Redesigning Multi-Tiered Services in Schools

Redefining the Tiers and the Difference between Services and Interventions

Dear Colleagues,


   During the past month or so, I have been updating my electronic monograph,

A Multi-Tiered Service and Support Implementation Guidebook for Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap


   While this monograph was first written during the “No Child Left Behind” years, with additional years of research and implementation (in well over a thousand schools across the country), and the arrival of the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it was time for a major overhaul.

   Critically, the monograph is written—literally—as a real implementation guide.  Not only does it identify and help pragmatically correct a number of critical flaws in the U.S. Department of Education’s MTSS and (old) RtI frameworks, the Guidebook provides a step-by-step flowchart on how to implement a proven, field-tested multi-tiered process for academically struggling and/or socially, emotionally, or behaviorally challenging students.

   These MTSS/RtI flaws, collectively, have resulted in delayed and/or incorrect services being “delivered” to students . . .  and failed service—that have both exacerbated the original problems and increased student and staff resistance to the “next” service to be tried.

   We discussed many of these issue within months of ESEA’s passage.  See, for example, our March 4, 2016 Blog:


The New ESEA/ESSA: Discontinuing the U.S. Department of Education's School Turn-Around, and Multi-tiered Academic (RtI) and Behavioral (PBIS) System of Support (MTSS) Frameworks

   But, more importantly, we have talked about solutions. . . that are real, defensible, and that result in more effective and successful student services and success.

   And some of these solutions require educators to question and modify some critical assumptions.

   Today, I want to talk about two such assumptions:

  • Assumption #1.  That the “tiers” in a multi-tiered system of supports are real, tangible, and similar across districts and states.
  • Assumption #2.  That the “supports” in a multi-tiered system of supports are uniform.

   As usual, today’s Blog message was triggered by my work in the field.  During a number of recent consultations, I was challenged to clarify my comments regarding these two assumptions.  As you will see below, one result was the differentiation between “Services” and “Interventions.”

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An Introduction to Multi-Tiered Services and ESEA

   The goal of every school across the country is to maximize the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral progress and proficiency of every student.  Ultimately, this translates into academic independence and social, emotional, and behavioral self-management, respectively (see Figures 1 and 2 below). 

   All of this is accomplished through (a) effective and differentiated classroom instruction, complemented with (b) positive and successful classroom management, that (c) is delivered by highly qualified teachers who have (d) administrators, instructional support and related services staff, and other consultants available to support classrooms, grade-level or teaching units, and other school programs and processes.  All of this is intended to result in students who demonstrate age-appropriate (or beyond) independent learning and behavioral self-management skills.

   While an admirable goal, the reality is that not all students are successful even when in effective classrooms.  Indeed, some students come to the schoolhouse door at-risk for educational failure, while others are struggling learners who are disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, underperforming, or consistently unsuccessful.  These struggles occur academically and/or as social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.  For these students, districts and schools are required to have multi-tiered

   Image titleFigure 1.

Image title

Figure 2.

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The Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act and Multi-Tiered Services

   The Elementary and Secondary Education/Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA/ESSA) was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015.  Most notably, the Law transfers much of the responsibility for developing, implementing, and evaluating effective school and schooling processes to state departments of education and school districts across the country.  It also includes a number of specific provisions to help to ensure success for all students and schools.

   Relative to at-risk, disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, underperforming, or consistently unsuccessful students, ESEA/ESSA defines and requires districts and schools to establish a “multi-tiered system of supports” for specific groups of students.

   ESEA/ESSA’s definition of a multi-tiered system of supports is as follows:

“a comprehensive continuum of evidence-based, systemic practices to support a rapid response to students’ needs, with regular observation to facilitate data-based instructional decision-making.”

   While this definition states that a district or school’s multi-tiered system is designed and implemented for any student “in need,” ESEA/ESSA also specifically cites the use of multi-tiered systems of support with the following students or instructional areas:  (a) students with disabilities, including children with significant cognitive disabilities; (b) English Language Learners; (c) children with developmental delays; and (d) in the provision of literacy services.

