How to Develop an Effective Tier 2 System

We worked with an elementary school across 2 school years to implement a comprehensive model of tiered service delivery focused on improving both academic and behavioral outcomes for students. We blogged about the project on the RTI Action Network, focusing on various aspects of implementation throughout the 2 years. The tiered service delivery model included the essential components of Response to Intervention (RTI; as delineated by the National Center on Response to Intervention [NCRTI] in 2010) and school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS; see Sugai & Horner, 2002), integrated into a comprehensive system of student support. Within the tiered system, we selected instructional programs, practices and assessments with a strong evidence-base for use. Our implementation project had two main purposes: 1) to work with a school to support the successful implementation of this model within a school setting, and 2) to determine the systems, practices, and data (Sugai & Horner, 2002) required to support the scaling up of this research-based model to practice. As we worked with the school, we found that the area most challenging for personnel was the development of an effective Tier 2 system. An effective Tier 2 system is critical within a tiered service delivery model because it represents a mechanism for systematically providing early intervention for students who are at risk for poor outcomes.

What we have discovered through this project, as well as through our work with other schools, is that although many practitioners understand the overall purpose of RTI and understand each of the individual components, they remain unsuccessful in implementing RTI as a school-wide model. One area that seems particularly problematic for schools concerns how to develop a Tier 2 system that supports students who require additional support to successfully meet grade-level performance standards but who do not necessarily qualify for more intense services such as special education.
One potential explanation for this disconnect is that an effective Tier 2 system requires numerous steps for implementation, including 1) articulating the overall purpose of implementation, 2) enumerating the components of the system, and then 3) specifying the key areas (i.e., personnel, data, procedures, resources, and communication) for implementation. What we learned from our project is that the challenge for school personnel lies not in understanding what to do, but rather, in understanding how to do it. In this article we hope to provide some of the much-needed how by discussing a process for implementation, with a particular focus on developing a Tier 2 infrastructure.

Articulating a Purpose for Tier 2 Implementation

Tier 2 is defined by the NCRTI as small-group instruction that relies on evidence-based interventions that specify the instructional procedures, duration, and frequency of instruction (NCRTI, 2010). According to the NCRTI, Tier 2 has three characteristics that distinguish it from core instruction: 1) it is evidence-based, 2) it consists of small-group instruction, and 3) it involves a clearly articulated intervention implemented with fidelity. According to this definition, Tier 2 is meant to provide a limited, but targeted, support system for students who struggle to meet grade-level performance standards. The goal of Tier 2 is to remediate academic skill deficits with the idea that in doing so, students will be successful in the Tier 1 program without support.

The reality for most schools is that they do not have adequate resources to implement a comprehensive intervention system as defined above. Many schools struggle with implementation because it seems overwhelming to meet the specifications of a well-designed Tier 2 system, which makes getting started difficult. In our work with schools, we have found that leading a school team through the analysis of school-wide benchmark and outcome data to determine priorities for Tier 2 is the best way to get started. By analyzing patterns across content areas and grade levels, a school team can usually identify one or two priority areas and use those areas as a good basis for getting started. For example, we recently worked with a school that was interested in developing a Tier 2 system with a focus on reading. We reviewed their reading benchmark data and found an interesting trend. Overall, students at the school were progressing quite well with general education instruction. More than 85% of the students were meeting proficiency targets with Tier 1 instruction alone. However, at this school, once a student was identified as at risk for poor reading outcomes, that student tended to remain in the at-risk category. In other words, the instructional program in place to support at-risk students was not effective. So for this school, it became clear that they had a strong core program and a consistent way to identify struggling students. What was needed was a Tier 2 instructional program that was more supportive of the needs of the students at risk for poor reading outcomes.

Identify Needed Components to Accomplish the Purpose

Once the purpose of the Tier 2 system is articulated, it becomes easier to conceptualize and consider what will be needed to accomplish this purpose. In our work with schools, we have identified three necessary components of a Tier 2 system, the specifics of which will vary depending on the stated purpose: 1) a data management system, 2) the appropriate interventions based on what is shown by the data, and 3) a Tier 2 team charged with the oversight and management of the system.

With regard to data management, developing a process for data collection and evaluation is an important first step. The data to be collected include benchmark or screening data, progress-monitoring data to determine whether the intervention is effective, and outcome data to determine whether the intervention and system of instruction is helping students meet grade-level outcomes. Data must be compiled and reviewed to make decisions that support continuous improvement. In the school we worked in, a lot of data were collected, but there was no school-wide system for data evaluation and decision making. We worked with the teachers and the principal to establish regular data-review meetings to routinely consider student progress and make instructional changes as required. In this particular school, we decided to use the program CBMFocus because it is free, is user-friendly, and provides an easy-to-read visual display of data. Additionally, we drew on the work of Shapiro and Clemens (2009) and asked the school to include as a level of analysis data on movement not only within tiers (i.e., to show whether students were making progress), but also movement across tiers (i.e., to show whether students were exiting more intense tiers of instruction).

