this article:
About IDEA. (n.d.). US Department of Education Individuals with Disabilities Act. Retrieved April 21, 2022
Cunningham, B. (n.d.). What is the difference between RTI and MTSS? Understood. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/whats-the-difference-between-rti-and-mtss
Farkas, G. (2020, February). Achievement gaps and multi-tiered system of supports in California. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED605086.pdf
Lee, A. (n.d.). The 13 disability categories under IDEA. Understood. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.understood.org/en/articles/conditions-covered-under-idea
National Center on Intensive Intervention. (2015, October 6). MTSS, RTI, special education. . .OH My! Gaining an understanding of MTSS and RTI from Drs. Lynn Fuchs and Joe Jenkins [Video]. YouTube. https://intensiveintervention.org/resource/mtss-rti-special-educationoh-my-gaining-understanding-mtss-and-rti-drs-lynn-fuchs-and-joe
Richards, C., Pavri, S., Golez, F., Canges, R., & Murphy, J. (2007). Response to intervention: Building the capacity of teachers to serve students with learning difficulties. Issues in Teacher Education, 16(2).
What is RTI? (n.d.). RTI Action Network: A Program of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from http://www.rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti
Laura Reber is a school psychologist who graduated valedictorian from Truman State University before completing her graduate degree in School Psychology from Illinois State University. She has worked as a school psychologist for over a decade, leading special education and MTSS teams. She also founded a tutoring company that has provided high-quality interventions to hundreds of students with a variety of academic needs. She serves Branching Minds as a consultant bringing together her knowledge of special education, MTSS, and effective academic and behavioral interventions. She loves to work with schools across the nation to implement effective MTSS systems because she has seen the power of MTSS in improving outcomes for students and schools!