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  • The term “response-to-intervention” (i.e., RtI), or any of its derivatives, does not appear in ESEA/ESSA.
  • Similarly, by way of history, the term “response-to-intervention” never appeared in the federal special education Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and it did not appear in the previous ESEA—No Child Left Behind Act
  • Indeed, the closest that IDEA came to using the term “response-to-intervention” was in the section on learning disabilities where it stated,
“In determining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local educational agency may use a process that determines if the child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a part of the evaluation procedures described in paragraphs (2) and (3).”
  • IDEA, which predates ESEA/ESSA by over a decade, does not include the term “multi-tiered system of supports” in any way.
  • Finally, the term “multi-tiered system of supports” appears only five times in the ESEA/ESSA, it always appears in lower case letters, and it never appears as a capital-letter acronym: MTSS.

   Thus, unless superseded by state law, ESEA/ESSA does not mandate the use of the (capital letter) MTSS framework advocated by the U.S. Department of Education, its Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), or any of the national Technical Assistance Centers funded with federal money.

   Instead, as noted above, ESEA/ESSA encourages districts and schools to create multi-tiered systems of supports that conform to the law but, more importantly, that respond to local conditions:  to the students, staff, resources, school and schooling practices, and academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes that are needed. 

   NOTE WELL.  Parenthetically, even if state law or state department of education statute exceeded ESEA/ESSA and did require OSEP’s MTSS framework (or any other approach to multi-tiered services), districts can still request a waiver from these expectations by petitioning their state department with a sound research-to-practice and student-focused rationale.

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The Tiers and the Intensity of Services and Interventions

   The U.S. Department of Education—and its various federally-funded Technical Assistance Centers—depict the multi-tiered framework as having side-by-side three-tiered triangles representing the interface of a school’s  attention to both academics and behavior. 

   The three tiers are typically described as involving:  Tier I (Universal programming for All Students); Tier II (Selective or Group programming for Some Students); and Tier III (Intensive or Individual programming for Few Students). 

   Also associated with the Tiers are percentages that reflect the assumption that schools will have 80% of their students responding exclusively to Tier I approaches; 15% of their students needing Tier II approaches; and 5% of their students needing Tier III approaches.

   CriticallyThere is no research or support anywhere that has validated these percentages. . . or even this framework of universal versus group versus individually-tiered interventions.

   In fact, many years ago, a State Special Educator asked one of the (still) National PBIS Technical Assistance Directors where the percentages came from.  At a national conference, the answer was, “We made them up.”

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   There is no validity, and no value, in stating that a specific percentage of students should be distributed across a school’s three tiers.

   In fact, from a strategic planning perspective, if schools prepared their budgets, organized their staffing, and allocated their resources to this “prototype of percentages,” many schools would be woefully unprepared to address the critical academic and behavioral needs of all of its students.

   And this, in fact, is what is happening.

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   And so, in order to begin a successful redesign:

Districts and schools need to (re-)conceptualize the tiers in a multi-tiered system of supports . . .

   To reflect the intensity of services, supports, strategies, or interventions needed by one or more students.

   We have advocated and implemented this in schools, through our publications and on-site consultation, for years. 

   Our multi-tiered, science-to-practice academic instruction through intervention continuum is organized as the Positive Academic Supports and Services (PASS) model. 

   The PASS model begins with effective classroom teachers providing (a) effective differentiated instruction (through Universal Design practices), complemented by (b) effective classroom management strategies, with (c) continuous progress monitoring, resulting in (d) student learning, mastery, and proficiency.

