Interventions and the Root of their Existence

Dr. Sally I'Anson November 04, 2016

Knowing why and when federal and state interventions rules and regulations were created can help teachers develop a deeper understanding of the purpose behind the school or district’s RtI model and allow them to make better sense of it in their own minds.

The ultimate goal is to empower school leaders and teachers with the knowledge they need to marshal resources to create options for struggling students.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required states to collect a wide range of data on subgroups of students, and this mandate revealed several unwelcome education trends. For example, the percentage of students receiving special education services rose from 1.8 percent in 1975 to a record high of 13.8 percent in 2004-2005.1

Perhaps the most significant factor that contributed to the swift demand for intervention services was the Education for Handicapped Children (EHA) legislation, also referred to as Public Law-94-142, which “establish[ed] and protect[ed] the right to education for all handicapped children and provid[ed] assistance to the States in carrying out their responsibilities” prescribed by the United States Constitution to give all children equal access to education.2 While no one can debate that virtue of this legislation, the practical application of this legislation led to numerous financial and ethical quandaries for schools, parents, and students.

The federal Department of Education reacted to this and several other trends by establishing regulatory requirements designed to mitigate or reverse them.

Three of the most troublesome education issues evident during the last three decades of the 20th century were the over-identification of students referred for special education services, the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers, and low on-time graduation rates. Each issue is explained in greater detail in the following pages.


Problem No. 1: Over-Identification of Students Referred for Special Education Services

Across the country, students struggling in school have been over-identified for needing special education services. The occurrence of students requiring special education services across the general population of all students is now roughly 12 percent.3

Response to Intervention programs require schools to provide at least two levels of additional support and regularly monitor student progress at these levels before referring a student for special education services.

This ensures that a student struggling with a particular skill or skill set, behavioral issue, or social-emotional challenge for a finite period of time does not become inappropriately placed in an education program that is unnecessarily restrictive.

It is important to note that RtI does not prevent a school leader, teacher, or parent from referring a student for special education services at any time.


Problem No. 2: Disproportionately High Failure Rates for At-Risk Students

Unfortunately, many students struggle in school due to factors associated with race/ethnicity and poverty.

Paul Barton, in his 2004 study “Why Does the Gap Persist?”, concluded that achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and income mirror inequalities in those aspects of schooling, early life, and home circumstances that research has linked to school achievement.

In fact, “students from low-income families dropped out of school five times more than students from high-income families in 2009.”4 RtI programs identify struggling students early and throughout their schooling to address learning deficits before they develop into chronic learning problems that result in grade level or course failures.

RtI programs with a structured assessment plan for student identification and focused progress monitoring tools enable teachers, working with critical data on individual students’ learning needs, to provide targeted support to prevent failures. Data from RtI program outcomes can be used by schools to evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching staff and intervention curricula, as well as the amount of time spent on interventions.


Problem No. 3: Low On-Time High School Graduation Rate

In response to studies revealing the national graduation rate to be alarmingly low, the United States Department of Education, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act), required schools to meet certain graduation thresholds in order to achieve accountability benchmarks.

High schools throughout the nation developed Early Warning Systems (EWS) to target students who were disengaged academically and/or socially and at risk of dropping out.

Students identified by the various EWS were provided additional services designed to keep them in school and help them graduate on time. For instance, scholars have found that addressing the so-called “ninth-grade shock,” a marked decline in academic performance when a student enters high school, can go a long way toward addressing issues of high school attrition.5

An extensive analysis of the best practices for dropout prevention conducted by Dynarski, et al. (2008) points out that both behavioral and psychological components of student engagement ought to be identified and targeted if schools hope to mitigate the problem of adolescent drop-outs.

This means that schools need to find ways to monitor and track attendance, class participation, and other “intangibles” like student interest and enthusiasm, as well as a sense of belonging and identification with the school.

In many cases, a student’s failure to graduate from high school is the summation of years of academic struggles. Researchers have found that a child’s failure or success at certain development milestones early on in his or her academic career can often predict whether or not the student will later drop out.

Learning More About Interventions

The above breakdown of why interventions exist is a chapter from my most recent eBook “How to Develop a Response to Intervention Program for Your District.” If you’d like to learn more about defining interventions, identifying struggling students, monitoring progress and informing parents, you can get your copy here.



  1. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 (NCES 2016– 006), Table 204.30.
  2. Coates, K. M. (1985). The Education for All Handicapped Children Act Since 1975. Marquette Law Review, 69(1).
  3. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Digest of Education Statistics, 2014 (NCES 2016– 006), Table 204.30.
  4. Barton, P. (2004). Why Does the Gap Persist? Educational Leadership, 62(3).
  5. Pharris-Ciurej, N., Hirschman, C. & Willhoft, J. (2012). The 9th Grade Shock and the High School Dropout Crisis. Social Science Research, 41(3), 709-730.
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