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Education is an Intervention

What exactly is education? The obvious consultation of Webster's dictionary could provide an answer, but as with many constructs, it can be more telling to hear individuals' answers. For example, an article in Psychology Today gathered forty historical quotes from "great minds" to assess what they thought, but I'd ask you to take a moment and ponder this question: what is education?

Depending on your experience, perspective, or values, you might have one of several responses. I would wager that most people - particularly academics - might focus on some combination of teaching and learning. "Education is the process of learning," or something to that effect. One could argue that education is a process of growth and development, the acquisition of the knowledge and skills necessary to be a productive member of society. We might even consider education as a process of acculturation. One might even argue that education is an tool used to oppress traditionally underserved populations.

For whatever reason - perhaps my educational background in psychology or my training and experience in assessment - I've always viewed education as an intervention. No, not the reality TV show or recurring gag from How I Met Your Mother. I mean "intervention" to refer to, as the dictionary defines it, an "action taken to improve a situation." In most clinical areas (e.g., psychology, medicine), the term intervention commonly refers to a treatment or procedure designed to help someone with a problem. In an experiment, the "treatment" group is one that receives the intervention of interest, while the "control" group receives no intervention, a placebo, or a comparable intervention.

In talking with many researchers, practitioners, and others about assessment, I've found that this guiding paradigm of "education as an intervention" has led me to many beliefs about education that differ from current practice and policy. In this post, I'd like to discuss a traditional view of education - which posits education as a meritocracy - and an intervention-based paradigm, and why the latter may be far more helpful in fostering student success.

The Meritocracy

I find that many people view education (particularly higher education) like a library. There it is - doors open for you to use. If you don't maximize the opportunities at hand, that's mostly on you for failing to do so. This might seem like a crass over-simplification, yet whenever I've asked a faculty member the number one reason that students fail their course, I can't think of an instance when they've said anything but, "missing class." To me, this suggests that faculty think the process is sound, it's simply the failing will of the student that hinders success.

This view of education feeds largely into our conceptualization of a meritocracy. Education constantly rewards those whose past success warrants future opportunity. Given limited resources and access, it only makes sense to reward those individuals who have demonstrated academic achievement in the past... right? Whether it means taking the most challenging courses, opportunities for a mentoring program or internship, or admission to the most prestigious universities, we reward those students who have demonstrated the highest achievement.

While this is a compelling narrative when attributing success or making decisions about individuals, we know that - at a systemic level - success is more than a person-driven phenomenon. Repeated large-scale studies have shown that educational achievement is as much (if not more) a product of environment than individual characteristics. Meta-analyses have shown the effects of family vs. school resources on individual achievement (White, 1982; Sirin; 2005), showing that you're probably better off being a poor student in a rich school than a rich student in a poor school. Additionally, students who experience higher quality curricula see continuing advantages at almost every educational junction, from access to more rigorous courses to admission to college (Kerckhoff & Glennie,1999).

This cyclical perpetuation of privilege and achievement is often referred to in social sciences as the "Matthew Effect." Taken from a Christian biblical verse - "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Matthew 25:29) - it is essentially scientific nomenclature for "the rich get richer." In practice, it refers to the ever-expanding gaps between the haves and the have-nots. The Kerckhoff and Glennie study argues that the American educational system is a case study in the Matthew Effect, with students given initial advantages and/or demonstrating early success being continually rewarded until, by the end, initial small gaps can lead to massive differences in opportunity and achievement.

Arguments against the meritocratic nature of education are plentiful (there's a nice review in this New Yorker article, rife with several links to other works on the topic). It's certainly not my intention in this post to expound upon those objections, or even to argue against the meritocracy. Instead, I'd like to pose my intervention-based paradigm, contrast it with a meritocratic view, and explore how it might impact our approach to education.

Education as an Intervention

With an intervention mindset, education is more like medicine than a library: It should be given to those who need it most, or could receive the maximum benefit. Admittedly, there are some nuanced issues there (e.g., how do we define "need" and "benefit"?) but let's hold those for just a moment.

I recently encountered an example of intervention mindset when reading Michelle Obama's Becoming. In the book, she mentioned that, during her time as First Lady, she relished the opportunity to give commencement speeches, but would often skip high profile institutions in order to visit college campuses or high schools that might be overlooked by someone in her position. As she stated, "Princeton and Harvard, I’m sorry, but you’re fine without me." (Note that First Lady Obama was an alum of both Ivy League institutions.)

Mrs. Obama viewed her speaking as an intervention, and while it would certainly be powerful and impactful for those Ivy League students, she viewed it has having greater benefit for students from an urban high school or a rural HBCU who might otherwise not be honored by such a distinguished guest.

Consider granting admission to a prestigious four-year university. Should that spot be granted to a hard working first-generation student, for whom such a degree could vault theirs and future generations out of poverty? Or should it go to a high-achieving student from a privileged, urban, private school, for whom the alternative is likely admission to another prestigious university?

There are also many examples of education completely ignoring an intervention mindset that reinforce the appeal of this paradigm to me. First among these is developmental education. For community colleges and many four-year schools, admissions and placement tests indicate students' readiness for college-level math and English courses. If deemed under-prepared, students are then shunted into remedial courses designed to foster the necessary knowledge and skills.

This system has always puzzled me for two reasons, especially when taking an intervention mindset. On one hand, we take a student who hasn't met our expectations after roughly twelve years of formal, didactic, classroom instruction, and then we expose them to another semester or two of the same type of work in hopes that perhaps this time it will do the trick.

