Schools across the nation face a pressing need to improve the mathematics performance of middle level students who are not reaching proficiency on standardized assessments and have significant unfinished learning from prior grades. For example, on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), approximately two-thirds of eighth graders scored below proficient in mathematics. This is a critical issue because students’ difficulties with mathematics at the middle level can negatively impact their future academic and career options. To find out how U.S. public schools are implementing mathematics intervention classes, we conducted classroom observations, interviews with school/district leaders and teachers, and the National Survey on Supporting Struggling Mathematics Learners in the Middle Grades (with funding from the National Science Foundation).
What Are Mathematics Intervention Classes?
The main goal of intervention classes is to help students become more successful mathematics learners by building their understanding of essential content as well as their motivation and confidence. These classes typically have small class sizes—six to 15 students—allowing for more teacher-student interactions and individualized instruction.
Schools need to be clear about what this class is and what it is not. Remind students and staff that mathematics intervention class is not a replacement for students’ general education math class or a pullout; it’s an additional class that supplements the student’s regular math class.
By the middle level, students who have had persistent struggles may approach mathematics with feelings of learned helplessness, anxiety, decreased confidence, or low motivation. To help shift student attitudes, these intervention classes need to provide active learning experiences that engage and empower students as mathematics thinkers and doers.
Find ways to implement or strengthen mathematics intervention classes at your school.
1. Bring together a leadership team for mathematics intervention.
Convening a leadership team will be instrumental in conceptualizing or strengthening the vision and carrying out the goals.
- Include a variety of staff to ensure that different perspectives are represented.
- Your team might include school administrators, mathematics leaders, coaches or coordinators, mathematics intervention teachers, general education math teachers, or special educators. Charge the team with specific tasks, including setting the goals and vision, making decisions about mathematics intervention class structures, scheduling, staffing, and entrance and exit criteria for students.
- Establish an equitable process for identifying students.
- Set entrance criteria that use a variety of data sources—screening tools, assessments, and teacher input—and a structured decision-making process to help reduce bias and identify students for mathematics intervention classes. Monitor the process and ensure that any issues of disproportionality, such as gender, race, English proficiency, or socioeconomic status, are addressed.
2. Amplify the vision and goals for mathematics intervention classes.
Establish and communicate a vision that includes specific goals for mathematics intervention classes and clarifies expectations for the broader school community. The national survey found that many schools identified the following goals: (1) address gaps in foundational math concepts from prior grades; (2) reteach and support grade-level content; and (3) build students’ motivation for and confidence in doing mathematics.
- Set clear goals for the purpose of mathematics intervention classes.
- Ensure that teachers can optimize the available time. To support this work with your leadership team, we have created guiding questions and a Setting Goals for Mathematics Intervention Resource.
- Check alignment of goals with class time and structures.
- Expectations for a mathematics intervention class that meets only twice a week will need to be different than for a class that meets daily. Make sure that the goals are well-aligned to the allotted instructional time so that teachers and students will feel empowered to attain them.
- Communicate goals and vision to the school community.
- Convey messages about the importance of mathematics intervention classes and share and celebrate successes. During periods of remote and blended learning, it will continue to be critical to communicate expectations for participation in mathematics intervention classes so students will value and utilize this additional support.
3. Identify mathematics content priorities for intervention lessons.
A common refrain from mathematics intervention teachers is “Too much content, too little time.” Identify a set of high-priority math topics and learning goals, along with a proposed timeline for meeting them. Establishing a manageable scope of content also affords teachers the necessary flexibility to be responsive to students’ needs. To prioritize content topics, use a combination of district assessment data, teacher input, and resources such as Achieve the Core’s focus standards.
4. Schedule sufficient time for mathematics intervention classes.
An initial challenge of implementing intervention classes is figuring out how to add these classes to an already-packed schedule. Nearly 40 percent of respondents to the national survey said their schools use a dedicated block in which students are assigned to an intervention or enrichment class. Nearly half of respondents indicated that their intervention classes meet five times per week; the next most common approach was three times per week. The majority of schools have intervention classes lasting 40–59 minutes, but some schools have classes as short as 20 minutes. Consider these two scheduling issues:
- Avoid having very short classes or ones that meet infrequently.
- When classes are short or meet only once or twice a week, their potential for impact on student outcomes is limited. Schedule intervention classes to provide sufficient time and continuity, allowing teachers to engage students in robust math lessons.
- Protect intervention class time.
- Ensure that students are not pulled out of intervention classes, and also avoid canceling these classes for school assemblies and other events. Protecting intervention time supports student learning and communicates to the whole school community that these classes are valued.
5. Carefully select intervention teachers and provide ongoing support.
It is a myth that intervention classes are easy to teach because they have small class sizes. These classes require experienced teachers who can address students’ wide range of learning needs and create a positive, supportive learning environment. Select teachers who possess strong content knowledge, responsive pedagogical practices, and the ability to connect and build relationships with students. Intervention teachers need to set high expectations and convey a growth mindset about the potential of all students to learn math. Two common staffing models: (1) interventionists who teach only these classes, or (2) general education mathematics teachers who teach intervention classes in addition to their regular classes. Consider these suggestions for supporting intervention teachers:
- Provide teachers with dedicated planning time for intervention classes.
- Planning time is essential for teachers to prepare high-quality intervention lessons that are targeted to their students’ needs. Two-thirds of survey respondents reported that they had little or no scheduled planning time specifically for intervention classes. This issue sometimes occurs when general education teachers are assigned an intervention class in addition to their other classes without getting additional planning time. Ensure that teachers have planning time specifically for math intervention classes.
- Provide opportunities for collaboration and professional learning.
- Survey results revealed that a common challenge facing mathematics intervention teachers is a lack of scheduled meetings with general and special educators for collaborating and co-planning to address student needs. In addition to collaborative planning, provide opportunities for professional learning and support, such as coaching, professional learning communities, or workshops/courses focused on teaching mathematics intervention classes.
6. Use a continuous improvement process.
Adding mathematics intervention classes is not a stand-alone solution and needs to be part of a concerted effort that includes strengthening Tier 1 general education math instruction at your school. Make a plan to assess the progress of mathematics intervention classes: Gather feedback from all stakeholders, review findings, identify strengths, and target areas for improvement. Examine standardized assessment data as well as other indicators of student progress, such as increased participation and performance in general ed math classes. Using a continuous improvement process will help your school examine current practices, refine the goals and vision, and make adjustments.
Amy Brodesky is the project director for the Strengthening Mathematics Intervention Classes project at Education Development Center (EDC). Emily Fagan is a senior mathematics education specialist and Theresa MacVicar is a mathematics education specialist involved in the project at the EDC.
This article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1621294. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.