What Is the Difference Between MTSS vs. RTI?

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What is a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) and how does it differ from Response to Intervention (RTI)?

The acronyms and the meanings behind them can be confusing, even for seasoned educators. If you do an online search for the terms, you might encounter some erroneous and conflicting information that can give rise to a number of questions.

A few examples:

“Is MTSS just a replacement for RTI?”

“Are RTI and MTSS the exact same thing, but with different names?”

“Are RTI and MTSS both designed specifically for special education?”

This article will define RTI and MTSS and explain how they work together. It will also describe the difference between RTI and MTSS, as well as the RTI/MTSS process.

Are RTI and MTSS the Same Thing?

RTI and MTSS are not the same thing, but they can be used in conjunction with one another—and they do have similarities in the way they are structured.

First, let’s briefly define RTI. RTI is a proactive, general education intervention model designed to screen students early and identify those who may need additional academic support. RTI helps educators intervene before students fall too far behind, struggle excessively, and get stuck in an academic mire. At that stage, the student is already disheartened and frustrated. RTI can head that outcome off at the pass.

Those students who demonstrate a need are then matched with interventions that might include supplementary materials; adaptive, personalized technology programs such as Read 180 and Math 180; and one-on-one teacher support.

Along the way, educators assess student progress and then use data to inform instruction. According to the National Center on Response to Intervention, “with RTI, schools identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, monitor student progress, provide evidence-based interventions, and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions based on a student’s responsiveness.”

Read more about RTI in our blog What Is Response to Intervention (RTI)?

What Are Similarities Between RTI and MTSS?

The two models are similar in that they both aim to provide high-quality supports with varying levels of intensity, based on students’ needs. Both are typically modeled using a three-tiered system. This can be visualized in the form of an RTI/MTSS pyramid, with Tier 1 at the widest base of the pyramid, Tier 2 above that, and Tier 3 at the top.

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In both the RTI and the MTSS models, Tier 1 refers to students receiving research-based curriculum instruction within their core classroom. Students should be screened to monitor their progress, so that students who begin to fall behind or signal a need for more help can get the immediate intervention they need.

Tier 2 serves those students who have been identified through screening to need additional support. These students receive targeted supplemental intervention using classroom differentiation. This often includes focused instruction in small-group settings.

Tier 3 is for students who need even more intensive support. Assessments and educator observations may have indicated an immediate need for a student to go straight to Tier 3 interventions, or maybe the student hasn’t responded to Tier 2 interventions yet and the level of support needs to be escalated. Tier 3 support is individualized and can take place either in the students’ core classroom or in a pull-out model.


While both models take a proactive, data-driven, and multi-level approach, RTI has traditionally focused on improving academic outcomes for struggling students. Educators often need to analyze student outcomes through a different lens that reflects where students are, how far behind they might be to performing on level, and what interventions can get them there.

MTSS takes a broader approach to address the needs of the whole student, including behavioral, social, and emotional needs. MTSS involves more community and family engagement, along with an integrated school culture and strong leadership to drive its implementation. With MTSS, academic success is indeed important—and the RTI model plays a big role in that—but MTSS casts a more comprehensive and wider net.

One way to visualize RTI vs. MTSS is that RTI lives under the wider umbrella of MTSS.

Additional initiatives that are part of the MTSS model also fall under the umbrella, including:

  • Professional development
  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)
  • Collaborative teamwork among all stakeholders
  • Thoughtful curriculum design
  • Data-driven decision making
  • Parental/family/community involvement

Read more about MTSS in our blog What Is a Multi-Tiered System of Support in Education?

How Do MTSS and RTI Work Together?

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation to understand how MTSS and RTI work together and complement each other. In this scenario, the school district has implemented a strong, integrated MTSS model that includes RTI as part of its core.

Devon, a second grader who is new to the school district, has shown difficulties with decoding and phonemic awareness. Early screening assessments, administered at the start of the school year, have indicated that she is already significantly behind grade level in reading. Still, later assessments do not point to a learning disability.

Devon’s teacher has noticed that Devon seems frustrated and distracted, and that she occasionally interrupts her classmates when they are trying to concentrate. The teacher also knows that Devon is skilled at gymnastics, shows a talent for art, and is strong in math.

Within the RTI model, Devon would be placed in a Tier 2 or Tier 3 category and given systematic and explicit instruction to improve her reading skills. This might include intensive one-on-one time with a reading specialist, as well as other interventions.

Since Devon did not get the help she needed at her prior school, she’s feeling anxiety and low self-esteem. She has behavioral and social and emotional issues that need to be addressed—and school leaders and staff members need a cohesive approach for how to tackle these issues. Her classmates also need to feel assured that Devon won’t distract them, and that the school and classroom culture is a safe space for everyone. The teacher needs to communicate with Devon’s family and guide them in how to support her at home. At the same time, Devon’s strengths in gymnastics, art, and math can be celebrated and nurtured. It’s a whole-student approach.

Under the wide MTSS umbrella, all these aspects of who Devon is as a student and a person are addressed in a holistic fashion. RTI intervention is designed to tackle Devon’s specific academic needs, while MTSS takes on a larger-scale vision to ensure that Devon’s academic, social and emotional, and behavioral needs are all being met.

It’s important to note that MTSS is designed for every student—those above, below, and at grade level. MTSS is for students like Devon with strengths and weaknesses. It's for students who might have social and emotional issues or challenges at home, and those who do not. Because students are complex and unique, the MTSS model ensures that every student is part of a positive and supportive school culture that supports them in every facet.

What Is the RTI/MTSS Process?

To function well, both the MTSS and RTI models need to rely on accurate and ongoing data—as well as a consistent process that involves the entire school team.

This starts with screening assessments, which are “typically given to all students within targeted grade levels, and cover basic academic subjects such as reading and mathematics. Most screening measures aim to be practical and efficient to administer, with the goal of identifying students who may require further assessments and interventions,” writes Paula Lombardi, a professor and lead faculty for the Elementary and General Special Education Teacher Certification programs at Granite State College: School of Education, in Concord, NH, in her document Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS)/Response to Intervention (RTI).

She also notes that “In a Multi-Tiered System of Support/RTI model, fidelity is important at both the school level (e.g., implementation of the process) and the teacher level (e.g., implementation of instruction).” Factors that can improve fidelity include strong leadership, a reliable universal screening process, and a data-management system that’s easy for teachers to access.

According to the Multi-Tiered System of Support Blueprint from the Massachusetts Department of Education, “in an effective multi-tiered system, representative stakeholders with decision-making authority team together to collaboratively lead planning and implementation efforts using communication feedback loops and purposeful meeting structures. District and school leadership teams regularly use formative and summative data to evaluate systems, strategies, policies, and student outcomes. This data is used to inform action plans at the district, school, classroom, and individual student levels.”

In conclusion, RTI and MTSS are built on similar principles that are intended to ensure the success of every student. While RTI is geared more towards academic outcomes for at-risk students, MTSS encompasses that goal and adds to it with broader implications for social and emotional learning, behavior, school culture, and community/family involvement.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


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