Interventions Aren’t Optional!

Late last week, I worked to provide some advice to an elementary principal named Tom who was wondering about the role that ability grouping should play in professional learning communities.

The second part of his original question—what do you do with teachers who resist regrouping because they only want to teach their students—is equally important.

Here’s how I’d respond if I were in Tom’s shoes:

I’d start by trying to find out what the reasons for resistance really were.

One of the mistakes that I’ve seen principals in Tom’s position make is assuming bad intentions on the part of teachers who resist what seems to be a perfectly reasonable request.

“They don’t want to share students because they don’t believe in PLCs!” they’ll think.  “They’re being insubordinate!”

Organizational experts Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson—authors of the Crucial Conversations series—suggest that the best approach when faced with unexpected resistance is to ask yourself one simple question:

Why would a reasonable, rationale person act this way?

If Tom asks Grenny and Patterson’s question in his building, he might be surprised by what he finds.  His teachers might be resisting because they’re not sure how to create a schedule that makes regrouping for interventions possible.

They might be resisting because they don’t have enough experience with one another to believe that regrouping for interventions is going to be worth the effort.

They might be resisting because they simply don’t have the time to pull together an entire set of remediation and enrichment lessons. 

The good news for Tom is that all of these challenges are manageable. 

Armed with reliable information—rather than assumptions—he can take practical steps towards providing his teachers with the supports they need in order to improve their practice.


Then, I’d provide as much structure and support for teams and teachers as I could.

As a teacher who has worked on learning teams for a long while, I can tell you that regrouping students across the hallway for interventions is no easy task.

One of the greatest challenges is simply figuring out which students are going to be assigned to which teachers.  Generally, that means giving some kind of common assessment and then analyzing student learning results.

While that’s a core practice for professional learning teams, it’s incredibly time-consuming in most buildings because teachers rarely have tools that automate data collection and analysis. 

Instead, we try to sort students by hand using three ring binders and sticky notes—something I see as an epic data fail.

We also always worry about how to handle the large groups of kids that inevitably end up in the enrichment rooms because we’re trying to keep our remediation numbers as small as we can.

Motivated principals like Tom help to alleviate these challenges for their teachers.

They invest in data collection tools like sets of student responders, they provide release time for teachers to look at data OR they assign the responsibility for number crunching and trend spotting to instructional support staffers or assistant principals. 

Automating the process of data collection and analysis—or at least freeing teachers from the grunt work that goes along with efforts to regroup for interventions—makes it far more likely that teachers will embrace this new practice.

Motivated leaders like Tom also make it clear that EVERY staff member is going to be involved in remediation and enrichment efforts.

When a learning team can count on three or four extra sets of hands—media specialists, administrative assistants, custodians, administrators—during their intervention periods, the work becomes far more manageable.

Does this make sense?

Essentially, Tom has to find ways to tackle some of the very real challenges his teachers are going to face when they’re working to regroup across their grade level for intervention time.


Finally, I’d make interventions based on data a core expectation that every teacher was held accountable for no matter who they are working with.

One of the trickiest tightropes that Tom has to walk as a principal is the balance between loose-tight leadership.

You can almost hear it in his voice. 

He very much wants to empower his teachers, but he also very much believes that regrouping for interventions—a practice that some of his teachers haven’t embraced—matters. 

The solution is to make interventions based on data a core expectation that every teacher is held accountable for. 

“I don’t care if you regroup across the entire grade level for intervention periods,” he could say, “but you must be able to show me that you are responding to student learning data in your room.

“I want to see evidence that you’ve given students who need remediation additional opportunities to master content and that you’ve given students who need enrichment additional opportunities to move forward in their studies.

“If you can’t prove with data that your interventions are as effective as the team-based interventions put together by your peers, I’m going to ask you to either join your peers or to rework your intervention strategy.”

Faced with this nonnegotiable requirement, most teachers are going to choose to work together on interventions simply because working together is a heck of a lot easier than trying to provide interventions for an entire classroom by yourself.

