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What Is Intervention and Why Is Everyone Talking about It?

by Nancy Berkas and Cyntha Pattison (NCTM News Bulletin, July/August 2007)

Isn’t it amazing that you go to sleep one night knowing what’s what and wake up the next morning not even recognizing the road, much less how you got there? That’s how some of us feel about the ever-evolving educational vocabulary. Please understand, we love to learn and grow, and we accept that if we are to do the best we can by the students and teachers of mathematics, we must be flexible and strive to stay current. But when did intervention start tripping off the tongues of educators at all levels? With wrinkled foreheads, we ask ourselves, “What about remediation, differentiation, acceleration, and supplemental programs? Where do they fit? And how does it all go together?”

We know that both the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act of 2004 have provisions requiring districts and buildings to provide additional support for struggling students at the earliest signs of difficulty. To comply with these requirements, we initially turned to computer-assisted instruction, since those programs were the only ones that could match demographics and test scores after the fact to create a scientific research base. And there were some meta-analyses of instructional strategies (though most were not specific to mathematics) which could at least give guidance in areas related to NCLB’s requirement that scientific research–based strategies be used for Title 1 classes. Though there were some calls for remediation and occasional mentions of interventions, the educational community for the most part focused on differentiation and supplemental programs under NCLB.

Thanks to IDEA and our colleagues in special education, the focus is now on what is called an improved version of Response-to-Intervention (RtI or Responsiveness-to-Intervention). What we continue to explore is whether the increased involvement of regular education teachers in RtI has encouraged the use of the word intervention in a much broader context.

As we begin this journey into interventions, we will explore everything from “fidelity to the curriculum” programs to universal design for learning, from teacher quality to supplemental programs, from special education to gifted education, from opportunity to learn to concrete-representational-abstract (CRA), from standards alignment to differentiation, and from data-driven to quick fixes, as well as other issues not yet known to us. NCTM President Francis (Skip) Fennell has convened an Intervention Writing Team, chaired by Mari Muri, to develop a set of criteria for evaluating and selecting mathematics-based intervention program materials. We plan to stay informed on the basis of their work just as they will learn from our questions and issues and your responses.

For now, we know that intervention is about teaching and learning and the opportunity to learn. It is not a deficit model for mathematics education. Much more work has been done in reading than in mathematics with respect to interventions—what is provided, how it is provided, and the success of such efforts. Those studying mathematical interventions can learn from their counterparts in reading, but the interventions cannot be the same—the teaching and learning of mathematics is fundamentally different.

This nine-issue column will be about asking relevant questions, discussing puzzling issues, uncovering contradictions, and broadening perspectives. To that end, our next issue will focus on a number of lenses through which we will look at the intervention categories presented in our ensuing columns. These columns will deal with technology, manipulatives, state-supported supplemental programs, strategies, quick fixes, and the impact of time and content intensity. Our final column will present a vision of mathematics intervention that has evolved from the work of the NCTM Writing Team and our own journey into intervention.

We welcome your responses as we try to give definition and viability to intervention in mathematics learning to ensure that all students have the opportunity to master significant mathematics. We think doing the research for these intervention columns will stretch us intellectually and broaden our perspectives while at the same time redefining what it means for us to be mathematics educators. We wish the same for our readers.

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