Intervention Periods are Racist
“Alright scholars, go ahead and open up your packets,” I said.
“Wait, main idea again? I thought we did this one last week,” Tori asked as she flipped through the stapled packet of test prep passages in front of her.
“We did,” I explained, “but the results from last week’s quiz showed that we haven’t quite achieved mastery yet.” Fifteen pairs of eyes rolled synchronously. “Where’s that urgency and enthusiasm I’m used to from my favorite scholars? Make sure your pencil is ready and let’s go!” I said with that saccharine sweet vocal delivery that white adults love to use with kids.
Beckett slunk down in his chair. This could be a problem, I thought. He was a real leader, and getting his buy-in would make the next 50 minutes less excruciating.
“Okay! Everyone turn to the first passage, the one with the big oak tree picture. Beckett, I’ll start and you get ready to pick up where I end.”
Beckett’s groan might upset the delicate hold I had over the room, so I pushed my volume and began the passage. “Did you know there are over 500 varieties of Oak Trees? The Northern Hemisphere is home to almost 200 species of these magnificent beasts. Beckett, your turn.”
The tedium of the text matched the tedium of the “lesson.” Thankfully Beckett obliged me and played the role I needed him to play. Without him, there was no way I’d be able to convince a room full of adolescents to spend 50 minutes answering multiple choice questions about Oak Trees.
Finally it was time to go. The students plodded out of the room, leaving me with a stack of packets and exit tickets to check. I spent the next half hour filling out a spreadsheet tracking how every student did on every question. The spreadsheet was formatted such that any score below 70% would turn dark red. By the end, my screen was a bloodbath. I’m not sure what I imagined when I began my teaching degree, but it sure as shit wasn’t this.
I spent the first phase of my career working in a No Excuses charter school. It was a test prep factory; every single thing we did was directly tied to increasing scores on the state’s end-of-year high stakes exam. The kids hated it and the adults were miserable. Such uninspired and deadening pedagogy required high levels of student coercion and control. The school had a labyrinth of behaviorist systems designed to mold compliant children through rewards and punishments.
The class I just described was called “Results Period.” Kids were grouped together based on who failed what quiz the previous week. So Beckett and everyone else in that class had all
failed last Friday’s ELA quiz on identifying the main idea. I was supposed to use the next five days to drill whatever standard the kids hadn’t “achieved mastery” on and then retest them on Friday. Those who passed rotated out to their next area of deficiency. Those who didn’t had to stick with me for another week working on the same junk.
Admin used weekly staff meetings to figure out which students went to which teachers. They called it “THE GAUNTLET” because we were supposed to “fight” each other for the chance to work with a certain student. For instance: if Caroline failed her science, ELA, and math quizzes, those teachers had to figure out how to make it work.
The whole thing fucking sucked.
I should have known better, but I didn’t. The school was a huge success; politicians visited us for photo ops, teachers from other schools came to study us, and local newspapers sang our praises. I had uncritically bought into the school’s guiding logic of assimilation: if you do what I say, you will achieve academic success and go on to a better life.
It’s impossible to ignore the clear racist, classist, and ableist ramifications of me, an upper-middle class white guy instructing a room full of Black children to talk like me if they want to make it. The promise of assimilation has always been an effective tool of white supremacy.
Education has a term for the kind of class I just described: intervention and/or remediation. Both names are offensive. The Latin origin of remediation is ‘to heal/cure,’ suggesting that certain kids are cognitively sick and deficient. The etymology of intervention is to ‘come between,’ as in these kids need a teacher to come between them and themselves, their cultures, and their communities.
Regardless of the term, the message is clear: kids are broken. They are not good enough. Teachers swoop in with their expert knowledge and authority, fix the child through instruction, and save the day. Deficit pedagogy combines paternalism, white saviorism, and a technocratic vision of teaching and learning.
After a few years at the charter school, I scored a job working in the same suburb I grew up in.
During the interview, I remember marveling at the freedom students enjoyed. They could move around during class and even talk to each other in the hallways. It seemed a far cry from the coercive and punitive environment of my last school.
After I settled into my new position, the differences between my new school and my old school began to evaporate. Even though I had more instructional freedom in the classroom, my curriculum and pedagogy were still throttled by the state’s end-of-year high stakes test. Staff meetings, while way less toxic, still centered on test data. Kids were still spoken about as numbers in need of raising. But at least there wasn’t any Results period, right?