   When students underperform or are unsuccessful, the PASS model uses a data-driven diagnostic assessment approach to determine the underlying reasons, and the assessment results are strategically or intensively linked to the following continuum of services and supports:

  • Assistive support technologies
  • Remedial approaches
  • Accommodation approaches
  • Curricular modification approaches
  • Targeted Intervention
  • Compensatory strategies

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   Our multi-tiered, science-to-practice social, emotional, and behavioral instruction through intervention continuum is organized as the Positive Behavioral Support System/Social-Emotional Learning (PBSS/SEL) model. 

   The PBSS/SEL model begins with effective classroom teachers. . .

  • (a) building teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships that sustain positive classroom environments;
  • (b) by consistently teaching students developmentally-appropriate interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional control and coping skills; that are reinforced
  • (c) by an equity-based motivational and behavioral accountability system that is anchored in both individual and peer group/social psychological principles; with
  • (d) continuous progress monitoring, resulting in (e) student learning, mastery, and proficiency.

   When students underperform or are disengaged, unmotivated, unresponsive, or behaviorally unsuccessful, the PBSS/SEL model uses a data-driven functional assessment approach to determine the underlying reasons, and the assessment results are strategically or intensively linked to the following continuum of services and supports:

  • Social, emotional, or behavioral Skill Instruction strategies
  • Speed of Learning and Mastery Acquisition strategies
  • Transfer of Training strategies
  • Emotional Control and Coping strategies
  • Motivational strategies
  • History of Inconsistency strategies
  • Special Situation Personal (e.g., trauma) or Peer-related strategies

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   We describe extensively and link both of these models to our multi-tiered system of supports blueprint in our new electronic monograph, A Multi-Tiered Service and Support Implementation Guidebook for Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap.

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Why the “Old” Tiers Need to be Retired

   In many ways, other than as a way to organize a district or school’s continuum of services and supports, the tiers are not needed or helpful.  Indeed, ESEA—as in the definition above—does not require tiers (it talks about a “continuum”), and the law certainly does not prescribe three (or any number of) tiers.

   As noted earlier, if they are present, the tiers should not reflect the percentage of students receiving specific intensities or services, nor should they reflect how many students are served (i.e., whole group, small group, or individual), the delivery setting, or the expertise of the primary providers of those services.

   Below are some critical reasons why the “old” percentage-driven conceptualization of the tiers is flawed, and why they need to be retired:

  • Critically, one reason for organizing the tiers along a “continuum of services, supports, strategies, and interventions” is so that districts and schools can periodically evaluate their students and the multi-tiered intensity of their service-delivery needs

At the very least, this should occur in April or May so that districts and schools know how to effectively budget; how to recruit, employ, and deploy the “right” professionals; and how to purchase and/or distribute the “right” resources for the student services needed.

The “bottom line” is to ensure that all students are receiving the services and supports they need to be academically and behaviorally successful.  Individual student success is the primary criterion of multi-tiered system success.

Thus, it makes no sense for schools to count up the number of students “receiving” Tier I, II, or III services.  Expecting a school to “meet” the fictional 80% (Tier I), 15% (Tier II), and 5% (Tier III) “standard” is chasing after a “normative illusion.”  This is not the way to evaluate the success of a multi-tiered system, and the percentages are not a goal that schools should establish or aspire to.

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  • As noted, the tiers should not be defined by how many students are being served at the same time. . . as the grouping patterns do not accurately reflect the intensity of the services needed, how often they are delivered, and the expertise of the staff providing the services or supports.

For example, one group of students might need academic supports that can be successfully delivered in their “Tier I” general education classroom by their general education teacher through differentiated instruction.  Meanwhile, another group of students might need strategic “Tier II” “push-in” interventions delivered by an intervention teacher twice per week.  And, yet another group of students might need intensive “Tier III” instruction in a pull-out academic intervention group that meets five days a week for one hour a day with a master’s degree-level educational therapist.

Once again, there could be the same number of students in the three groups above.  Clearly, the intensity of the services is not predicted by the number of students or the setting where the services are delivered.  To identify all three groups as involving “Tier II” services based on these two variables (number of students and setting of service delivery) simply mischaracterizes the services that the school is actually providing.

