The RtI/MTSS Triangle: Step Away from the Silo to Meet All Students’ Needs
By Joanne Allain, M.A.
In Part 1 of this blog entry, we explored RtI/MTSS as an instructional system or philosophy of education and the importance of its sustainability. Once the decision is made to move forward, we begin to build a structure for implementation.
Mysteries of the Pyramid
In this installment, we will discuss the interpretation and sometimes misinterpretation of the RtI triangle or pyramid. Researchers and writers commonly use a three-tier triangle to illustrate the degrees of intensity and services available to students in a multitier instructional system.
The base of the triangle represents Tier I services, in which all students receive grade-level instruction through a system of teaching, differentiation, and reteaching. According to the literature, 80 percent of students will succeed with research-based first instruction, short-term differentiation, and reteaching.
The middle tier, or Tier II, represents short-term strategic services that some students (approximately 15 percent) will require to successfully negotiate grade-level work.
Tier III, the top tier of the triangle, depicts the intensive services that students who are significantly below grade level (approximately 3 to 5 percent of students) will need in order to increase their skill level to the point that they will be able to interact with grade-level material.
It is helpful to have a visual representation of services, and a triangle serves to reinforce the notion of increased focus and intensity from base to apex. However, it also poses some problems through misinterpretation of the intent of the tiers when the model is taken too literally: (1) using the tiers to label children or assign a student population to a specific tier and (2) strict adherence to the percentages can result in denial of services to children in need.
The RtI/MTSS triangle represents the services across tiers that any and all students may need based on multiple data points. Data always determine the type of service designed to help students achieve at their full potential.
This is a critical point because the intent of RtI/MTSS is to provide instruction and intervention services to all students, not to exchange one label for another, resulting in “Tier I kids, Tier II kids, and Tier III kids.” The tiers represent the types of services that students need, not the students themselves. The tier services, from intervention to enrichment, are available to all students equally, based on data, not label.
In Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools, I emphasize that the service tiers are “fluid not finite” and that each tier comprises a range of services designed to meet the assessed needs of a diverse group of students whose needs will change over time.
The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) published a triangle that exemplifies this position. We do not have separate triangles or tiers for special education, English learners, students who receive Title I services, gifted and talented, or any other student population. All students are served within the triangle based on data, not label.
Notice the triangle within the triangle. OSEP understandably focused on students with special needs who can receive services at any tier of the triangle, but we could easily add gifted and talented, English learners, and students who receive Title I services. All means all.
If we begin to make other triangles or tier-specific student populations, then aren’t we saying that all students with special needs or all English learners are the same and have the same needs? If Tier III, for example, represents intensive academic intervention, and we call Tier III special education, then it must follow that every student with an IEP requires intensive academic intervention. How do we reconcile this practice with the belief that we should label the need and not the child? If, instead of students with special needs, we have “Tier III kids,” we have simply traded one label for another.
It is much more likely that a student with special needs, a student without special needs, and an English learner demonstrate the same assessed need. If this is the case, why, in this time of constrained budgets, would we provide redundant services simply because the labels, funding streams, and silos are different?
If we recognize that the triangle represents a variety of needs and the services needed to ameliorate them, then we understand that using data and problem solving to determine appropriate instruction and intervention is the best way to serve all students.
Whom the Pyramid Serves
The second contention of this entry is that the traditional RtI/MTSS pyramid range demonstrating 80 percent of students successful with Tier I services only, 15 percent requiring Tier II services, and 5 percent in need of Tier III services, is not meant as a literal application in every school and district.
Think of the 80-15-5 illustration as the goal or the optimal configuration if first instruction is efficient. In this model, approximately 20 percent of students would need additional instruction and intervention to reach grade-level targets. The 80-15-5 triangle is the target, but perhaps not the starting point for many districts and schools.
The percentages depicted in the triangle do not intend to convey that only 20 percent of students are eligible for intervention services. Yet, sometimes the triangle percentages are applied literally, resulting in denial of intervention for many students in need.
We cannot implement a one-size-fits-all RtI/MTSS plan. Each district and school must start where they are, as defined by data, to develop a successful system. Districts within a state and schools within a district are unique. Even within the same school districts, it is common to find a range of performance from school to school.
Hopefully, we have progressed from the one-size-fits-all instructional models of the past. The following trio of triangles, from Logistics of Literacy Intervention, is more reflective of the variation in the degree of needs and services in schools across the country.
The good news is that the optimum configuration can be realized if we embrace the philosophy of RtI and provide intervention to all who need it. All children mean all children—all of the time. We don’t have a fully operational system if only some needs are being met.
Ultimately, we must recognize that any visual representation is inadequate to represent the rich diversity among our students. The triangle is a guide, a way to help educators and parents understand the variation of services that may be needed to meet the needs of all our students.
We move forward with the knowledge that we are meeting those needs with standards and data-based instruction and intervention. Our end goal is that all students reach their full potential and are able to compete in a complex world.
In Part 3, we will discuss assessment in an RtI/MTSS system and how more is not always better.
Joanne Allain, M.A., works with states, districts, and schools across the country to develop, implement, and coach customized RtI systems. Her career experience at both the classroom and district level provides the perspective of a practitioner in real schools with real students. She is the author of Logistics of Literacy Intervention: A Planning Guide for Middle and High School and Logistics of Literacy Intervention: An RtI Planning Guide for Elementary Schools as well as coauthor of RtI: The Forgotten Tier: A Practical Guide for Building a Data-Driven Tier I Instructional Process. You can contact Joanne at Joanne.Allain@3tliteracygroup.org