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RTI/MTSS Pyramid: Flipping the Triangle

9 Min Read
WF1813617 hero pyramid bell curve graphic

For many years, school districts across the country have relied on the three-tier pyramid model to implement response to intervention (RTI) and multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) for academic and social-emotional support. As we have seen the education landscape shift over the past several years, it is time to ask ourselves an important question. Do we need to rethink the traditional RTI/MTSS pyramid?

Origin of the RTI/MTSS Pyramid Model

Dr. Hill Walker was a special education professor at the University of Oregon, and highly regarded for his work in instructional design and program development. In the late 1990’s, Dr. Hill was assisting a local school division to map out how their resources could be allocated to meet the needs of students and promote better outcomes. Leaning into the public health model for prevention, Dr. Hill used a pyramid to suggest how different tiers could serve as escalating levels of support for academics and behavior. Many scholars and practitioners were considering how to support students with varying academic and social-emotional needs, and the tiered approach to instruction and behavior supports resonated.

A Breakdown of the RTI/MTSS Tiers

The RTI/MTSS pyramid model has become the standard for representing a typical school population. Unfamiliar with this model? Take a look at the image below. The three-tier system guides educators in matching the right intervention with the right student.

Both RTI and MTSS take a data-driven, multi-level approach, but RTI focuses more on improving academic outcomes. MTSS, on the other hand, addresses the needs of the whole student, including academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs. Learn more about the difference between RTI vs. MTSS on our blog.

RTI tiers image

According to this model, all students receive core instruction and roughly 80% would be able to progress to traditional instruction with differentiation. A small group of students, roughly 10—15%, may need additional supports for learning, and 5—10% would need intensive intervention beyond core and Tier 2 supports.

Schools have embraced this model and use the framework to plan supports for students using multiple data points. They use data from universal screening, benchmark assessments, and recent state assessment scores to inform academic decisions. Any decisions about support, particularly those provided outside of the regular classroom, are intended to be dynamic, with a regular data review providing information on how to make adjustments in instruction.

Rethinking RTI/MTSS Pyramid Percentages

Let’s take a closer look at the RTI/MTSS tier percentages. Schools had always considered the estimate of 80% of students ready for grade-level core instruction to be aspirational, yet they accepted it as a reasonable representation of what should exist. But over the past several years, noticeably since the pandemic and interrupted learning, many districts are describing their pyramid as “flipped,” or upside-down. The number of students requiring additional supports and intensive intervention greatly exceeds the past estimates of 10–15% and 5–10% respectively,

That’s why many schools have, at least temporarily, set aside the expectation of 80% of students being able to make needed gains in Tier 1 instruction alone. The diversity of learners in today’s classroom has sparked a new question. How can we more accurately estimate the scope of student needs to plan for instruction and resources?

Addressing Issues with the RTI/MTSS Triangle

Researchers at HMH have been working alongside educators across the country, experimenting with new models to better represent the skill diversity they are seeing in the classroom. Using the new models, they can apply different approaches to understanding students’ academic needs.

As part of this work, HMH developed a new tool that is more precise in identifying student needs relative to expected grade-level proficiency. This distribution profile uses a bell-curve visualization and essentially turns the pyramid sideways. The model includes five proficiency groups: “Above Grade Level,” “At Grade Level,” “1 Year Below Grade Level,” “1–2 Years Below Grade Level,” and “2+ Years Below Grade Level.”

Shaped 2023 RTI bell curve with title WF1735931

The distribution profile expands the traditional pyramid thinking by including students who perform beyond grade level expectations in the “Above Grade Level” classification. Students performing above grade level have unique needs for extended instruction that allows them to grow, and this model provides insight into the number of students in this category. Students who place in the “At Grade Level” category are proficient at grade-level content and are ready for core instruction.

An essential and innovative approach in this model is the split of Tier 2 into two distinct groups: "1 Year Below Grade Level," and 1–2 Years Below Grade Level." Splitting Tier 2 this way allows schools and teachers to carefully consider the different needs of learners who are not performing on grade level. These students require specific, targeted intervention to provide them with the best opportunity to accelerate learning and progress toward proficiency.

The students who require Tier 3 supports are in the “2+ Years Below Grade Level” group and need intensive intervention for foundational skills. By breaking down groups of learners in this way, the bell curve graphic allows educators to consider student needs on a more nuanced level and to look at performance by classroom and by school.

