I was recently reading an online discussion among principals about how to organize intervention services for students. In this situation, a full-time math interventionist could work with either:

  • Very small groups of students who were very far below standard, and would likely need services all year OR
  • Larger groups of students who just a bit below standard, and could likely make gains and exit services when they met standard, making room for others

I don't know enough about the situation—e.g. the other services being provided—to make a clear recommendation for this specific program. 

But I do know the right way to make this kind of decision…and the wrong way.

Several people in the discussion advocated for more services for the “bubble kids” because it would have a “larger impact.”

In other words, do less for the kids who need the most, so you can do more for the kids who are closest to passing the test.

Now, organizing RTI and other support services is very complex and context-dependent, so I don't mean to oversimplify…

…but I do think we can get clear on the ethical principles involved.

A few definitions:

Equality: treating everyone the same

Equity: organizing to provide each student what they need when they need it, with urgency to ensure mastery of essential learning outcomes (from Ken Williams' forthcoming book Ruthless Equity)

BKL (Bubble Kid Logic): treating students differently based on how good it will make us look (my definition…am I being too harsh?)

I believe we have an ethical obligation to treat students with equality as a baseline principle, unless equity demands that we do something different for specific students.

For example, tracked high/low classes would violate this ethic, because they support neither equality nor equity.

However, RTI—done right—supports both equality and equity. All students get rigorous Tier I instruction, and the students who need more get Tier II and even Tier III instruction.

Built into this ethic is the principle that the kids who need the most support…get the most support.

“Bubble Kid Logic” (BKL) has a different basis:

BKL: What's best for adults? Which students should we invest in to make ourselves look best according to standardized testing?

Forgive me for finding this way of thinking a bit repulsive. 🤢

We're responsible for helping all students meet standard. That's part of the definition of equity.

But it's important to keep in mind that meeting standard *on a test* is just a matter of hitting an arbitrary cutoff score.

Yes, we adults are rewarded for getting more kids to pass the test. But we're slowly realizing that stringent accountability for such an arbitrary target can have unintended consequences.

Hopefully policymakers will fix the perverse incentives in our accountability systems, like those that allocate more funding to schools that have more students passing the state test. 

In the meantime, instructional leaders are responsible for learning—for helping all students master essential learning outcomes. We won't always succeed, but we must not lose sight of the goal.

A kid who comes up 20 points but still doesn't meet standard matters just as much as a kid who's “on the bubble” and comes up 20 points and meets standard.

We get penalized for one, and rewarded for the other, and that's kind of messed up.

I can't pretend to know the best way to organize RTI in any given school:

  • There are a lot of details to consider in every school
  • There should be Tier II supports for students who can receive them for a while, make gains, and return to only receiving Tier I instruction
  • Students who need Tier III support deserve to get what they need, even if they're unlikely to pass the test and make us look good
  • We shouldn't fail to provide Tier III services just so we can have a “bigger impact”

BKL is NOT an ethical way to make decisions.

It's self-serving to redirect resources away from the kids who need them most, and toward the arbitrary group that will pass the test if we invest disproportionately in that goal.

Your reactions? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

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  1. As a principal, I got to see "bubble kids" when I attended special ed committee meetings. These are kids who are not performing well, but just well enough not to be classified. This points out a problem with the fact that we label kids at all. In Finland, special education teachers give help to any kid who needs it, and by the end of high school, 50% of the kids get some special education service. We waste a lot of time and resources labeling kids that could be used to help more kids.
    The other "bubble" issue deals with giving more help to kids who are just below passing on state tests and less help to kids who have no chance. Kids at the top also get less when teachers do this. Simply put, it's unethical and it wouldn't happen if there were no federally mandated tests.

  2. Hey Justin.

    I too saw that post and did some internalizing. I am not sure this was as simple as the Bubble
    Kid situation you describe or not. When I think about equitable use of resources, the OP in the group indicated that the lower level students are already receiving after school tutoring, Saturday school, and other services es as warranted. The question about using about math interventionist was the focus. I have to agree with those saying to work with the “bubble kids.” I say this because equity goes both ways. The Tier III students are receiving services and support but the Tier II students aren’t. They deserve a chance to be brought up to higher abilities also and if a temporary interventionist can move those students without sacrificing the service ra of the Tier III students, then that provides and equitable playing field for all students. I will agree that if no other supports are available, they should go to those needing the most support in order to provide an equitable education; but not in this case.

