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Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning (SSRL) ensure high levels of learning for all students at all readiness levels through the integration of elements from the most important and impactful initiatives within public education: response to intervention (RTI), multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), professional learning communities (PLCs), positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), universal design for learning (UDL), special education, gifted education, and differentiated instruction.


Most directly and significantly, SSRL build upon RTI, a proactive, coordinated, and systemic approach to providing academic and behavioral supports for all students. SSRL are among the most-research-based initiatives with which educators can engage (Bloom, 1968; 1984; Burns & Symington, 2002; Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, & Moody, 2000; Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, Linan-Thompson, et al., 2009a; Gersten, Beckmann, Clarke, Foegen, Marsh, Star, et al., 2009b; Hattie, 2012; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2000; VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007).

Within SSRL, collaborative teams of educators ask:

  • What student needs can we anticipate?
  • For what supports can we proactively plan and prepare?


Contemporary students deserve contemporary schools and educators. The very recent NAEP report reconfirms that most students are not ready for college and a skilled career and that a growing number of students are functionally illiterate and innumerate ( We must simultaneously increase the rigor and relevance of learning experiences and better support vulnerable students. The good news: We know more than ever what works best in schools.


SSRL are, fundamentally and foundationally, a framework, a way of thinking, in which teams continuously ask, “To what extent are students responding to instruction and intervention?” When evidence indicates that students are not growing, adjustments are made. When students with significant deficits in foundational skills are not closing the gap in spite of intensive interventions, adjustments are made. When students who enter a course or grade level with significant levels of existing knowledge and yet are not progressing adequately and appropriately, adjustments are made. In this way, serving students using the principles of SSRL represents everything we do on behalf of students and staffs in schools. And, given the importance of complexity of this work, a coordination system is required. We may not be the cause of the challenges facing today’s students, but we can be the solution.


Check out how we streamline your MTSS/RTI/PBIS and get you back in front of the classroom.

While SSRL represent a set of supports for all students—one of the most highly-effective and researched-based practices in which schools can engage—response to intervention and SSRL entered the educational discourse most prominently through the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) in 2004.


IDEA 2004 altered the landscape for schools. Whereas practitioners previously used the IQ-achievement discrepancy model to identify children with learning disabilities, the reauthorization allowed schools to employ a lack of “response to intervention” as an alternative method for determining eligibility for special education and as a rationale for providing early intervention to children at risk for school failure.


While the reauthorized law seems, at first glance, to relate to eligibility determinations for special education, using a lack of response to intervention for such determinations has obvious implications for all of education. Systemically and successfully implementing RTI with a SSRL requires that we intervene and monitor the extent to which students are responding. IDEA 2004 encourages this intervention and monitoring to be done early—both early in a student’s school career (in grades K–3) and early upon the identification of a difficulty or deficit—and permits districts to use as much as 15 percent of their special education monies to fund these early intervening services.


An SSRL is a school-wide construct that provides high-quality instruction and research-based systematic interventions for all student needs—academic, pro-social, and pro-functional.

From struggling students striving to meet minimum proficiency levels to gifted students striving to reach their potential, SSRL invite a collaborative effort among students, teachers, parents, and the community to prioritize students achieving positive outcomes. The system of supports that schools are increasingly scheduling into their school days have the potential to provide more customized supports for each and every student.


Challenges remain in our well-intentioned efforts to realize the full potential of this important endeavor, and they are largely due to a lack of clarity about the positive impact of a well-constructed approach to SSRL that can be realized by all schools. The critical components of an effective SSRL are:

  • Differentiated instruction and learning opportunities for all students
  • Timely, proactive identification of students struggling to meet grade-level expectations
  • Attention to the learning rates and levels of performance of all students
  • Increasing the targetedness and intensities of future instruction and intervention based on student response to present instruction and intervention
  • Coordinated and evidence-informed decision-making using the skills of school teams to solve problems


SSRL are equally impactful for students who are not identified as struggling, but who are considered at or above level, and whose needs are not being met. SSRL can and must be applied to all students; educators must work to ensure that every student has access to engaging learning experiences.


All students can and must benefit from core (Tier 1) and more (Tier 2) instruction and intervention. Core supports must be differentiated so that all students can access the essentials. More supports must provide additional time and alternative supports based on evidence of need. Specialized supports for all (Tier 3) represent intensive supports to ameliorate significant deficits in foundational skills or opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of the passions into which they will dive deeply when significant needs do not exist.


Interventions must supplement—not replace—the core. And, student response to intervention is used to determine further course of action. If students are responding to intervention, supports are continued until gaps are eliminated. If students do not respond in a timely manner, they are provided with a different, more intense, more diagnostically targeted set of supports. Their progress is again monitored and further actions determined. We never give up; high levels of learning for all are inevitable.