The trick for Tom is being tight about his core expectation that interventions are not optional even if the approach teachers take to interventions is open to discussion. 

If the handful of teachers who decide to intervene on their own are not monitored carefully and held to the same performance expectations as teachers who choose to work together to intervene, though, Tom will have a frustrated staff and failing students in no time. 


In the end, regrouping for interventions is a responsible practice that is worth pursuing in Tom’s school.  It is not, however, an easy practice that can be implemented by decree. 

Principals have to listen carefully to their faculties to find potential barriers before they derail intervention efforts.  They also need to find ways to structure and support data collection and analysis efforts. 

Finally, they need to make interventions based on data a nonnegotiable in order to be successful. 

4 thoughts on “Interventions Aren’t Optional!

  1. Nancy Remmert

    I am a reading intervention teacher and I am enjoying this conversation. I hear this question all the time.
    So my question is: if students are often grouped with remedial students and receive remedial curric, how do they catch up?
    We need to meet our students where they are at before we can move them forward. It would be silly for us to think that students who struggle need more frustration with grade level texts, rather than opportunities for practice with leveled texts during their school day. If our students continue to enter school with a word exposure gap that can sometimes reach into the millions (at 5 years old), we are going to have this issue. So, what do we do about it?
    We meet the kids where they are at, fill their gaps, and move them forward by increasing the amount of time they spend actually reading at their level each day. When they show mastery in one level, we move them forward, ideally at an accelerated pace by also including an intervention time into their day.
    I work with many 6th grade students who read at a 3rd grade level at the start of the year. That means their gains have been 1/2 year for each year they have been in school. If we can double or even triple this growth to see gains in the 1 or even 2 year range, we will close the gap; assuming there is a system in place for the 2 to 3 years they will need to catch up to their peers.
    A few key points:
    The teacher should know the reading level of the student and offer materials ALL DAY LONG that this child can read that are aligned to the content curriculum. Often times, we ignore the fact that this child can not and does not read anything at all during the school day (outside of their intervention time) that is at their reading level. If we continue with this practice, we should expect no reading gains because there is actually very little practice in reading occurring.
    Intervention need to be aligned with the core curriculum. Many times, we purchase packaged intervention programs that actually cause more confusion to struggling readers because they do not follow the same strategies and decoding skills as the core curriculum. For example, if your core curriculum is working on the long “e” vowel sound, it would be silly to have your struggling readers go to an intervention that is working anything but the long “e” sound. Still, we do this all the time and then we wonder why our students are not catching up.
    Kids who are grouped by ability CAN make gains and can even make accelerated gains if we can get the idea of intervetion all day long (leveled books in the classrooms for all content areas) into our schools and classrooms.
    Some ideas:
    Look in the desks of your struggling readers and see if they have anything in there that they can actually read. If they do not, we should not expect reading gains. You can not get better at reading without practicing reading.
    Check your interventions and see if they align with the daily lessons your struggling readers are exposed to in their regular reading block.
    Sit with one of your struggling readers for an entire day and track the number of minutes that student spends reading; the words are actually coming out of his mouth.
    I love this topic! Thanks for the great question!

  2. Chris Wejr

    Hey Bill, thanks for including my Twitter question in here.
    I think the frustrating thing as educators is that many of us know what needs to take place with interventions but we do not have the funding and resources to do this. Often, decisions are made so that classrooms can function with 30+ students in there… with a huge variance in learning levels.
    As SKR states, “we place students in groups by their date of manufacture”. This creates huge problems when we group students based on this rather than their learning levels. Far too many students are retained and promoted without adequate interventions being attempted, put into place, and discussed.
    I still hesitate to group according to levels (in separate areas) as I think it is important for students to see effective reading strategies (for example) being modeled. Having said that, again, to expect a teacher to teach a class of 30 with 5 different reading levels is not effective.
    So, I guess what I am saying is that within our current system, leveled groups will continue to be a positive option with all the strategies you have listed. I hope, though, that one day society will realize that if we fund education so there can be more personalization and less standardization – many of our issues will disappear.
    Thanks again for the great dialogue!

