Many schools face challenges when implementing multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), and the journey can often feel like a labyrinth without a clear destination. As an advocate for inclusive education, I frequently address the question of where to start with MTSS. The first step I emphasize is clarifying our vision for all students and identifying who currently lacks access to that vision. This initial step of identifying barriers is where the MTSS work begins.

Developing a Compelling and Collaborative Vision

It is important to acknowledge that while your district may have a vision, it might not be concrete or audacious enough to effectively guide teaching and learning. In our book, In Support of Students: A Leader’s Guide to Equitable MTSS, Kristan Rodriguez and I argue that a district vision should create a blueprint for all strategic initiatives. Without a compelling vision that drives strategic change and provides educators with a tool to assess their impact, it becomes challenging to make a case for the necessity of MTSS. Take a moment to reflect on your vision and consider the following questions:

  • How does the vision manifest itself in practice? How do we self-assess our system against that vision?
  • How do all students access the vision?
  • How do we create an integrated system and sustain conditions that lead to that vision for all learners?

If you struggle to answer these questions, it might be necessary to develop a new vision. However, it is important to note that this process requires collaboration. You cannot draft this vision alone.

I like to use the analogy of a basketball team to emphasize the importance of diverse roles within a core MTSS team. Just as a basketball team requires players in different positions—point guards, shooting guards, centers, and coaches—a well-balanced MTSS team is critical for success. The Minnesota Department of Education provides a helpful road map (available at for districts in forming their core MTSS team, recommending the inclusion of stakeholders responsible for various areas such as behavioral health, special education, technology, curriculum and instruction, equity and inclusion, business and finance, and research and evaluation. Representation from both educational leaders and educators on this core team is essential to drafting your vision.

Once the core team is established, invest time in building relationships and fostering a sense of community within the team. Incorporating restorative circles at the beginning of each meeting can help strengthen connections. One effective prompt for a restorative circle is, “How would your closest friends describe you and why?” This activity offers an opportunity to see each team member through the eyes of friends, fostering perspective and empathy. It can also lead to some amazing and hilarious moments that further enhance collaboration.

When it comes to drafting a vision, there are multiple protocols available. If you already have one that has proved effective, feel free to use it. In my experience working with teams, I often divide the larger group into smaller groups of two to three individuals. Each group collaborates to draft a vision for a school or district that caters to the needs of all learners. As the process unfolds, the teams gradually merge, aiming to create a unified vision that represents the collective efforts of all participants. Once a vision is initially drafted, it is crucial to continuously revise and refine it using the following critical questions:

  • Does the vision contribute to the development of a shared understanding of high-quality instruction that fosters deeper learning for all students?
  • Does the instructional vision effectively communicate high expectations and promote equitable outcomes for all learners?
  • Does the vision prioritize the student experience and establish conditions that encourage student engagement and agency in their learning?

By continuously revisiting and refining the vision based on these important considerations, the team can ensure that it remains responsive to the needs of all learners and supports the overall goals of MTSS implementation.

Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality

Once you have a vision, it’s time to assess your school against that vision to develop strategic goals and action steps. For example, reflect on the following vision statement from our book:

All students thrive in school, graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the college and/or career of their choice and contribute to the vivid life in a global community. Each day in our schools, students achieve mastery of grade-level knowledge and skills, experiential learning that matters to them and reflects their identity, and connect content to the social context.

Imagine reflecting on a vision statement like the one above as you gather and analyze various data points, such as academic achievement, inclusion rates, and access to advanced coursework. This data can help identify specific areas that require improvement. Additionally, collecting perception data from students and families will provide valuable insights into their experiences and perspectives within the existing educational system. By identifying any gaps and disparities between the current reality and the vision, you can begin formulating the necessary next steps. This process highlights the significance of creating a shared vision as it becomes the driving force behind the work ahead.

Creating a Culture of Understanding and Collaboration

To establish an effective MTSS, we must grasp its true essence. MTSS is not merely a pyramid with three tiers of instruction. Rather, it is a framework for how we build inclusive systems and schools where all students have equitable access to deeper learning experiences with their peers. It means creating an environment where every student is actively engaged in meaningful learning experiences and where those who need additional support can access it without sacrificing grade-level instruction.

To create a more inclusive and equitable system, effective communication and collaboration are crucial. As educational leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure that colleagues and families fully understand the rationale behind upcoming changes in MTSS implementation. Embracing change can be challenging for some stakeholders, so addressing their concerns and providing necessary support are essential.

In secondary schools, unique challenges arise when implementing MTSS, such as increasing access to advanced coursework for all students. Resistance may arise from families and community members who believe that only a select few should have access to such courses. It is vital to address these concerns head-on and communicate the benefits of equitable access, emphasizing how it supports students’ intellectual growth and college and career readiness.

Creating a master schedule in secondary schools is also incredibly complex due to the structured nature of their operations. This complexity makes it difficult to allocate dedicated time for interventions without disrupting the core curriculum or limiting students’ access to other important educational opportunities. While interventions are crucial for supporting students’ academic progress and meeting their individual needs, they must be carefully integrated into the schedule without disrupting the delivery of essential subjects. Schools must ensure that students have sufficient time for and access to required courses needed for graduation, such as mathematics, English, science, and social studies. At the same time, they must provide opportunities for students to engage in supplementary courses that enhance their educational experiences, such as arts, music, physical education, and other electives.

This delicate balancing act requires collaboration and creative problem-solving among school administrators, teachers, and support staff. It may involve finding alternative scheduling models, adjusting class lengths, exploring flexible learning formats, or implementing strategic resource allocation. The goal is to create a schedule that allows students to access all the courses they need to graduate while also providing opportunities for enrichment and personal growth.

Lastly, the pressure of high-stakes testing at the secondary level can overshadow the broader goals of MTSS implementation. Communicating how MTSS practices align with testing requirements and enhance overall learning experiences is vital. Demonstrating the positive impact of MTSS on student outcomes and emphasizing the value of a comprehensive support system can help address pushback and create a shared understanding of the benefits of integrating MTSS practices.

Implementing an equitable MTSS requires starting with a clear vision, engaging in collaborative efforts, and using data-driven needs assessments that align with our vision. These key elements lay the foundation for an equitable MTSS that supports the success of all learners. By embracing a more comprehensive approach, we can empower students to thrive academically, develop critical skills, and become active contributors to their communities while having the support of educators and families.

Katie Novak, EdD, is the founder of Novak Educational Consulting and a graduate instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. A former assistant superintendent of schools in Groton-Dunstable, MA, she is the author of several books, including In Support of Students: A Leader’s Guide to Equitable MTSS, which she co-authored with Kristan Rodriguez.