Once we understand how student data informs this distribution curve, the big question is how to move students closer to proficiency. Simply put: How do we flip the pyramid back, or move more students into Tier 1? Supporting schools in implementing practices that will yield results from their efforts is essential. HMH developed a four-prong approach to driving outcomes that works.

HMH’s Four-Prong Approach to Student Success

An instructional approach that includes assessment, effective instruction, high-quality resources, and professional-learning support is proven to increase student outcomes.

HMH has developed a framework for planning and implementation that is based on the strongest findings for driving student outcomes and incorporates insights from some of the top education researchers, including John Hattie, Michael Fullan, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe. Let’s look more closely at the four-prong approach and consider essential questions for implementation.



Today’s assessment tools can provide data in innovative ways to support classroom instruction. The data can be used to inform decisions about students in every learning group and promote effective instruction and intervention. David Bain, Senior Vice-President of Academic Innovation and Analytics explains, “Computer adaptive testing has allowed researchers to have insights in skill variability in the classroom that is creating challenging environments for teachers who are often provided only standards-based content.” The diversity of learners in the classroom is a factor that demands that teachers can assess proficiency and growth while also using data to deliver the most effective strategies for each student.

Key Action Insight: District and school leaders should select assessment tools that are adaptive, provide specific and actionable data, and measure and continuously monitor student proficiency and progress.



Effective teachers know how to keep each learner engaged and challenged. They encourage risk-taking and provide students with plenty of opportunities for practice and feedback. Learning activities are intentional and measured. Dr. Chase Nordengren, Principal Research Lead, Effective Instructional Strategies with NWEA, recently published a white paper detailing “transformative strategies” that demonstrate significant improvements in student growth. These strategies were studied in schools where there was an urgent need for growth and a necessity to meet low-performing students at their instructional level. The success of the teachers studied reveals the potential for growth with effective instruction.

Key Action Insight: Teachers can optimize the student experience and accelerate growth through real-time assessment, supplemental practice, exposure to content, and by making students partners in their learning.


High-Quality Resources

Selecting evidence-based resources that are aligned to state standards, have engaging and rigorous content, and the breadth to meet a diverse classroom of learners is challenging. A critical consideration in decisions about instructional materials is the extent to which the resources can provide teachers and students with the content needed to meet grade-level expectations while also differentiating for students who require supplemental supports, and providing challenging experiences for students who need them to continue their above-level performance. Decisions about resources should be made with careful consideration of how to address every learner's needs at each tier of instruction.

Key Action Insight: When district resources are aligned to needs, it is possible to implement strategic instructional initiatives and measure and monitor student outcomes. Developing a coherent vision of what resources are used to meet specific needs with an intentional design-thinking approach is a critical step to ensure that schools are supported with content that meets instructional priorities.


Professional Learning

The most important factor in student learning is an effective teacher. No amount of data or resources are sufficient on their own. As in any profession, teachers improve their practice over time with continued learning, modeling, mentoring, and feedback. As part of the development of a highly effective teacher corps, district and school leaders must provide teachers with opportunities for growth. Leaders should distinguish between technical knowledge needed to implement a program, or training, and the ongoing development of teacher practice, or professional learning. A mix of training and professional learning provides teachers with a robust experience that deepens their practice and improves outcomes.

Key Action Insight: Ongoing opportunities for learning and coaching provide teachers with the chance to strengthen their practice and raise their effectiveness in the classroom. All teachers and leaders need the chance to participate in meaningful professional learning that advances their practice and keeps them updated on advances in pedagogy and resources, such as artificial intelligence.

Accelerating Student Growth Going Forward

While we can consider various models to understand the scale of need in a district, school, or classroom, whether we use a pyramid or the distribution bell curve, we must focus on each student and how we can impact their movement toward proficiency. By carefully considering the scale and type of need at the school and classroom level, we can implement a plan of assessment, content, instruction, and professional learning that will accelerate student growth.

Over time, we will see the balance of students in need of educational intervention outside the core classroom shifting to look more like the distribution of pre-pandemic years. This would be progress. By adopting deliberate approaches for assessment with performance targets, demonstrating effective teacher practices, implementing high-quality resources, and providing ongoing professional learning, we are increasing the chances of seeing the RTI/MTSS pyramid flipped back, or the distribution bell curve shifting to the right, reflecting the success of all students.

Blank RTI/MTSS Template

Need a blank RTI/MTSS template? Download our editable version below.

The Pyramid Model in Your District

Are you working in a district that's experiencing a "flipped" or upside-down pyramid? We'd love to know what you think about HMH's bell-curve model for addressing the diversity of learners in the classroom. Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Instagram, or via email at


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