Let’s review what we know about Tier 2 supports, drawing on the half-century of research-based, RTI-based Tiers 2 and 3 (Allington, 2011; Bloom, 1968, 1974, 1984; Buffum, Mattos, Weber, & Hierck, 2015; Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Burns & Symington, 2002; Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, & Moody, 2000; Gersten, Beckmann, Clarke, Foegen, Marsh, Star et al., 2009b; Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, Linan-Thompson et al., 2009a; Guskey, 2010; Hattie, 2012; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2000; VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007). We believe that one reason why academic and behavioral RTI has been frustrating and less than effective in schools and districts is a simple misunderstanding of what the tiers actually are. Mike Schmoker (2004) observes, “Clarity precedes competence” (p. 85). Let’s spend a brief moment revisiting the basic purposes of the tiers, paying particular attention to the least understood and implemented tier: Tier 2.
Tier 1 supports represent the high-quality, differentiated instruction—both academic and behavioral—designed to meet the needs of all students. Teachers help achieve this goal by collaboratively examining evidence of student response to academic and behavioral instruction and identifying which differentiated instructional strategies meet student needs.
When a student does not respond to this focused, differentiated core instruction, educators supplement core (Tier 1) instruction with more support (Tier 2), again whether the needs are academic or behavioral. Whether this means additional time or the use of alternative strategies or both, the evidence collected and the collaborative planning and analysis of all staff members drive supports. This is Tier 2. Decisions to provide these supports are based on evidence of a student’s response to focused core instruction.
Tier 2 supports are fundamentally different than specialized Tier 3 supports. Simply stated, Tier 2 supports prevent students from falling behind or falling farther behind, while Tier 3 supports provide the intensive supports necessary to catch students up. Tier 2 supports provide additional time and access to alternative strategies for more students to master more core priorities at deeper levels—we can predict that this will be necessary for some students. Tier 3 supports provide the intensive, immediate supports that students will desperately need when educators find significant deficits in the foundational skill areas of literacy, numeracy, and behavior to be inevitably contributing to frustration and failure—we can predict that this will be necessary for some students. In our experiences, most schools that have RTI-based systems of supports in place are not offering more or Tier 2 supports to students. They are offering Tier 3, but their Tier 2 interventions are actually Tier 3-lite.
In actuality, Tiers 2 and 3 supports are distinct, and schools must move toward a future in which all students have access to both and receive both if the evidence indicates the need, along with differentiated core supports. The consequences of not providing Tier 3 supports are easy to imagine: students who are highly vulnerable due to significant skill deficits will become increasingly disengaged and will continue to struggle to simply perform as they currently are. But what are the consequences of not providing Tier 2 supports, even while providing Tier 3 supports?
Let’s begin answering this question by acknowledging a reality: I do not know of any educators who have ever concluded a unit of instruction with all students achieving the depth of mastery that we desire and that students must attain. Likewise, we have never seen a classroom in which all students meet expectations in response to our first, best instruction. Students simply learn at different rates and in different ways. What can we expect if, at the conclusion of a unit, we simply move on? Students will probably feel frustrated. In spite of the fact that the less-than-complete mastery of some priorities by some students was predictable, we have not prepared for this reality. Affected students’ grades are negatively impacted. Their motivation for future success, their engagement, and their sense of self-efficacy diminish. The concepts and skills of many (if not most) subsequent units of instruction build on the concepts and skills of preceding units; this is even more true for behavioral skills. Students who have not yet mastered the preceding month’s priorities and are not given an ongoing opportunity (or requirement) to do so will experience predictable difficulties mastering the next month’s priorities. When this situation befalls a student unit after unit and month after month, we can predict that a significant deficit in skills will develop in short order and that a student’s will to engage in their continued learning will similarly suffer.
Importantly and significantly, we have never concluded a unit of instruction feeling that we sufficiently extended the learning for students who have attained mastery. Time for Tier 2 supports can and should provide a service for all students: timely and targeted supports for greater levels of student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities, so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind), and enrichment opportunities to engage with tasks and situations of greater complexity so students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding.