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Changing Lives Through Intervention in Schools

7 Min Read
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“What districts have been doing is the equivalent of launching bottle rockets at the moon – directionally correct but not sized to the task.” —Dr. Thomas Kane, Director of the Center for Education Policy and Research at Harvard University

Imagine launching a bottle rocket at the moon. It's directionally correct, but it's not powerful enough to reach its target. That's what it's like for many educators when they try to help their most challenged students succeed. In my previous life, as a first-grade teacher, an intervention teacher, a principal, and as a district administrator, I launched a lot of bottle rockets at the moon meaning I moved students forward but didn’t quite hit the target of grade-level proficiency. It was only in my final years as a district administrator and now serving as national director of innovation and insights with HMH that I have come to realize the absolute necessity of a powerful and effective intervention experience to move forward directionally and at a rate that will hit the target of proficiency.

What Is Intervention in School?

Let’s start by taking a quick step back and defining school intervention in the first place. This refers to actions that an educator can take to improve a child’s academic progress. An intervention population in a K–12 school environment typically refers to students who are performing below grade level, with intensive intervention being for our most challenged students who are performing two or more years below grade level. Strategies for intervention can come in a lot of forms, such as attending to students’ interests and experiences, providing digital practice and instruction so students can practice skills, or setting up a classroom to minimize distractions.

The Matthew Effect

Let’s be honest. Business as usual has not, historically, been enough to move our most challenged students forward at an accelerated rate. It certainly isn’t now in our post-COVID educational landscape. A 2023 study conducted by NWEA found that “significant achievement gaps persist at the end of 2022–23, and the average student will need the equivalent of 4.1 additional months of schooling to catch up in reading and 4.5 months in math.” The study puts an even finer point on the continuing challenge in getting it right for our most challenged learners: “marginalized students, who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, did not experience any additional catch-up, despite being the intended primary focus of academic recovery efforts. All students face a lengthy road to recovery, and our estimates indicate that road will be longer still for historically marginalized students.”

graph comparing months of schooling required for students to catch up to pre-COVID achievement levels in math and reading

While the COVID-19 learning statistics are startling, they aren’t really surprising. We have long understood the very real consequences for students who move through our educational system without appropriate, impactful levels of support. As early as 1986, researchers were studying the long-term impact of learning gaps. That year, Stanovich released a seminal study that quantified and described the learning trajectory of challenged learners. He called this trajectory the “Matthew Effect” (named after the biblical passage commonly translated as “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”) and described it as the “impact of cumulative disadvantage.”

Specifically, his work found that, by third grade, any gaps in student learning are likely to not only remain but will probably widen over time and impact students in more and more areas. So, in practical terms, what looks like a child with decoding gaps in third grade, by fourth and fifth grade manifests as deficits in reading comprehension, by sixth, seventh, and eighth grade shows up as struggle across all academic subjects, and by high school becomes a real risk of becoming a drop-out statistic. The study further asserts that, for most students, this gap does not close without an intensive and effective intervention. In other words, once the learning gap forms, even the strongest Tier 1 instruction is not powerful enough to close gaps and rapidly accelerate students to grade level proficiency. For these learners, powerful and effective intervention proved to be an absolute must to rapidly accelerate learning and, ultimately, achieve grade-level proficiency.

graph of the Matthew effect

Key Insights for School Intervention

With over two decades of work putting the intervention research into action, HMH has a unique lens on the challenges and successes of supporting our most challenged learners. Based on this extensive in-field experience, here are key insights about necessary characteristics for powerful intervention.

  • Key Insight 1: Powerful intervention serves a specific, targeted purpose. Effective intervention goes beyond remediation which traditionally focuses on reteaching missed material. Intervention is about going to the root of the problem and providing students with the intense, personalized support they need to catch up and succeed at grade-level. Intervention supports must go well-beyond Tier 1 and 2 strategies of reteaching, repetition, and review. Powerful intervention meets students at the very top edge of their Zone of Proximal Development to grow them toward grade-level proficiency at a rapid rate.
  • Key Insight 2: Powerful intervention takes an asset-based approach. Rather than viewing intervention students as “behind,” effective intervention is respectful of students’ age and maturity, their interests and backgrounds, and the learning and social experiences they bring to the classroom. Simply providing “easier” or “earlier grade” content is not a viable solution. Powerful intervention takes an asset-based approach to what students bring to the classroom academically, socially, emotionally, and culturally every day.
  • Key Insight 3: Powerful intervention engages the whole child. Without students’ full cognitive and social-emotional engagement, no instruction, program, teacher, or intervention will work. Many of our intervention students have experienced years of frustration and failure. Who wouldn’t check out and disengage? Effective intervention built upon scientific learning principals, explicit instruction, distributed practice, immediate feedback, and predicable routines draw students in to fully engage as learners.
  • Key Insight 4: Powerful intervention leverages teacher and technology. With technology, teachers have access to data and resources to direct their instruction to the most critical gaps in learning. Technology provides students with opportunity to work and practice with immediate feedback. Powerful intervention designed with a high-touch, high-tech model serve both student and teacher by ensuring that instruction is focused on students’ precise areas of need.
  • Key Insight 5: Powerful intervention is proven effective. There is no shortage of programs and prognosticators making claims about efficacy. Powerful interventions are built on evidence and show demonstrable gains for challenged learners.

School Intervention and Rocket Science

Our work at HMH leads us to conclude that intervention is a lot like rocket science. Let me explain. Just as a rocket needs to be properly fueled and equipped in order to launch successfully, students need to have the necessary knowledge and skills in order to be successful in school. Powerful intervention ensures students are fueled and equipped with the skills and concepts necessary for future success.

Just as a rocket needs to be carefully navigated through the atmosphere in order to reach its destination, students need to be carefully guided through the learning process in order to achieve their learning goals. Powerful intervention ensures that students are guided and accelerated on a pathway to success.

Just as a rocket needs to be able to withstand the extreme forces of launch and re-entry, students need to be able to persevere in the face of challenges and setbacks. Powerful intervention ensures students are resilient and successful learners.

This past school year, HMH was honored to serve nearly 1 million students through our intervention programs. If you find yourself holding a bottle rocket when you really need a rocket, let me encourage you. Reflect deeply about your current intervention practices, be honest about how your students are responding, ask for help, rely on strong partners, think differently about how to better support your students, and take courageous and necessary action. Every day I have the privilege of seeing that students’ life trajectories can be positively and permanently changed through strong, effective intervention. Students can soar forward like rockets launched to the moon!


HMH’s intervention solutions are built on over 20 years of proven results. Find out how they can boost student achievement with your students.

Download our free reading and math intervention eBooks.

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