Once the process of data evaluation was explained, the data also helped to inform decisions about instructional programming in Tier 2. As mentioned earlier, the initial review of school performance indicated that once a student was identified as being at risk, that child tended to remain at risk for the remainder of the school year. To better understand the particular needs of the students who were struggling, their assessment data were reviewed. In general, students in the early grades (1st through 3rd) who were struggling did not have a strong knowledge of letter–sound correspondences, were unable to decode unknown words, and did not have a large sight-word vocabulary. This was not surprising given that a central focus of early reading instruction is decoding. The more severe a student’s deficit in reading, and in particular in decoding, the more careful the instruction must be (Carnine, Silbert, Kame’enui, & Tarver, 2009). Because the direct instruction of letter–sound correspondences to teach children how to sound out words is one of the most effective ways to support students who struggle with learning to read (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998), we worked with the school to implement Tier 2 reading instruction designed according to the principles of direct instruction.

As a result of this process, the school realized that to sustain this type of program, they would need to dedicate a school-level team to manage the process. A school-level team consisting of the principal, a grade-level teacher (the teacher providing the Tier 2 instruction for that particular grade), and the special education teacher was created. Although grade-level teams managed general education instruction (Tier 1), the Tier 2 team took on the added role of looking at data and intervention across grade levels and, in particular, within the Tier 2 program. This put a mechanism in place for the school to ensure that as the needs of their children might change, a responsive instructional program could be identified and implemented to support those needs. The team meets on a regular basis to review data, problem-solve for students who are not making progress, and continue to refine their Tier 2 instruction so that it is highly effective for at-risk students.

As of the date of this writing, the school is happy to report that more than 80% of their students receiving Tier 2 instruction are making strong growth toward grade-level performance standards!   

Key Areas for Implementation

Through the process of working with schools on these types of issues, we have discovered that one of the challenges of Tier 2 is that it represents a very new process for most schools. As such, it is difficult to realize that it is best approached as a systems issue. Because practitioners are quite devoted to supporting students, the tendency in many schools is to begin providing intervention support immediately, without engaging in the systems planning approach as described above. This can result in a very haphazard intervention process that will likely not be as effective as one designed based on a thorough analysis of data, an alignment of instruction with student need, and dedicated personnel to manage the system. To get started with these three components, it is helpful for schools to address the personnel, procedures, resources, and communications necessary for implementation.

Personnel needs include specifying not only who will provide the intervention(s), but also who will collect data and who will have overall responsibility for monitoring data and leading the team through the decision-making process. In addition to specifying responsibilities, it is important to determine the training and professional development needs to help key personnel carry out their roles.

Procedures for interpreting data are essential for helping to drive the Tier 2 system. Teams should specify decision rules for determining when a student enters Tier 2 intervention, when a student is making adequate progress, when instructional changes need to be considered, and when students should be either exited from Tier 2, continue in Tier 2, or considered for referral for more intensive intervention. Many progress-monitoring systems specify rates of improvement and benchmarks that can serve as guidelines for decision making. Additionally, if the intended purpose of Tier 2 is to support getting students to grade level so that they can be successful in the general program, then setting targets related to that overall goal can help streamline the process of goal setting. Procedures regarding the frequency, duration, and intensity of the instructional program in Tier 2 should also be specified.

In addition to addressing personnel and procedures, it is important to identify and allocate resources to support a Tier 2 implementation, including access to instructional materials, assessment tools, space to provide the intervention, and time. An additional component of ensuring adequate resources includes making school-wide decisions about reallocation if necessary.

Finally, because Tier 2 is a subsystem within the larger school-wide RTI system, communication is critical. Intervention teams need to communicate about student progress, the management of data, and the related instructional decisions. Intervention providers need to discuss progress with general education teachers. The school team needs to communicate with parents about the purpose and design of the Tier 2 system. Systems for routine communication need to be designed and implemented.


We have worked with a number of schools that are well on their way to implementing successful Tier 2 systems. The road to implementation was not always clear, however. Perhaps the main lesson we have learned when working with schools is that the implementation of new practices, especially those as comprehensive as the ones described here, will be fraught with challenges. Our experience with Tier 2 implementation, however, helped to uncover one very important lesson: A successful Tier 2 implementation requires a systems approach to coordinate the purpose, components, and key actions that help ensure success for the school and for the students. It is our hope that by articulating such an approach in this article, we will have provided some guidance to support practitioners working on implementing effective intervention systems within their settings. 


Carnine, D. W., Silbert, J., Kame’enui, E. J., & Tarver, S. G. (2009). Direct instruction reading (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Foorman, B. R., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90, 37–55.
National Center on Response to Intervention. (2010, March). Essential components of RTI—A closer look at response to intervention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, National Center on Response to Intervention.
Shapiro, E. S., & Clemens, N. H. (2009). A conceptual model for evaluating systems effects of RTI. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 35, 3–16.
Sugai, G., & Horner, R. H. (2002). The evolution of discipline practices: School-wide positive behavior supports. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 24, 23–50.

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