To summarize that blog—no. Special Education (SPED) and the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) are not the same things. However, they both exist on the foundation of supporting all students in achieving success in education and in life. MTSS focuses on providing support to all students in a holistic framework, and SPED is how students with disabilities receive specialized support.
MTSS helps provide an equitable education for every student in a school, including students with disabilities.
These students receive academic, social-emotional, and behavioral support through MTSS and receive specialized services through a special education program.
Beyond just stating that they are different, it’s also important to discuss misconceptions regarding MTSS and SPED. We’ve compiled answers to some of the top questions we receive when discussing special education and MTSS. In addition, we have also created an infographic that you can share with your team, school, and community to understand how MTSS and special education can work together to help every student succeed.
Common Misconception #1: Does MTSS Replace a SPED Program?
Short answer? No.
Long answer? Still no, but let’s explain why.
MTSS and SPED work together to support all students, including students with liabilities. Bust MTSS cannot replace a SPED program.
MTSS is a systematic support structure that provides tiered-level resources for all students in academic, social-emotional learning, and behavior needs. Through universal screening assessments, students at risk for not meeting grade-level expectations are quickly identified and provided intervention plans.
While MTSS can help improve school culture, increase student performance, and decrease negative behaviors, it does not fulfill the legal requirement of services for students with disabilities required by law under the Department of Education (IDEA) and individual state mandates. That is where a special education program comes into play.
However, that does not mean MTSS does not also support students with disabilities. If MTSS is implemented with fidelity, assessment data for each student is readily available. This data is used to improve the effectiveness of the students’ instruction/interventions and can be used as a required part of the evaluation procedure for a SPED referral.
Even if a child is receiving SPED services, the student continues to receive support through the problem-solving system of MTSS. Rather than replacing a SPED program, MTSS provides a system of early identification for at-risk students, equitable access to core curriculum for all students, evidence-based interventions, and readily accessible assessment data for each student.
Common Misconception #2: MTSS Adds Students to SPED.
In MTSS, three tiers are used to denote the intensity of resources needed to help a student succeed. These tiers do not represent categories or groups of students, nor do they represent procedures or programs.
Universal screening assessments and benchmark assessments are used to identify which students require additional support beyond their core instruction. Students who receive intervention plans are consistently assessed to determine if the plans are effective and if a student is making progress. This means a lot of data, all the time for every student.
MTSS does not add students to SPED, but it can help identify students who may have a previously overlooked disability that requires special education services to support the student.
If the team determines that a student meets eligibility guidelines for a disability category, then an eligibility meeting would be held to make this determination. This could occur while a student receives Tier 1, Tier 2, or Tier 3 support. In addition, once a student begins to receive special education services, that student also continues to receive MTSS support. Including access to core instruction and tiered-level resources.
Common Misconception #3: A Student with an IEP Always Needs Tier 3 Intervention.
An IEP, Individualized Education Plan, is a written plan that describes the individual learning needs of a student with disabilities. This includes the SPED services, supports, aids, accommodations, and modifications that will be provided to that student. IEPs are provided to students with disabilities who qualify for special education services.
Tier 3 is the highest intensity of intervention provided through MTSS. Tier 3 interventions are individualized interventions based on student data collected during the problem-solving cycle. These interventions occur in small student-teacher ratios (ideally 1-on-1), may occur for a longer duration of time than Tier 2 interventions, and target a specific skill identified through data. Roughly 5-10% of students within a school will require this level of intervention.
Having an IEP does not immediately identify a student as needing Tier 3 intervention.
Students with IEPs can access core instruction and tiered-level resources based on their level of need within a content area, social-emotional capacity, or behavioral need. Based on the student’s data, the Tier 3 intervention may or may not directly support an IEP goal.
An IEP does not immediately qualify a student for Tier 3, nor is Tier 3 reserved only for students with IEPs. Instead, Tier 3 is provided to any student who needs this level of intensive instruction. This includes students who do not have an IEP.
This also holds true for Tier 1 and Tier 2. A student who has an IEP can access core instruction and Tier 2 intervention at any time a need is determined. This is true for all students in MTSS—which is all students in a school.
Mollie Breese is the former Content Manager at Branching Minds. She helped streamline the support library, so schools can identify and access the interventions they need to support student success. She researched the newest strategies, activities, and programs to add to the robust library, providing a wealth of resources for partner schools. Prior to joining Branching Minds, Mollie worked in the classroom as an English teacher, Reading teacher, and ESL instructor. Mollie earned her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Missouri, and her M.A. in English Literature from the University of Glasgow.