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  • A third reason for reconceptualizing the tiers (or doing away with them altogether) is that it is virtually impossible to define the tiers in any way that allows the services and supports—across schools, districts, or state—to be consistently, meaningfully, and accurately compared.

In fact, given the ESEA definition above, the law only requires that each district create a meaningful multi-tiered system of supports for its own schools and students to address their own needed services and supports.

ESEA does not require each state to standardize or equate its multi-tiered systems across districts.  It does, critically, require states to evaluate student outcomes—both within and across districts (the latter to identify districts that need to be in “improvement” status).  Indeed, different districts could be equally successful with their students using different multi-tiered systems of support.  In many ways, this is what has been happening for many, many years.

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On a more pragmatic level, however, not only should different districts be allowed to identify where to place their specific services, supports, strategies, and interventions into their multi-tiered continuum, but this is almost a necessity.  This is because some of these specific approaches vary from school to school, and district to district.  While this variability occurs because of different students’ needs, they also occur due to differences in funding, personnel (within and outside of the district or school), and available resources. 

Indeed, a district may make some staff and resources available to all students (at the old “Tier I”), while its neighboring two districts use these same staff and resources only for selected students (at the old “Tier II”), or for individually-targeted students (at the old “Tier III”), respectively. 

This may occur because the three districts spend different amounts of money each year on staff, infrastructure, and fixed expenses. . . thus, leaving different amounts of expendable funds for support staff, professional development, technology-based interventions, or behavioral/mental health counseling.

And, while these three districts might have the same number of FTE (full-time equivalent) staff per 100 students, they might have, for example, different percentages of newly hired staff who just graduated from their teacher training programs.  Thus, one district may have more novice teachers in its classrooms—teachers who are less experienced and require more supervision relative to classroom instruction and behavior management.  Another district may have a cadre of incredibly experienced teachers who need virtually no supervision, and who are maximizing all students’ academic and behavioral outcomes.

Given all of this, it is clear that when any district places its service and supports into its multi-tiered continuum, the placements are often contextual and idiosyncratic.  Requiring districts to fit their multi-tiered system into a “standard” state protocol not only is artificial, bureaucratic, and clinically unnecessary, it also reduces each district’s important contexts into a meaningless blur.

Moreover, where specific services and supports are organized in a district’s continuum may have more to do with money, personnel, and resources, and less to do with districts’ goals, intent, and aspirations.

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  • The same circumstances—described immediately above—occur  for districts that are geographically separated even within the same state.

For example, in a poor, rural school district, the absence of a Tier I social skills curriculum—taught by classroom teachers for all students—might result in many students experiencing social, emotional, and behavioral gaps that eventually require “Tier II” or even “Tier III” interventions.

Because it is in a rural area, the latter interventions may be designated as “Tier III” interventions because the district cannot find—much less employ—the specialized mental health or intervention staff needed to provide these services on-site.  Thus, the district may have to contract for these services, or use a telehealth company—thus relegating these rarely-used resources—and their costs—to the “Tier III” level.

Conversely, in an upscale, suburban school district—that has purchased and trained all of its classroom teachers to implement a Tier I primary prevention social skills curriculum, there likely are fewer students who have social, emotional, and behavioral gaps. . . who need Tier II or III services or supports. 

However, even if the suburban district had the same number of students needing Tier II or III services as the rural district, the suburban district would probably have skilled counselors, school psychologists, and/or social workers employed on staff (or more available in the community at more competitive prices). 

Thus, the availability and the costs would likely result in these services being considered Tier II services. . . when (as above), they would likely be designated as Tier III services in the rural school.

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   In summary, for all of the reasons above, we cannot assume that the terms “Tier I, II, or III” reflect the same things across schools, districts, or states.  Nor—from a school, district, or state perspective—is it relevant or does it matter.

   All that matters is student outcomes.

