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Meeting the Challenge of Intervention: Implementation and Technology at the Secondary Level

Thursday, July 20, 2017 -- Chris Bolyard

Intervention programs in general and response to intervention specifically have received a lot of attention in American education recently. Advances in instructional technology are giving educators stronger and more reliable tools to meet the growing challenge of providing effective interventions for diverse student populations. It is imperative, however, that we not simply run to the newest shiny gizmos as they emerge in the marketplace. Just as it is crucial to design a solid, research-based approach to implementing instructional strategies across all classrooms, so too is it essential that instructional technology tools are selected and implemented with the same scrutiny. In this series, we will explore the building blocks of what makes a solid technology tool for intervention, unique implementation challenges and technology solutions in both elementary and secondary schools, and finally, partnerships with a company like Edmentum as vital in meeting the varied needs of today’s student. This week, we’ll focus on the challenges secondary educators face.

We’ve already touched upon the critical role teachers play in response to intervention (RTI), what to look for when selecting technology, and some of the specific challenges of RTI at the elementary level. This week, I want to turn our attention to intervention challenges at the middle and high school level. When I began my last principalship before coming to work at Edmentum, my leadership team and I faced what, at the time, felt like an overwhelming obstacle. We were tasked with turning around an urban high school with about 2,400 students and 168 teachers that had been rated as Academically Unacceptable. Each grading period, we were facing failure rates in Algebra I of about 48% and the same in English I. These kind of failure rates were a clear sign that quality tier 1 intervention was needed.

The problem then, as is still very common at the secondary level, was that RTI and tiered instruction are largely nonexistent past the 5th or 6th grade.

In this article on Response to Intervention in Secondary Schools, the RTI Action Network discusses some myths that drive belief systems and lack of intervention action at the secondary level:

1. Adolescents have passed the point at which intervention can make a difference.

2. Instruction that works with young children will be equally effective for older students.

3. Literacy is not the job of secondary educators.

Do any of these sound familiar? If you have spent any amount of time working in a secondary school, I’m sure you’ve come up against at least one of these myths. The problem is that in too many middle and high schools across the country, they have been taken for truth and become the instructional reality. Now, there are certainly exceptions to this generalization, and great intervention work is being done in many secondary schools across the country. However, to ensure that every secondary student gets the academic interventions needed to achieve graduation and success beyond the classroom, these myths must be eradicated and replaced with real solutions. That process rises and falls on solid leadership in implementing appropriate RTI programming for secondary students.

In addition to busting the myths mentioned above, there are two very real challenges that must be overcome to pave the way for meaningful intervention programming and effective use of instructional technology tools at the secondary level. These challenges may feel intimidating, but a willingness to tackle them head on is key to successful RTI program design and implementation and the student outcomes you want.  

1. Scalability when dealing with a large volume of students

Teachers at the secondary level can easily see 175 students in one day. Compare that to 30–60 at the elementary level, and it is easy to see that even the hardest working, most skilled, and most passionate teachers will not be able to physically support differentiated instruction and personalized learning without very effective educational technology that focuses on instruction and assessment. High-quality assessment and instruction programs can help teachers easily and accurately diagnose students’ needs and quickly find the right resources to fill knowledge gaps. The time saved can make effective implementation of tiered instruction a reality.  

2. Outdated models of instruction

Despite a great deal of work in the area of innovative design and high school reform, a quick survey of the nation’s high schools will reveal that many classrooms are still set up in a “factory model” that largely serves the middle 80% of students. This outdated model leaves many students needing interventions—both small and intensive—that they don’t receive in the classroom. The reason that this model persists is because the instructional model that most teachers know is designed to create this archaic system. Embracing new, more flexible, and more individualized models, including personalized and blended learning, is key to offering today’s students instruction at the right level and in a format that will resonate. Technology is an important component of these approaches, as again, it makes the often overwhelming task of differentiation more feasible for instructors.

Going back to the challenge that my team and I faced when I was a high school principal, I would like to share one last quick, neat, and triumphant anecdote about how it all turned fine. The truth is that implementing a tiered, systematic intervention program at a large high school was one of the toughest projects that I have taken on in my professional career. We did make great strides, and we were able to improve the failure rate significantly; the school is no longer in accountability trouble.

However, who I think about still today are the many students who we left behind despite our best efforts because we simply didn’t have the right tools at our disposal. The quality and validity of instructional technology has improved greatly over the past eight years since I did that work. Now that the technology tools are available, it is incumbent upon secondary-level leaders that they invest in the tough work of designing and implementing solid intervention programs and, in turn, do the research on the high-quality instructional technology solutions they can employ to ensure student success. 

Get started on that research by checking back next week, when we’re going to take a closer look at Edmentum’s online programs for assessment, practice, and instruction and examine how we can partner with your school or district to support response to intervention efforts. In the meantime, learn more about our approach to intervention here!