Multi-tiered System of Supports/Response to Intervention (MTSS/RTI) is an approach that provides high-quality structured intervention matched to student needs. This approach uses learning rate over time and level of performance to make educational decisions including eligibility for special education services (Avant, 2014; Batsche et al., 2006; Bean & Lillenstein, 2012; Bernhardt & Hebert, 2011; Berzin & O'Connor, 2010). It is a school organizational framework of systematic and data-based methods for determining the degree to which a student has responded to intervention. This process also seeks to prevent students from failing by offering interventions prior to determination of special education eligibility (Avant, 2014; Bernhardt & Hebert, 2011; Berzin & O'Connor, 2010). Interventions are applied via a three-tier model. Tier 1 consists of high-quality whole class instruction, tier 2 includes targeted group interventions such as those focused on anger management, and tier 3 involves more intensive interventions such as individualized solution-focused brief therapy.
To successfully implement MTSS/RTI in schools, a significant increase in collaboration among school personnel, particularly school social workers (SSWs) and school psychologists (SPs), is needed (Avant, 2014; Cates, Blum, & Swerdlik, 2011). Since the 1970s, collaboration among school professionals has been recognized as an effective approach to meeting the needs of all students and school change efforts such as implementation of an MTSS/RTI model (Cates et al., 2011; Merrell, Ervin, & Peacock, 2012). Unfortunately, the degree of and ways of increasing interdisciplinary collaboration have not received much attention (Sosa & McGrath, 2013).
The purpose of this study was to investigate SSWs' and SPs' perceptions regarding their collaboration within an MTSS/RTI model now that it is mandated in the public schools in fourteen states (Zirkel, 2015). Illinois is one of these fourteen states; therefore, the current study focuses on areas of collaboration engaged in by SSWs and SPs in Illinois schools. Because little data exist on this topic, this study will contribute to the fields of social work and school psychology as well as adding new knowledge to our understanding of approaches to implementing MTSS/RTI.
Illinois has a long history of providing services to students with special needs and, more recently, the development of alternative service delivery systems. The Illinois Flexible Service Delivery System (FSDS) was a problem-solving and RTI service delivery model that began in 1994 and evolved into the current MTSS/RTI framework for school improvement efforts. Multi-tiered System of Supports/Response to Intervention encompasses providing effective core instruction and levels of increasingly intensive intervention for students not meeting grade level benchmarks. The FSDS was a grassroots effort that included the components of local district initiative (i.e., the choice/desire to implement a different way of doing business) and meaningful state support for school change. Achieving positive outcomes for students and general acceptance of FSDS among school personnel and the state board of education contributed to the mandate for MTSS/RTI in all Illinois schools (Peterson, Prasse, Shinn, & Swerdlik, 2007). The main difference between FSDS and MTSS/RTI is the inclusion of a focus on tier I or core instruction in the MTSS/RTI organizational framework.
The use of MTSS/RTI represents an opportunity to effectively align with the principles and practices of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004) and the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002), which was renamed the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) and passed in 2015. Illinois's requirements for schools implementing MTSS/RTI include the federal mandate of participation in annual assessments of student performance and provision of increasingly intense levels of intervention for students who are not achieving minimal standards. These outgrowths from NCLB and more recently ESSA are characteristic of an effectively implemented MTSS/RTI school organizational framework (Cates et al., 2011).
Moreover, the most recent reauthorizations of IDEA and ESSA are consistent with the accountability movement, which focuses on closing the achievement gap between children from the majority group and those from historically low-achieving minority groups. Both laws hold schools accountable for the progress of all students. This accountability includes students from various disaggregated groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, English language learners, and those in special education through the assessment of student outcomes. Both laws also stress the need to use high-quality, scientifically based instructional methods, curricular materials, and interventions. In addition, they both require early identification of students not meeting grade level standards; consistent monitoring of student progress in both academic and social-emotional/behavioral benchmarks; design and implementation of a core curriculum; targeted group and individualized interventions; and the merging of all students, including those in special education, under one accountability system (Cates et al., 2011).
Although the concept is unclear to many, MTSS/RTI is not a form of special education; however, it represents a preventative approach (Avant, 2014; Bernhardt & Hebert, 2011; Berzin & O'Connor, 2010; Kelly et al., 2010; Sosa & McGrath, 2013; Splett, Fowler, Weist, McDaniel, & Dvorsky, 2013) to ensure meeting the needs of all students. If implemented properly, MTSS/RTI would reduce the number of students inappropriately receiving special education, thus indicating that many do not possess disabilities that significantly affect learning, but could have responded to more short-term evidence-based interventions. A fully implemented MTSS/RTI model would ensure more effective instruction for all students (Bean & Lillenstein, 2012; Bernhardt & Hebert, 2011).
Over the past two decades, MTSS/RTI has evolved through research and innovation (Cates et al., 2011). It now emphasizes data-based decision making, collaborative problem solving, and evidence-based interventions. The current implementation of MTSS/RTI challenges practitioners, particularly SSWs and SPs, who have been accustomed to traditional roles and functions. According to Bean and Lillenstein (2012) and Splett and colleagues (2013), tier 1 (core, universal, or primary instruction) is provided for all students and meets their basic educational needs; tier 2 is targeted or supplemental intervention; and tier 3 consists of more intensive intervention. For example, Bean and Lillenstein and Splett and colleagues agree that these students may be taught in smaller groups, be provided additional instructional time, or be taught by specialized personnel such as speech and language or special education teachers. School social workers and school psychologists can also provide interventions at the various tiers or levels. Multi-tiered System of Supports/Response to Intervention presents a wide variety of opportunities for school personnel to expand their roles and functions.
Roles and Functions of School Social Workers and School Psychologists
An effective MTSS/RTI organizational framework involves school staff and parents working together to help students before learning difficulties grow into permanent patterns of failure (Avant, 2014). School social workers and school psychologists are some of the many school professionals who are involved in MTSS/RTI implementation. The implementation of an MTSS/RTI model can have a significant impact on the roles and functions of these related service personnel (Illinois School Psychologists Association [ISPA], 2016; National Association of School Psychologists [NASP], 2006; Scott, 2009).
Time and social change have also expanded the roles of SSWs and SPs into areas of substantial overlap (Agresta, 2004). Early intervention experts, organizational consultants, and referral experts are just a few of the varying roles that SSWs take on (Agresta, 2004; Avant, 2014; Kelly et al., 2016). Other roles include school reformers, evidence-informed practitioners (Kelly et al., 2016), special education counselors, evaluators, administrative supporters, and facilitators of preventive programs such as character education and life skills programs (Avant, 2014; ISPA, 2016; Scott, 2009).
In school systems implementing MTSS/RTI, Kelly and colleagues (2010)...