  3. crazedmummy

    I’m not voting for or against here, nor do I have a magic formula to suggest otherwise, but I notice you are coming down on the side for retention in early grades, which has also apparently been shown to have none or a negative impact on the student being retained.
    While I like the “we ought to…” argument, the truth is, in 6th grade or high school, we have who we have. The oughting to have is pointless. The time is past.
    I desperately want someone to give me a real no-cost practicable solution on how to teach Algebra 1 to a class with 100 kids (yeah,you read it correctly)whose math skills range from 3rd to 7th grade (1 std. dev. level).
    The option to retain, teach something else, or remediate is not mine to make, and yet I find it impossible to imagine how algebra can be accessible to students who are basically illiterate and innumerate. Based on the number of students in remedial math classes in college, I suspect that the general consensus has become to teach the capable, and pass the rest through until they get to college, where they can receive remediation in 5th grade math.
    And I am not sure that another year of 5th grade at age 11 would have done it: I suspect that for many people it may take 5 or 6 years to achieve that brain connection maturity. How sad that we do not allow people to then learn that material at no cost.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    My good friend Chris Wejr (@mrwejr) just sent me a question through Twitter that is related to this post.
    He wonders:
    So my question is: if students are often grouped with remedial students and receive remedial curric, how do they catch up?
    That’s a super important question, Chris, and I understand your worries.
    Often, the kids who are regrouped for remediation in some skills are the same students that end up regrouped for remediation for TONS of skills.
    A few reactions:
    1). This is one of the reasons that I think we need to invest far more time and energy into supporting students in the early grades.
    There should be TONS of resources for supporting learners in K-2 simply because the further a student falls behind—something that happens year after year for some kids—the harder it will be to ever catch up.
    And as wacky as it may sound, sometimes I even believe that there should be more retentions in early grades than we currently have.
    If a school/teacher/team can show that they’ve intervened a bunch of different times using a bunch of different strategies and a student STILL hasn’t mastered essential skills, who are we helping when they are promoted anyway?
    One of my greatest challenges as a sixth grade teacher is the HUGE range of abilities in my classroom in any given year. Paired with large class sizes to begin with, I’m in an impossible situation.
    There’s just no way that I can meet the needs of such a ridiculously heterogeneous group. Well crafted retention policies might just give teachers a fighting chance to have classrooms with manageable ranges of abilities.
    2). Effective remediation periods in a PLC never remove students from new, direct instruction. That’s GOT to be a non-negotiable when building school schedules.
    How does that look in your building?
    Not sure—I’m not a schedule guru by any means.
    I do know that in Rick DuFour’s high school, student remediation periods were often scheduled during more traditional elective periods.
    If a child hadn’t demonstrated mastery in core skills like reading and math, he figured, it didn’t do them much good to take courses like art and Spanish.
    The argument I hear every time I mention this approach is, “Sometimes the kids who are struggling in core classes are succeeding in elective classes. You can’t take their only successful class away from them!”
    I think my response would be that you’re not taking electives away forever. You’re only taking them away until students demonstrate mastery of the essential skills that they’re struggling with.
    What’s more, whether we like it or not, reading and math skills ARE essential for student success. Period. End of discussion.
    As much as I’d like to see kids exposed to electives, we’ve got a limited number of minutes with every child, every day.
    We’ve got to spend those minutes ensuring that EVERY kid leaves our classes with basic literacies in math and reading. Otherwise we’ve failed them.
    It’s a trade-off that I’m not completely comfortable with, but until we get more time with students—-longer school days, longer school years, more after-school or inter-session remediation time—I’m not sure we have ANY good choices.
    Hope this makes some sense to you.
    My thoughts feel unfinished to me—I’m writing quick and thinking off the top of my head—but something here has GOT to spark your thinking, right!
    Rock on,

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