Unfortunately, part of the confusion about SSRL has occurred because of a lack of clarity around the definitions and functions of each level of support for both academics and behavior.


Core supports are differentiated—teaching and learning cycles for grade-level and course-specific behavioral and academic priorities for all students. Teachers respond to a student’s unique learning needs by making adjustments to process, content, product, and environments based on a student’s interests, learning profile, and readiness levels. These supports are often described as Tier 1. Key points include:

  • Quality, not quantity
  • Depth, not breadth
  • Mastery, not coverage
  • Scaffolded, differentiated, respectful
  • Skills and content; verbs and nouns
  • Pro-social and pro-functional skills, e.g., self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional
  • 21st century skills, e.g., creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication
  • Rigorously designed and focused units of instruction
  • Engaging, differentiated instruction for all students
  • Common formative assessments to plan for instruction and inform interventions
  • Daily small group supports to more homogenous groups of students based on need
  • Use of data teams to collaboratively inform professional practice


More supports are individualized—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 so that students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding. If differentiation is the how, then individualization is the when. Learning progresses at different speeds; some students may need to review previously covered material, while others may be ready to immerse themselves in a certain topic. These supports are often described as Tier 2. Key points include:

  • Directly based on Benjamin Bloom’s work in the 1960s
  • Based on the “formula” – Time + Support = Learning
  • Informed by short-cycle assessments
  • More time—for both alternative supports and to gain mastery of the priorities – for intervention and enrichment
  • Intended to prevent students from falling behind or falling further behind
  • More time and differentiated supports for students who have not mastered the essentials, as measured by common formative assessments
  • Enrichment experiences with tasks of more depth and complexity, for students who HAVE demonstrated mastery
  • Interventions are provided during daily flex times or during “buffer” days
  • Students are grouped more homogeneously, based on specific skill needs
  • Interventions are provided to smaller groups, from the teacher who has had the most success, as measured by the common assessments
  • Other school staff may join grade-level and course-specific teachers, to reduce teacher-student ratios
  • The purpose is for students to further master prioritized grade-level or course content


Specialized supports are personalized—Intervention and enrichment to meet students at the forward edge of their zones of proximal development; intensive supports to meet significant deficits in foundational skills and opportunities for students to exercise choice over the what and how of passions into which they will dive deeply. If differentiation is the how and individualization is the when, the personalization is the where—as in, where are students in their learning journey. Students who are not yet performing at expected levels, due to significant deficits in foundational skills, receive targeted and intensive supports at the leading edge of their zone of proximal development to close the gap. Students who are meeting and exceeding age and grade expectations dig deeper into areas of interest. All students’ experiences are tailored to preferences and interests; support is paced to students’ unique needs. Students are involved in the creation and monitoring of their learning path. These supports are often described as Tier 3. Key points include:

  • Proactive and immediate
  • Diagnostically-driven and targeted
  • Intensive
  • Coordinated
  • Address and improve significant deficits in foundational skills, or
  • Provide personalized learning plans, giving students opportunities to exercise choice over the what and how of the passions into which they will dive deeply
  • For students who have been screened to be multiple grade levels behind their peers in foundational skills and for students who have not responded to Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports
  • Intensive supports provided in addition to Tier 1 and 2
  • Must be as targeted as possible, e.g., on phonemic awareness, single-syllabic phonics, or multisyllabic phonics
  • Supports should be adjusted to match student needs and revised until the student is adequately responding to intervention.


Systems of Supports for Rigorous Learning are appropriate for all students and all educators who support and inform effective practices, and we are successfully transforming schools across the world by employing its principle and practices ( Success is dependent upon the enthusiastic and committed collaboration of all adults who are connected to students. Ultimately, an SSRL represent the ways in which we behave as educators and not simply a collection of things that we buy.



Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Evaluation Comment, 1(2). Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Study of Evaluation of Instructional Programs, 1–12.

Bloom. B. S. (1984, May). The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Leadership, 41(8), 4–17.

Burns, M. K., & Symington, T. (2002). A meta-analysis of prereferral intervention teams: Systemic and student outcomes. Journal of School Psychology, 40, 437–447.

Burns, M. K., Appleton, J. J., & Stehouwer, J. D. (2005). Meta-analysis of response-to-intervention research: Examining field-based and research-implemented models. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 23, 381–394.

Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Hughes, M., & Moody, S. (2000). How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students at risk for reading failure? A meta-analysis of the intervention research. Reading Research Quarterly, 92, 605–619.

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., et al. (2009a). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to intervention and multi-tier intervention in primary grades. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences.

Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., et al. (2009b). Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to intervention for elementary and middle schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Swanson, H. L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject-design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33, 114–136.

VanDerHeyden, A. M., Witt, J. C., & Gilbertson, D. A. (2007). Multiyear evaluation of the effects of a response to intervention (RTI) model on identification of children for special education. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 225–256.

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