Newsline Volume 31, Number

Supporting Student Achievement:
Massachusetts System of Tiered Instruction

By Amanda Green, Parent Training and Information Project

Is your child struggling in school? If so, you may want to find out if your district is one that supports student learning through a system of tiered instruction that aligns with the Massachusetts System of Tiered Instruction [“Tiered Instruction” in this article]. This new system is one way in which schools can:

  • Find out what each individual student needs.

  • Track each student’s progress toward meeting Massachusetts learning standards as laid out in the Curriculum Frameworks.

  • Teach each student the way s/he learns best.

  • Provide increasing or decreasing levels of support – depending on what the student needs.

In other states, similar systems are sometimes called “Response to Intervention” or “RTI.” RTI is used to identify children who are struggling in school and to ensure that they receive the right instruction or intervention to be successful. To learn more about RTI, which was first defined in federal special education law, visit the National Center on Response to Intervention at or the RTI Action Network at

Using the Massachusetts System of Tiered Instruction framework, schools hold all students to high standards both academically and behaviorally, track student progress frequently, tailor teaching to individual student needs, and provide increasing levels of support to students who struggle so that all children get what they need to succeed.

In the past, schools would sometimes wait for students to fall behind and then refer them for a special education evaluation. Tiered Instruction is a new approach to ensure that students are supported from the very beginning of the educational process. Some low-performing school districts are now required by state regulation to implement Tiered Instruction.

How does the Massachusetts System of Tiered Instruction work? The diagram below, created by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, shows a pyramid divided into three sections or “tiers,” surrounded by two concentric circles. Along the left side of the pyramid is a two-headed arrow.

system of support graph

The Pyramid
The pyramid’s bottom tier, Tier 1, is “Core Instruction.” This refers to the kind of teaching and learning that happens in a general education classroom, either in small or large groups. In a district using Tiered Instruction, students in Tier 1 must be taught using high quality, research-based methods, in a way that meets their individual academic and behavioral needs. Students are tested regularly to measure progress and to determine which students are struggling and may need additional support. Testing at all tiers also gives teachers important information which allows them to adapt lessons and materials to meet each student’s needs. Eighty to ninety percent of students would learn the key concepts through instruction in Tier 1.

Tier 2 is “Supplemental.” This tier is for students who, through ongoing data collection, are identified as needing additional support. Tier 2 gives students the chance to benefit from targeted small group instruction or extra teaching time. Again, students are taught using research-based methods (when these are available) and are tested regularly to measure progress. Five to ten percent of all students would receive instruction in Tier 2. Schools provide interventions in Tier 2 in addition to core instruction.

Students who are not progressing in Tier 2 move to Tier 3, where they receive “Intense” instruction and more frequent testing to measure progress and to help them meet grade-level standards. One to five percent of students would receive instruction in Tier 3.

The Inner Circle
Inside the inner circle, around the pyramid, are six core components of the Tiered System.

1. “Flexible Tiers” (emphasized by the double-headed arrow on the left side of the pyramid) means that students are not taught at only one tier at a time. A student could be taught and tested at Tier 3 for reading, Tier 2 for behavior, and also at Tier 1 in other subjects. Likewise a student could receive Tier 2 services, show improvement, and move back down to Tier 1.

2. “High-Quality Core Curriculum & Instruction” is key. Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks are the blueprint for what all students are taught (including students who receive special education services).

3. “Research-Based Academic Interventions & Assessment Practices” means that teaching and testing should be based on research, when available. This requirement is essential if students are to make progress.

4. “Research-Based Behavioral Interventions & Supports” refers to the fact that the whole child is important. In Tiered Instruction, students are supported not only academically but also behaviorally.

5. “Universal Screening & Progress Monitoring” means that all students will be tested regularly to determine if they are making progress and to help teachers adapt their teaching methods to suit each student’s learning needs.

6. “Collaborative School/Family Problem-Solving” means that parents are valued partners in the education process. They receive information from the district about Tiered Instruction and about their children’s progress. Parents are invited to participate in making decisions related to their own children’s education, as well as on the Tiered Instruction system.

The Outer Circle
The outer circle shows the five kinds of districtwide supports that need to be in place for Tiered Instruction to be successful.

1. At the top of the circle is “Leadership,” since district and school administrators are responsible for taking the lead in putting Tiered Instruction into action and ensuring its success.

2. “Core Values & School Culture” means that the entire school community – administration, teaching staff, and families – needs to be on board. Everyone needs to understand how Tiered Instruction works and to value its potential to raise achievement for all students.

3. “Family Engagement” means that families are crucial to the success of Tiered Instruction – by partnering with school professionals in decision-making, by participating in the school community, and by encouraging and supporting
their children.

4. Ongoing “Professional Development” is essential. Teachers need to keep learning to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge necessary to make Tiered Instruction a success.

5. “Fidelity of Implementation” means that a system is in place to monitor and evaluate the components of the Tiered Instruction model. Districts need to put Tiered Instruction in place in a uniform way in all schools throughout the district. Ideally, every classroom in every school should have the same approach to teaching and testing, in line with Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and research-based practices.

If your child is already receiving special education, how will s/he benefit from Tiered Instruction? Tiered Instruction makes classrooms more inclusive. A system that uses research-based teaching methods and regular testing to track progress ensures that teaching methods are tailored to meet the needs of each individual student. In addition, your child might be receiving special education services in one subject (such as math) but still have weaknesses in another area, such as behavior. Tiered Instruction can address those weaknesses. Tiered Instruction also emphasizes the importance of having high standards for every student. All students benefit from an environment in which high expectations are the norm.

Finally, don’t forget that if your child is struggling in school, you have the right to ask for special education testing at any time. Testing results from Tiered Instruction can provide valuable information as part of the special education evaluation. However, special education testing timelines mandated by state and federal law must be followed.

For more information on special education, see A Parent’s Guide to Special Education at