    1. Thanks Bill—I agree, the situation wasn’t very clear-cut, and I think a variety of good decisions could be made depending on the circumstances. What alarmed me was the reasoning people were using to justify emphasizing “BKL” without regard to equality or equity. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Thank you for your post, Justin. Perverse, unintended consequences/incentives for ridiculous accountability is right. Our school and several schools in our district are trying their hand at a model of Community-Based Accountability which speaks more to what the community desires for its schools than for what the state says must occur on a high-stakes assessment. You can find out more about John Tanner's work at https://brave-ed.com/. We are still accountable like all other public schools in our state to the accountability model that is in place; the hope is that we can show we have something that is better, more appropriate and inclusive, than the narrow lens of current accountability practices.

    But to your point regarding the decision regarding which students receive intervention, the very same arbitrary cut score you describe also is the decider of who must get intervention in the first place. Unfortunately this year, with the passage of HB 4545, signed by the Governor in June, the state of Texas has decided that any student who attended school in Texas in 2020-21 and who did not meet standard or take a STAAR assessment (our high-stakes accountability assessment) must get 30 hours of intervention per STAAR-tested subject this school year. For students who did not meet standard (or take) two STAAR assessments, that is 60 hours; if three, it is 90 hours of intervention. There are some other details to this that I won't bore you with here, but the very idea that two students–one who missed meeting standard by a question or two and one who missed it by a mile–all require the same 30 hours is misguided at best. Intervention is not simply about clock hours.

    Nevermind the fact that the law, while well-intentioned, is almost impossible to comply with with all the restrictions placed around how the 30 hours per content area are structured. But that is a conversation for another time.

    You used the word "repulsive" in your post, and I would use the same word to describe what the Texas legislature passed this summer. It makes for stressed out teachers, the very ones who would be implementing these interventions, simply due to the time demands placed upon them, which may dilute the quality of the very interventions the state is seeking to have students experience. Dr. Green is right in his comment about some of this mindset not being there if there were not federally mandated tests. We as a nation put far too much stock into standardized tests. I really recommend that people check out Dr. Tanner's work at https://brave-ed.com/ regarding true accountability.

  4. "BKL is NOT an ethical way to make decisions."
    Thank you! Well said. I have been fighting this fight for years in multiple situations.
    I left a district because the Superintendent allowed a principal to take the lowest math kids out of Tier 1 instruction, placing them on computers with classified employees. This was to make room for bubble kids to have two class periods with the most highly qualified math teachers. They chose to sacrifice the kids most in need. Parents appeared to approve because they no longer had to fight the homework and failing grade battle.
    It was not an equitable or ethical decision.

  5. Brother, we might just be related! This post is SOOOO SPOT on!!! I’ve seen exactly what you’re describing and hell NO you’re not being too harsh! Bubble wrap kids, Cusp kids,…it’s crazy…your post also reminds me of how principals will move their “best teachers” to “tested grade levels” instead of addressing capacity and competence head on! Kudos to you for this post! And, I’m honored by the use of my definition of equity! #StartWithTheCROWN,

  6. Equity and access for all students is extremely important. My school is looking at tier 2 students. Schools need to be creative about how we meet the needs of students. We are looking at virtual tutoring and doing a double-dip with a research-based program in person. I have teachers that are willing to do in-person tutoring but transportation will be an issue for some. My school is going to lean on technology to work with some students.

    The expectation is we meet the needs of all kids and use all resources available no matter where they fall on the education continuum. This topic is complicated.

  7. I totally disagree with this theory of providing the best quality of services to the "bubble" group. As a public school teacher, what has been done with the limited services in my school is provide the intervention help to this bubble group which might make proficiency on the state tests. However, the students who desperately need the services the most were not given the interventions at all. This is unethical and illegal for students going into special education. The best solution is to provide interventions for all students in need, regardless of what tier they fall in.

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