   Thus, we strongly recommend that schools, districts, and states discontinue the use of the term “Tier” in their multi-tiered systems of support.  If a three-tiered continuum is needed and desired, we advocate the following, more functional descriptors:

  • Preventative and Universal Instruction and Supports
  • Strategic and Specialized Services and Interventions
  • Intensive or Compensatory Services and Interventions

   Finally, we want to emphasize two additional things.

  • First, under the “old” system, we never had “Tier I students,“ “Tier II students,” or “Tier III students.” 

   Instead, we had students who needed, for example, Tier II services or interventions for a specific problem (e.g., reading) in a specific area (e.g., fluency) with a specific intervention goal (e.g., to help the student read 100 words per minute with fewer than 3 errors in a grade-level passage).

   And yet, in some schools, the services needed by some students became their label (as in, “I’ve got a class of mostly Tier II students”).

   By eliminating the Tiered language, we should eliminate (or at least minimize) this dangerous labeling practice.  As we all know, labels become expectations, expectations can impact instructional practices, and lower expectations and instructional practices result in less prepared and proficient students.

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  • Second, special education services for students with disabilities are not necessarily Tier III—or even Tier II—services.  The IEP of a student with a disability might only consist of (a) assistive supports, and (b) consultation services to the general education classroom teacher.  That is, some students with disabilities receive no direct special education instruction.

   Given the example above, we would argue that the assistive supports and teacher consultation—if it was available to or for any other student in the school—could easily be considered a Universal service and support.

   Thus, we need to be careful about stereotyping and drawing generalized conclusions when students with disabilities are concerned.  Once again, the issue is the service, support, strategy, or intervention needed. . . not the presence of a disability, or even the presence of a pervasive disability (e.g., a blind student or a student with cerebral palsy).

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The Difference Between Services and Interventions

   I have already written the words “services and supports” and “strategies and interventions” innumerable times in this piece.  This is done consciously, because these elements differ, and too many educators merge them together—to the detriment of our needy students. 

   I know this to be true, because this issue emerges in virtually all of my on-site consultations when I am helping schools and districts to (re-)design their multi-tiered system of supports.

   Functionally, when services and supports are not discriminated from strategies and interventions, students often do not receive what they need, and—many times—their academic struggles and/or social, emotional, or behavioral challenges are not resolved.

   Below is the “short course” on this discrimination.

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   “Services and Supports” enable students to get the help they need in the classroom.  Both can be included in an IEP, a 504 Plan, and within a multi-tiered system of support.  While they may be used interchangeably, and students may receive both, these terms actually mean different things.

   Here are the key differences.



What they are

Changes to how and what students learn, aimed at helping them succeed in school. That might mean making progress or staying on the same learning level as their peers.

Help in specific areas such as speech or motor skills. Often called related services or direct services. Services provide the extra help kids need to benefit from general or special education.

How kids get them

Different types of supports can be provided through IEPs, 504 plans and MTSS.

Different types of services can be provided through IEPs, 504 plans and MTSS.

What they cover

  • In an IEP: Specialized instruction (the unique special education instruction kids need to meet their IEP goals), accommodations and modifications.
  • In a 504 plan: Accommodations and modifications.
  • In MTSS: Additional instruction in the general education classroom. (Not special education.)

  • In an IEP: Related services like speech therapy, occupational therapy or supplementary aids, such as assistive technology (AT). Can also be special training of staff members who work with a student.
  • In a 504 plan: Can be related services, but is more likely to be supplementary aids such as AT.
  • In MTSS: Small group instruction or one-on-one help (tutoring)

Specific examples

Examples of changes in scheduling:

  • Extra time for work or tests
  • Breaks throughout the day

Examples of changes in setting:

  • Small group work
  • Quieter space

Examples of changes in materials:

  • Fewer problems to do on a page
  • Class notes provided
  • Recorded lectures and audiobooks

Examples of changes in instruction:

  • One-on-one teaching and tutoring
  • Change in the difficulty or reading level of assignments

Examples of changes in how a student shows knowledge:

  • Doing hands-on demonstrations
  • Dictating answers
  • Typing instead of writing

Examples of related services:

  • Speech-language therapy
  • Occupational and physical therapy
  • Counseling
  • Adaptive physical education (accommodations for gym class)
  • Early identification and screening
  • School health services
  • Social work

Examples of supplementary aids and services:

  • Assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software
  • Adapted materials, such as audiobooks
  • Adaptive tools, such as slant boards

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   A strategy or intervention is a specific program or set of steps to help a student improve in a skill-specific area of academic and/or social, emotional, or behavioral need.

   For example, if a student has a skill deficit in one or more of the five areas or reading, or in a specific skill area of mathematics, the intervention could involve a curricular approach (like an Orton-Gillingham program), a strategy like Paired Reading, or an intervention like the Neurological Impress Method. 

   All of these are planned, systematic, and they typically have a sequential blueprint, curriculum, or methodology.  Indeed, they focus on what a teacher, interventionist, or therapist does or implements.

   Similarly, if a student demonstrated a social, emotional, or behavioral skill deficit or area of concern. . . once again, the strategy or intervention would be a step-by-step, research-based approach that would directly teach or enhance the skill, increase the motivation or independence of the student, or decrease or eliminate the inappropriate or maladaptive behaviors.

   Examples of interventions here would include:  behavioral contracting, positive reinforcement using strategic schedules of reinforcement, differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors (DRA), an interdependent group contingent intervention, relaxation or progressive muscle relaxation therapy, social skills instruction, or attribution retraining.

   Interventions, then, have some key elements:

  • Interventions are intentional and focused on changing an academic or social-emotional skill or behavior.
  • Interventions involve a specific program or set of formalized steps required for implementation and proven to effect change.
  • Interventions are specific and formalized.  An intervention lasts a certain number of weeks or months, is reviewed at set intervals, and has demonstrable short- and long-term outcomes.
  • Interventions are implemented with formal evaluation approaches that track and measure students’ progress.

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   In summary:

  • Tutoring is a service; the specific academic interventions used by a trained and skilled tutor is the intervention.
  • Counseling or psychotherapy is a service; the therapy that a psychologist uses (e.g., cognitive-behavior therapy) is the intervention.
  • A sensory “time-out” for a student experiencing trauma is a support; the strategies or therapies that a student received to eliminate the need for future time-outs is the intervention.

   A district or school’s (re-)designed multi-tiered systems of supports should include services, supports, strategies, and interventions along its continuum.  However, as emphasized above, services and supports need to be discriminated from strategies and interventions.

   In general, services and support assist students and provide a vehicle for academic or behavioral change.  Strategies and interventions accomplish the change.

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   This Blog has addressed four inter-related topics: 

  • How the Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibly defines a “multi-tiered system of supports”—encouraging districts and schools to create their own system to address their own student needs;
  • What a model multi-tiered continuum could/should look like in the academic and social, emotional, behavioral areas;
  • Why schools and districts need to reconceptualize their systems away from the invalid framework that relies on the percentages of students being served in each tier, and toward a continuum that looks at the intensity of the services, supports, strategies, and interventions needed; and
  • How services and supports need to be discriminated from strategies and interventions so that students receive the approaches needed to change the areas of concern and to maximize the academic proficiency and independence, and their social, emotional, and behavioral self-management and competence.

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   As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments. 

   Please remember that we have just published (last week) our completely revised electronic monograph:

A Multi-Tiered Service and Support Implementation Guidebook for Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap


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   Note also that I am always available to provide a free hour of telephone consultation to those who want to discuss their student, staff, school, or district multi-tiered needs. 

   Feel free to contact me at any time if there is anything that I can do to support your work. . . now, as you prepare for next year, or as you redesign your multi-tiered system of supports.