Should we not consider that maybe our intervention isn't effective? Might we not try something new when seeking to develop math and English skills with this student? Using the medical example, would we take a patient who had received multiple rounds of a drug, showing no effects on their disease, and then just keep prescribing the drug? Would we deem the patient "not health ready" if the treatment continued to fall short? NO! We would question the efficacy of the intervention.

As such, I'm puzzled when the remedial intervention fails. We continually channel students through these courses over and over again, placing the blame on the student without ever posing the question: "Is that - just maybe - our instruction isn't working?"

What's most important here is not determining the actual causal mechanism: It's how our mindsets and paradigms guide our actions. Under a meritocracy, we continue to administer the same courses over and over again, doing little to actually remediate students (i.e., improve their knowledge and skills). If we adopt a different mindset, we might take a different action (with, hopefully, better outcomes). Next, I'd like to discuss two fundamental changes that might take place if we adopted an intervention mindset more universally.

With education as an intervention, educators take more responsibility

A long-time friend and colleague, who also happens to be a community college provost, once told me about her experience in taking a new position at a college with some genuine struggles around student success. She wasn't pleased with her faculty, who generally regarded student success as the students' responsibility. When discussing why the college was struggling with student success outcomes, complaints about things like class attendance, the ability to navigate basic college expectations (e.g., reading a syllabus), and overall perceptions of motivation seemed to abound.

In a large meeting of faculty who were espousing such complaints, the provost finally stopped and asked: "Are these things you would expect of a high school student?"

One of the faculty members, looking somewhat blankly, simply said, "Well... no."

She replied, "Then what happened over the summer?"

This is one of the secrets of student success in higher education. At some point in the transition from high school to college, we stop placing the burden of success on ourselves as educators and start making it the responsibility of students.

In fact, the Community College Research Center conducted a study of developmental math courses that were provided in both high school and college settings. Finding that success rates were much higher in the high school setting, the authors attributed this to the observation that - in the high school setting - instructors viewed success as their own responsibility, but in college, the onus was placed on students, expecting them to be "autonomous and self-regulated."

In truth, I think we'd all agree that the "responsibility" of success is mutual. Students need to demonstrate the appropriate effort and engagement, but educators must also provide a climate of learning that is engaging and inclusive. But again, the point here is not about the actual causal mechanisms, but the paradigms that drive our efforts. If we view success as a meritocracy, a student's failure is "their fault." Low rates of attrition are more likely to be attributed to student behavior, and we continue to operate our systems of education in the same way.

If, however, we view success as an intervention, failure is interpreted as a shortcoming of the intervention itself. We thus continue to drive, innovate, and improve the ways in which we work with students in order to improve success.

With education as an intervention, we change the ways we invest in students

In the summer of 2015, billionaire John Paulson made a gift of $400 million to Harvard University - the largest gift the school had ever received. At the time, the gift was hotly debated, with arguments ranging from "why does a university with a $36 billion endowment need this gift?" to articles enumerating the other great educational causes for which these funds could be used. (At the time, I recall an article that outlined several schools for which this amount could have covered the entire cost for the incoming class - but alas, I couldn't track that one down. I did find an article mentioning that the gift was larger than the endowment of every HBCU except Howard University.)

Yet others supported Paulson's gift, outlining such points as (a) his gift endowed Harvard's newly formed engineering school, which supports a much needed area of STEM development; (b) gifts like this allow Harvard to admit many students with little or no tuition based on financial need; and even (c) it's his money and he has the right to do with it what he sees best.

Personally, I saw this as the ultimate meritocratic act of philanthropy. Harvard is a phenomenal institution, educating the best and brightest the world has to offer. Such a gift could provide opportunities for innovation and creativity that might impact our society for years to come.

But I return to Michelle Obama's comment: Wouldn't Harvard be fine without this gift? Wouldn't this amount of money fundamentally change another institution in a far more dramatic way? What might a community college system, Tribal College, or HBCU, using these funds to support and educate thousands of students toward better careers and lives, have done with $400 million?

This is another major advantage of using an intervention mindset toward education: It changes the way we view the impact of actions. Rather than rewarding those who benefited from continuing rewards throughout their life (i.e., the Matthew Effect), we view our efforts as a chance to correct the systems of privilege that drive inequity.

Let me be clear, I have the utmost respect for the gifted achievers, the Ivy League, and the most brilliant among us. They often drive significant change, innovation, and improvement in our society, as well as within our educational system. But how might success for all students be different if we changed the way we thought about and acted upon students' successes and failures?

I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes. It comes from Bill Gates, taken during an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education in June 2012, and I keep it in my phone at all times. To me, it shows just how differently these two mindsets might change the way we view education:

If you try and compare two universities, you'll find out a lot more about the inputs—this university has high SAT scores compared to this one. And it's sort of the opposite of what you'd think. You'd think people would say, "We take people with low SATs and make them really good lawyers." Instead they say, "We take people with very high SATs and we don't really know what we create, but at least they're smart when they show up here so maybe they still are when we're done with them.


  • Kerckhoff, A. C., & Glennie, E. (1999). The Matthew effect in American education. Research in sociology of education and socialization, 12(1), 35-66.

  • Sirin, S. R. (2005). Socioeconomic status and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review of research. Review of educational research, 75(3), 417-453.

  • White, K. R. (1982). The relation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Psychological bulletin, 91(3), 461.

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