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.