After a couple of years, word came down that we would begin piloting an intervention period. Each school had a different name for it. The names followed the format of “school mascot” + “period.” So in my state, this meant a lot of Patriot Periods, Generals Periods, and Colonials Periods. (My state was one of the 13 colonies)
This new period would be used for “evidence based intervention” and “tiered support,” the kind of technocratic language that sounds like it was written by the world’s least fun MadLibs. To prepare, teachers had professional development meetings chock full of shiny graphs, glossy literature from education publishers, and plenty of seductive rhetoric about “personalized learning” and “meeting every child’s needs.”
Just like before, I was told to use benchmark assessment data to identify who needed remediation the most. Our inboxes were suddenly overflowing with giant spreadsheets and hyperlinked documents to track everything from the kid to the class to the hours to the state standards to the activities to the scores. It all had to be documented.
I did as little of that shit as possible. In a profession defined by brutal cost/benefit ratios, there was no way I was spending my scant planning time typing little numbers into color-coded cells.
While I didn’t half-ass the actual class period, I certainly didn’t make it a priority, either. I took kids who didn’t enjoy reading traditional chapter books and did my best to introduce them to high quality books I thought they might enjoy. I conferred with them about their reading, listening to them talk about their books and asking them questions I hoped would push their thinking. That’s it. I couldn’t force myself to track, test, or grade the kids.
(I want to mention here that I know a lot of teachers who achieved great things with their students during these classes. I just don’t think I was one of them.)
I knew it was a matter of time before I would have to fall in line.
The pandemic was the catalyst. Succumbing to the ridiculous panic over learning loss, my state’s legislature pushed through a bill that required schools to “remediate” any student who fails a benchmark diagnostic. In my district’s case, the diagnostic screener is the Reading Inventory, a corporate assessment created by Scholastic, Incorporated. One look at the webpage for the RI tells you pretty much everything you need to know about it.
The RI is basically a vocabulary test designed for all kids (and, therefore, none of them). Students read disconnected paragraphs and try to figure out what word is missing from four multiple choice options. Depending on score, the RI then deposits kids into one of four buckets: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. Kids who score poorly must receive some sort of documented intervention.
This legislation introduces more systems for teachers, students, families, and administrators to navigate. More tracking. More Testing. More shit to do for overworked teachers and exhausted students. More layers of technical abstraction between teacher and student. The result is a complex latticework combining all the different ways you can tell certain kinds of kids that maybe school just isn’t for them.
Nothing in the law suggests malicious intent. There’s no biased language or prevarication. I’m confident that the folks who wrote and passed the bill honestly believed they were doing the right thing by children. I mean, aren’t they? What’s so wrong with trying to mitigate a challenging virtual school year by identifying gaps and plugging them up?
Except that the law is never neutral, and this new legislation is a prime example. The bill will not affect all children equally because it won’t apply to all children equally. Let me explain.
Over the last eight years I’ve given this assessment at least twenty times. I’ve sunk hours into admin-mandated “deep dives” of the data. The majority of students who score in the ‘basic’ or ‘below basic’ categories are overwhelmingly Black, brown, and/or disabled. Every time. Therefore, the Reading Inventory is a racist, classist, and ableist assessment. It produces uneven outcomes that line up with social categories of difference (race, class, ability).
When I look at this data, there are really only two conclusions I can draw. The first is that Black, brown, and/or disabled children are not as cognitively developed as their peers. This is obviously not true. The second conclusion I can draw from the kinds of students who fail is that the Reading Inventory privileges white, middle/upper class, able bodied ways of knowing. This conclusion tracks with everything I know about the development and employment of public education in this country.
The racist, classist, and ableist outcomes produced by the Reading Inventory are now enshrined in law. As I discussed above, the RI and intervention periods have been around for a number of years. But the two weren’t irrevocably linked; teachers had some level of freedom to decide the criteria we used to determine whether or not a kid should go into an intervention period. That pseudo-freedom has been replaced by a state-sanctioned chain between test score and intervention. The law takes something contingent and contextual and socially constructed (measures of intelligence and academic aptitude) and normalizes it under the aegis of “common sense.” The deficit perspective becomes normalized, something beyond criticism and beyond reach. Just something else schools and teachers do.