Most schools have a process or structure to evaluate, address, and monitor the needs of students. Sometimes, these processes are referred to as RTI (Response to Intervention). Other times, you may hear the term MTSS (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support). While these two approaches are similar, distinct differences set these two common structures apart. How are RTI and MTSS alike? In which ways do they differ? This blog post will explore the similarities and differences between RTI and MTSS.

Defining RTI

Response to Intervention, or RTI, is a data-driven approach schools use to support students academically. This approach is characterized by analyzing assessment data, planning high-quality instruction, implementing interventions, and evaluating each student’s response to interventions. Most schools with an RTI process will use universal screening assessments, a sequential tiered intervention structure, and progress monitoring assessments to ensure each student experiences academic success.

Within an RTI model, all students receive Tier 1 or general education instruction. Teachers analyze universal screening assessment data to determine which students are making adequate progress towards grade level benchmarks in Tier 1 and which students need intervention. Ideally, around 80% of students should make adequate progress through Tier 1 instruction. About 15% of students will likely need Tier 2 intervention support, and another 5% may require intensive Tier 3 intervention support. Students requiring Tier 2 or 3 interventions may work in small groups with a teacher or 1:1 with specialists to address a specific area of need. Students take targeted progress monitoring assessments to measure their response to the intervention teachers have provided.

Defining MTSS

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, or MTSS, is a comprehensive data-driven framework designed to support student success in a variety of ways. This approach addresses academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs. A high-functioning MTSS model emphasizes equity, early intervention, and providing holistic support for students.

In a school practicing MTSS, you will likely find tiered academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support for students. Tiers of support can range from school-wide systems to 1:1 interventions for students. Support can also include things like staff development, community resources, etc. Tier 1 support is accessible to all students. If Tier 1 isn’t meeting a student needs, the student would receive more specific Tier 2 support. For a small number of students, more intensive Tier 3 academic or behavioral support may be needed. Universal screening assessments, progress monitoring assessments, and other methods of data collection help evaluate student progress, inform system-level change, and refine levels of support. The goal of an MTSS approach is that each student receives the specific support they need to experience success at school.

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How are RTI and MTSS alike?

RTI and MTSS are often used synonymously because there are a few key similarities. Let’s take a look at what RTI and MTSS have in common:

Early Intervention: Both RTI and MTSS prioritize early intervention. By identifying and addressing student needs early, teachers can intervene to ensure students succeed in the long run.

Emphasis on Data: In school settings using RTI or MTSS, there will likely be universal screening assessments, diagnostic assessments, and opportunities for progress monitoring. Teachers and specialists likely engage in collaborative PLC or data teams to analyze assessment data, plan targeted instruction, and determine the appropriate support for individual students. Data collection and analysis help gauge the effectiveness of school-wide systems, inform curriculum implementation, and determine staff learning needs. Whether applying an RTI or MTSS approach, the goal is to use data to inform solutions, take targeted action, and strategically support students.

Core and Individualized Instruction: Both approaches recognize the importance of strong core instruction and school-wide systems. If the instruction and support that all students receive are strong, the percentage of students requiring academic interventions or behavior support should decrease. However, even when strong core instruction and school-wide systems are in place, some students will require additional support. RTI and MTSS recognize students need specific, individualized support to succeed. This individualized support should be responsive to student needs and regularly evaluated to ensure students are making progress.

How are RTI and MTSS different?

While RTI and MTSS are similar, they are not the same, and understanding the differences provides clarity. Let’s explore how these two approaches differ: 

Focus: RTI and MTSS focus on different aspects of education. RTI is considered a more narrow approach than MTSS. An RTI approach focuses solely on academic assessments, instruction, and interventions. MTSS is a comprehensive framework that includes academic, behavioral, and social-emotional support. The belief is that student needs are complex and require a well-rounded approach to ensure success. MTSS also has a broader scope than RTI and considers systems-level change alongside individual student needs. Schools participating in an MTSS model might explore class schedules, physical spaces, budgets, staff learning, curriculum, etc. and analyze their impact on student success. MTSS is considered a more holistic approach and addresses many factors that support student success at school. 

Three-Tier Model: RTI and MTSS often use a triangular structure to illustrate the tiered model. While the triangular three-tiered model is visually similar, the meaning is slightly different. In RTI, the tiers are sequential and structured. Everyone begins at Tier 1. If a student isn’t making adequate progress in Tier 1, they move to Tier 2 for intervention support and progress monitoring. If there is still little progress, the student would then receive intensive Tier 3 support. In MTSS, the tiers of support are more accessible, fluid, and not as sequential. The tiers represent support available to students who display a need, not a step in a sequential process.

Collaborative: RTI and MTSS are collaborative. Most schools have regular PLC or data teams where educators meet to discuss student growth, analyze data, and plan instructional next steps. This teamwork allows specialists, coaches, and administrators to also participate in the process of supporting all students. While RTI and MTSS likely include PLC or data teams, collaboration within an MTSS model moves further. A school implementing MTSS might also endeavor to include all staff members, family/parent organizations, outside service providers, and community members. 


After exploring how RTI and MTSS are similar, you might wonder which approach is better. Both frameworks support student growth and can help students experience success in school. Both approaches center on data, collaboration, and continuous improvement. Despite these similarities, MTSS is more likely to meet expansive and diverse needs of today’s students. 

Many educators prefer MTSS over RTI because it is a more well-rounded, comprehensive, and holistic approach to supporting students. RTI’s academic focus may not be broad enough to support all students. In some instances, behavioral and social-emotional support are a prerequisite for academic success. MTSS helps to set those structures in place so all students can learn at high levels. 

Another reason MTSS is preferred over RTI is that RTI can fit within an MTSS framework. Assessing students, determining which students need academic intervention, and monitoring their progress can be part of MTSS. Schools may even experience a more effective RTI process when other comprehensive supports are in place for students. 

Where Can I Learn More?

Understanding the differences and similarities between the two models is an important step for educators, specialists, and administrators. We have a few more blogs to help build your understanding and gain clarity on these two similar, but different, concepts. Check them out here and here!

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