Striking Out With Math Interventions

In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that if you obsess over a data point, like your batting average, instead of the process of hitting, you probably won’t raise your average. But if you spend your time learning to hit, your average will take care of itself.

If the policy-makers in my district had read Silver, they might not have compelled several of my algebra students to drop an elective class, like art, PE, and computer skills, and add a math intervention class.

First, a little background. My math students take high school credit math which puts them a year ahead of their classmates. So, why, I hope you’re thinking, do students performing a year above grade level have to take a class normally reserved for students performing one, two, three, or more years below grade level?

There actually is a sensible answer. As a consequence of Arizona’s open position crisis,* my students had no permanent 7th-grade math teacher for a couple of months. That left them facing multiple substitutes, and they ended up far behind. So, suggesting that some struggling algebra students take an intervention class might not be as silly as it sounds. It might even be an example of equity.

That is if the opportunity had been presented as an option and if I had been asked to recommend which students might most benefit from an extra math class and if they and their parents had been consulted and agreed to take advantage of the opportunity.

But, that’s three ifs too many. The students were simply told to report to the office, where received their new schedules.

When I inquired how they were chosen, I learned that someone went to last year’s AZMERIT test scores and used a particular data point (I know neither the someone nor the data point) to identify students who were within striking distance of the next highest proficiency category. No one should be surprised that there is precious little overlap between the selected students, one of whom is one of our top performers, and those I’d have recommended.

So it appears a pretty cynical way to select students for intervention: If we could just get them over the proficiency hump, our school’s letter grade would go up. That will help my school and district. Plus, higher scores improve my evaluation and increase my performance pay, and that helps me. But how does it advance the interest of the students? All-in-all, it smells like a thinly-veiled attempt to use students as tools to promote adults’ self-interests.

And will the scheme even work? Considering Silver’s warning about chasing a number instead of knowledge, I’m willing to bet that any increase in these students’ scores won’t result from math interventions and may well be cancelled out by an attendant drop in the scores of students who really could have benefited from an intervention class, but weren’t even considered.

Some centuries before Nate Silver offered his take, Edmund Burke wrote that he judged policymakers – and by extension, policies – by their disposition to preserve and their ability to improve. Anything else, he said, was, “Vulgar in the conception and perilous in the execution.”

Sounds about right.


*A bit one words: What many call a “teacher shortage” is actually an open position crisis created by teachers who have left the career or the state because of our working conditions and low pay. There are in fact hundreds of certified teachers who live in Arizona and would return to teaching if the education climate would improve.

For related stories see:

Should Undocumented Teachers Be Allowed to Cross Professional Borders, Parts One, Two, and Three

Why Did I Have to Look At That Those Scores? 

Do Common Core Advocates Lack Historical Context?



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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