Schools Prioritize Reading Intervention. But What About Math?

By Sarah Schwartz — February 23, 2024 7 min read
 Conceptual photo of of a young boy studying mathematics using fingers in primary school.
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Throughout Tiffany Trevenen’s more than 30-year career in Moffat County schools in Craig, Colo., she has seen students experience the same math struggles again and again.

“It was very apparent in upper elementary to me that kids did not have number sense,” said Trevenen, now a learning coordinator at Sandrock Elementary School in the district, referencing the basic understanding of quantity, magnitude, and arithmetic that lay a foundation for higher order math skills.

“They didn’t have a relationship with numbers. I didn’t know how to fill those gaps,” she said.

Moffat schools have long used screening assessments in reading to catch students who need extra help early on in their elementary years. But they didn’t have anything similar for math. “We didn’t have the resources, nor the time slots, to do math intervention,” Trevenen said.

This year, though, that changed. Administrators purchased intervention materials and put dedicated blocks in the schedule. Now, Trevenen and her colleagues are puzzling over how best to use the time to support students—whether they should work with them in small groups, for example, or when to use tech programs to practice newly learned skills. “We’re at the front end of figuring it out,” she said.

Trevenen’s experience reflects broader national trends. Elementary schools have long prioritized early interventions to ensure that students can read before they leave the early grades, often at the expense of offering comparable support for students struggling in math, experts say. This pattern persists, even as studies show that early math skills are a key predictor of later academic success.

Math has ‘lagged’ behind reading in education policy

The tendency for math to take a backseat to reading shows up both in policy and, historically, in public perception.

Over the past decade, 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation or taken other measures requiring that schools shift to evidence-based reading instruction, often mandating interventions for struggling students. Many of these laws have come as national support has swelled for the “science of reading” movement, an attempt to align classroom teaching with research on how young children learn to read.

Only seven states have passed similar legislation in math recently.

“Math, on both the assessment side and the intervention side, has always lagged behind reading,” said Ben Clarke, a professor of school psychology at the University of Oregon, who studies math assessment and instruction.

“The joke was [President George W.] Bush had his Reading First initiative—and it was reading first, and math at some point in the future,” Clarke said, referencing the federal grant program of the early 2000s aimed at raising reading scores. “Ask 100 people on the street what’s the most critical skill kids learn in elementary school, 98 of them are going to say reading.”

Data confirm that schools are more likely to offer targeted instructional support and intervention in early reading than in math. A 2015 study of 13 states found that while 71 percent of schools had implemented Response to Intervention practices in 1st grade reading, only 35 percent had done so in 1st grade math. (RTI is a tiered system for intervening, giving progressively more intense support to students who struggle with whole-class lessons. Many schools now use multi-tiered systems of supports, or MTSS, which combines academic interventions with social-emotional support.)

But intervening earlier in math isn’t just possible, it can also have big effects for students down the line, said Nancy Jordan, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Delaware.

“We do know that these early number abilities are malleable. If children get these interventions, they can improve their number knowledge,” she said. “If you don’t learn the early number skills, and you’re not facile with those, you’re going to have trouble learning the higher order skills, because they’re so intertwined.”

What early math screeners evaluate

To identify which students need more help, schools might use a math screener—a short assessment to determine whether a student is performing at grade level. Most math screeners that students take in kindergarten or 1st grade aim to get a snapshot of students’ number sense, said Jordan.

Number sense is a nebulous term, referring at the same time to kids’ ability to understand quantity, relate numbers to each other, and perform simple operations like addition and subtraction. Separate tasks can assess these different abilities, researchers say.

For example, a student might be asked to count a set of objects, with their teacher monitoring for certain skills, Jordan said: Can they count in a stable order? Do they count each number once and only once? Do they know that the final number in the set represents the total number of objects? Students might also have to identify a missing number in a sequence, said Clarke.

To test their understanding of magnitude, students would be asked which number is bigger—4 or 6, for instance. Kids might also be asked to compose and decompose numbers, said Clarke, testing their understanding that 5, for example, is made up of 2 and 3. Older students in 1st and 2nd grades would be screened on their fluency with these kinds of addition and subtraction operations, Jordan and Clarke said.

“Young children who have this good number sense and can think about number operations and can add and subtract small quantities … they tend to do much better in math when they reach 1st grade and beyond, because they have built these fundamental understandings,” said Jordan.

When they learn their math facts, they’re not just memorizing at random—they’re able to link the fact to their understanding of how numbers work, she said.

Still, screening students for difficulties with these skills is just the starting point, said Clarke. “You have to have that link to intervention, otherwise you’re just admiring the problem.”

And the tools can be crude: Many label a student with a number, or a color designation—green for on track, yellow for borderline, and red for below grade level. “That’s only vaguely helpful,” said Mary Pittman, the director of mathematics for TNTP, an organization that consults with schools on teacher training and instructional strategy. “It tells you that you need to figure out what you need to do for that child.”

The goal of screening should be to connect kids with these supports, rather than to label them as permanently “behind,” said Bailey Cato Czupryk, the senior vice president for research and impact at TNTP. Often, state policy is written to encourage flexible grouping and ensure that students who need additional help aren’t missing out on grade-level instruction, “but we don’t provide teachers support on how to do it,” she said.

How schools are responding to state mandates

In Florida, districts are figuring out how to offer this intervention time after the state passed a law last year that mandates it.

HB 7039 requires that students in grades K-4 who show a “substantial deficiency in mathematics,” or the math learning disability dyscalculia, receive targeted support. It also calls for the state’s department of education to provide a list of approved intervention programs.

“That law puts math on equal footing with reading, where it’s saying both are legislatively required, and you have to figure out a way to fit it into your schedule,” said Elizabeth Abel, a district elementary math coach in Florida’s Hernando County schools and the president of the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Before the law passed, Hernando County was already screening students for math difficulties, and relied on several different resources for interventions, Abel said.

“Often, those strategies will involve hands-on, conceptual understanding,” she added, as teachers work with students in small groups to provide concrete representations of mathematical ideas—a practice recommended by the Institute of Education Sciences’ What Works Clearinghouse for elementary schoolers who struggle.

Guaranteeing consistent time to provide this additional instruction has been a challenge for some schools, especially if students need support in multiple subjects, Abel said. Some schools in the district are trying to schedule intervention blocks before or after school as a solution.

Abel hopes that a sharper statewide focus on intervention leads to more attention on everyday, whole class math instruction, too. Throughout math classes, teachers should be using the same strategies that research shows support struggling students, she said.

It’s a view that Clarke, the University of Oregon professor, holds too.

“The real power of these screening systems … is they often change core instruction,” he said. “Educators start to realize, if 60 percent of our kids are off-track, 70 percent of our kids are off-track—and that’s common—we cannot small-group our way out of this issue.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2024 edition of Education Week as Schools Prioritize Reading Intervention. But What About Math?


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