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What is MTSS? How to Explain MTSS to Almost Anyone

January 16th, 2020

What is MTSS and why are districts implementing MTSS?

This article explains MTSS in a way to help all stakeholders understand this important framework, from staff members to parents and students.

Table of Contents

  • What Is MTSS?
  • Why Are Districts Implementing MTSS?
  • What Does an MTSS Framework Look Like?
  • The Power of a Cohesive MTSS Framework

What is MTSS?

A multi-tiered system of support or MTSS is a framework with a tiered infrastructure that uses data to help match academic and social-emotional behavior assessment and instructional resources to each and every student’s needs. 

In this tiered, data-informed framework, educators work to ensure that the majority of students respond to core instruction. Students who need additional supports for enrichment or remediation are identified by data and provided that support with the right focus and intensity.

What is the Purpose of MTSS?

MTSS helps educators to be thoughtful about using resources appropriately and impactfully, and use data to continually monitor and improve the effectiveness of their actions. MTSS makes the district-wide system more effective and ensures we’re supporting the needs of every student. 

MTSS streamlines and brings cohesion to the good work and best practices that are already happening in a district, so that those efforts are no longer happening in isolation. MTSS also helps districts to fill gaps in their standard practices that might exist due to common challenges, like limited resources, difficulty collaborating, and a lack of visibility in program effectiveness. 

To better understand MTSS, let’s look at an analogy.

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An MTSS Analogy: The Dentist’s Office 

Each day, we are all providing universal, general care for our teeth in the form of brushing and flossing. Most communities also resource a dentist office, where general practitioner dentists are staffed to provide regular cleanings. These high-quality, universal best practices—flossing, brushing, and regular cleanings—are intended to be effective for the vast majority of patients. 

They are also intended to prevent a high number of patients who need advanced care, such as oral surgery. Oral surgery is an intense treatment, demanding more resources, more training, and specialized staff. Data (such as pain or medical examinations) may reveal that some patients truly need that intensive care, in which case it’s important to provide support that is well-aligned to the patient’s need in a timely manner. But if there are many people who need that intense treatment, our available resources are exhausted by the demand.

By providing, monitoring, and continually improving our universal supports and preventative actions, we’re able to better care for all patients and limit the need for intensive treatment. 

In schools, MTSS is similar. Educators work to have highly effective instruction in the classroom so that fewer students need intensive interventions to be successful. And if we have a smaller number of students who need additional supports and services, we have the resources needed to provide it—and the data needed to align our actions to the need.

A student participates in tiered supports in her district's MTSS

Why Are Districts Implementing MTSS?

MTSS allows educators to focus on supporting all of their students in a systematic approach. Districts are implementing MTSS because it enables teams to:

  • Improve the outcomes for all students in terms of academics and SEB
  • Address the unmet needs of many students and groups of students
  • De-silo data and makes systems and processes more effective and connected
  • Take a whole child approach to supporting students
  • Help students to grow no matter where they start

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

MTSS is also rooted in policy.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was introduced through legislation in 2015, the focus shifted from addressing “Special Education” to the needs of “Every Child.”

This shift allowed MTSS to blossom in school districts as school funding began to be directed toward multiple assessments and progress monitoring.

What Does an MTSS Framework Look Like?

There is no one correct approach to MTSS. As a result, there can be differences in the frameworks adopted by various states and districts.

One state might refer to a “Multi-Tiered System of Support” while another to a “Tiered System of Supports for Students.” Districts and states can adopt different essential components within their frameworks or see variance in the specific verbiage used to define or describe those components. Yet, there tends to be more similarities than differences among MTSS frameworks.

Here is a general MTSS framework that depicts the fundamental processes, tools, and practices that are generally included in MTSS from a national perspective and show the importance of fitting these previously disparate elements into a cohesive framework.

What is an Example of an MTSS Framework?

Here is a general MTSS framework that depicts the fundamental processes, tools, and practices that are generally included in MTSS from a national perspective and shows the importance of fitting these previously disparate elements into a cohesive framework.


Matched Assessment, Instruction, and Intervention 

Assessment, instruction, and intervention are interconnected, effective, aligned to student needs, and informed by data. 

This component typically includes: 

Whole Child Measures (Academic and SEB): Analyzing data from multiple sources to better understand student needs (as opposed to a singular focus on the academic lens). 

Comprehensive Assessment System: A complete set of high-quality assessment tools that enables careful selection of the right assessment at the right time to provide the right information to inform next steps. 

Tiered Instruction and Supports for All Students (Tier 1, 2, and 3): A system-level approach to aligning supports at the right intensity according to the student’s need. 


Inviting Climate and Culture 

Districts, schools, and classrooms are safe, welcoming, and non-discriminatory environments in which students can focus on learning and feel accepted and supported. 

This component typically includes: 

● Culturally and Linguistically Sustaining Practices: Ensuring systemic actions support and encourage all students. 

● Emotional, Physical, and Mental Wellness: Dedicated curriculum is implemented to support student well-being as an important component of student success. 

● Bullying Prevention: Prevention of physical and virtual bullying.



Deliberate allocation of time and resources for district and site leaders to build capacity and foster continual improvement. 

This component typically includes: 

● Systematic Analysis for Patterns and Trends with Responsive, System-Level Strategic Action: Leadership provides the vision, tools, and time necessary to proactively analyze and improve. 

● Dedicated Review of Resource Allocation: Visibility into (and data-driven decisions around) programming, staff, and other resources. 

● Capacity Building, Communication, and Expectations: Provided around culturally, linguistically, and community-minded instructional leadership. 


Intentionally Integrated Infrastructure

Districts and schools are intentionally developing, prioritizing, investing in, and providing system-level support to a connected and collaborative ecosystem of people, processes, and tools. 

This component typically includes: 

● Collaborative Professional Learning: Support of one another in continually growing and better supporting students. 

● Aligned Policies, Communication, and Data Processes: De-siloing efforts to support students and provide stakeholders access to data and tools required to be successful. 

Intervention and Program Effectiveness and Evaluation: Continually evaluating the impact of actions to continually increase effectiveness. 


Student, Family, and Community Engagement

Shared involvement, communication, and investment in students’ success across their wider environments. 

This component typically includes: 

● Collaborative Process and Shared Responsibility: Working directly with parents to help them understand their child’s needs so they can be supported at home; working with the community to provide supports and educational opportunities that the district does not have the resources to accommodate. 

● Transparency of Progress and Goal Setting: Engaging parents and communities as consumers of data. 

● Student Identity, Voice, and Choice: Actively involving students as the primary stakeholder in their own learning. 

Student participate in Tier 1 instruction in a district's MTSS framework

The Power of a Cohesive Framework 

Many of the components of MTSS are not new practices. They’re the high-impact actions that school practitioners have been doing for years.

In the past, however, there was a lack of explicit emphasis on aligning those efforts. Many educators would provide supports to a student without any idea that concurrent interventions were happening. District-wide data analysis would occur without connecting findings to resource allocation or program needs. 

MTSS isn’t reinventing the wheel—it’s simply bringing cohesion to the student-centered practices while de-siloing the data-driven decisions that already happen in many districts. When implemented effectively, it not only helps us increase the effectiveness of our existing efforts, but it also uncovers areas in which we may need to adjust or increase our efforts. 

Thanks for reading an excerpt from our MTSS Essentials: Data-Informed Decisions to Support Each Student eBook. To learn more about MTSS and dig into day-to-day best practices—like tracking interventions and evaluating program effectiveness—download the full eBook here:


Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

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