The Importance of Tier 1

A tiered pyramid with three distinct sections
Rosemary Lucia

The image of the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) pyramid is etched in our minds. We know the base or foundation of that pyramid, Tier 1, is the largest component. We are also all familiar with the following terms and their meanings: from the ground up, solid foundation, strong base, sure footing. Why is it then, as educators, we don’t consistently apply these terms when it comes to the implementation of MTSS?

Looking at it from the pyramid perspective, we know 100% of our students reside within the base and typically, 80 to 90% of students will have their needs met Tier 1.  This is where students receive high-quality, core classroom instruction. Tier 1 encompasses best practices, differentiated and research-based instruction, flexible grouping, explicit instruction, and active student engagement. It seems logical to invest most of our resources, time and talents into this critical tier, where we can serve a majority of our students.

Let’s first do a quick review of how MTSS came to be. In 2004, there was an increasing number of students being referred to special education and it was then that Response to Intervention (RTI) was introduced. In December 2015, the Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA), was signed into law, and called for a “multi-tier system of support services” to help mitigate the over-identification of special education students. This was the foundation of what we now know as MTSS.

The MTSS framework helps with early identification and tiered supports to address struggling students prior to considering the special education route. That’s not to say that some students may eventually be referred to special education but there are layers of data and documentation that bridge the two. There is a definite misconception out there that MTSS is a direct path to special education – nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, an effective MTSS program should significantly reduce the number of special education referrals.

At the Tier 1 level, a classroom teacher may request assistance with struggling students. This assistance does not mean removing that student from the general education classroom and onto the special education path. Instead, the assistance takes the form of providing additional support for that teacher at the Tier 1 level by consults, interventionists, counselors, behaviorists, specialists etc. The support at Tier 1 can be in the form of additional strategies, modifications, accommodations and differentiated instruction. 

However, it remains the classroom teacher who incorporates these varied suggested strategies at Tier 1 to provide the student structured support. This all comes back to the seriousness of Tier 1 instruction, and Tier 1’s role as the instructional foundation. If Tier 1 instruction is lacking, it’s very unlikely that Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions will solve the problem.

The distinguishing factor between the tiers is the collection and documentation of the data happening at Tier 1, which often is the weakest area. As teachers we know how our students are performing, but we don’t always back up our perceptions with solid data and documentation. By documenting all Tier 1 activities, we can determine whether the additional strategies worked and the student no longer needs support or if all strategies have been exhausted, the student is still struggling, and a Tier 2 or 3 intervention is needed. 

By focusing on strengthening Tier 1, whether it’s through interventions, staff resources, or time, and thinking of it as the base upon which all instruction takes place, we can set ourselves and our students up for success. 

If you are interested in implementing MTSS, the Magnolia Consulting Group is here to help! We have the expertise to guide you through the process and ensure that your program is following the guiding principles of MTSS. Our resources and technology can help provide the necessary support for students receiving tiered services to be successful. Contact us at [email protected] to get started!