Intensive Math Tutoring Raises Achievement Among Young Men in Chicago High Schools

In Sunday’s NY Times,  David Kirp, the Berkeley public policy professor, describes a new study on improving academic achievement among young men who are far behind academically in high schools in Chicago. “Here’s why you should pay close attention to this experiment,” writes Kirp.  “After just a single year in Chicago’s intensive tutoring and mentoring program, known as Match, participants ended up as much as two years ahead of students in a control group who didn’t get this help… They performed substantially better on the Chicago school system’s math test; their scores on the NAEP math exam reduced the usual black-white test score gap by a third.  This success carried over to nonmath classes, where these students were less likely to fail. Greater success in math also helped get them on track to graduate.  It also led them to become more engaged in school, and they were 60 percent less likely than members of the control group to be arrested for a violent crime.”

Kirp’s article accompanies the publication of a working paper by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University: Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes for Disadvantaged Youth.  The research is being conducted by the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and academics from Duke, Harvard, Northwestern and Temple Universities and the University of California. The Urban Education Lab at the University of Chicago describes the study as a, “large-scale randomized controlled trial of Match Education’s tutoring program over two years with 5,000 students in 15 Chicago public high schools.”

The authors  of the Not Too Late study describe a research history that has encouraged investing in preschool when brain development is rapid and discouraged investment in programs to catch up high school students, already far behind.  “Part of the challenge is that there are far too few interventions that have been convincingly shown to improve outcomes for low-income students, particularly interventions that target adolescence—the time period when some of the most socially costly outcomes like high school dropout (and delinquency and teen fertility) are concentrated… This shortage of success stories has led to growing concerns about the value of efforts to improve outcomes for economically disadvantaged youth… Yet the conclusion that by adolescence it is too late and too costly to improve the academic outcomes of children in poverty may be premature…. We hypothesize that there are important mismatches between what many students (especially those from disadvantaged urban areas) need, and what many current education policies try (or are able) to provide.  In general, the variance in achievement among students increases as they progress in school, a problem that is even more pronounced in urban areas where economic disadvantage among many students affects the rate at which they learn. Many students gradually fall behind grade level, which makes it more difficult to keep up with subsequent grade-level instruction, which then causes youth to fall yet further behind, further widening the variance in student achievement in large urban districts.”

Here is the definition of the problem according to this new study: “Despite the $590 billion the U.S. spends each year on public K-12 schooling, most urban school systems lack adequate safety nets to intensively help those who have fallen behind—this remains a key systemic challenge.”

The Not Too Late report describes the sessions: “During the school day, students were assigned to participate in a 55-minute-long tutoring session as part of their regular class schedule, every day.  In the Chicago Public Schools system, that is up to 165 contact hours per year.  Each tutor was assigned to work with two students at a time during each session.  The focus of the first half hour of each tutoring session was on remediating students’ skill deficits, for which Match has developed its own skill-building curriculum.  The second half of each session was tied to what youth learn in their classrooms.  Match used frequent internal formative assessments of student progress to individualize instruction. Tutors taught six periods a day and each school was overseen by a site director.  Site directors handled behavioral issues in the tutoring room, communication with school staff, and offered daily feedback and professional development.  The tutors were mostly recent college graduates who were hired because they have very strong math skills and interpersonal skills….”

In a preliminary paper published a year ago by the The  National Bureau of Economic Research—The Surprising Efficacy of Academic and Behavioral Intervention with Disadvantaged Youth: Results from a Randomized Experiment in Chicago—the researchers explain the design of their Match tutoring program: “Compared to regular classroom instruction, two-on-one tutoring greatly simplifies the instructional task that the adult is asked to carry out.  Working with just two students makes it much easier for the instructor to individualize instruction (both in terms of the level and pace) to what students need. The tutoring method also makes it much easier to develop positive relationships with students, and to maximize time-on-task; one might think of two-on-one tutoring as extreme class size reduction that would greatly reduce the risk of disruptions…” “The Match intervention individualizes instruction but, unlike tracking, is adaptive: rather than locking students into a particular instructional level, MATCH tailors the level of material to students’ changing needs and allows them to progress as quickly as they are able to learn.”

For his NY Times article, David Kirp interviews Barbara Algarin, the executive director of Match Education, who reports, “It’s friendship and pushing—they nag them to success.  These students can make remarkable progress when they appreciate that their tutor is in their corner.  The math connection leads to better study skills and a love of learning. Grades improve across the board.”

Compare this model with what is widely being provided in the “dropout recovery” schools aimed at at students who are far behind.  These primarily virtual academies operate cheaply by substituting on-line curricula for teachers. Hours before a computer screen create the ultimately impersonal, non-caring environment for at-risk students. The big question in the new report from Chicago, of course, is about the price.  Kirp summarizes: “Because the Match tutors earn about $16,000 a year plus benefits, about what other public service programs like City Year pay, the Chicago program is a relative bargain, costing about $3,800 a year for each student.”

Kirp quotes Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab: “Just a few years of this type of intervention could bring almost all students up to grade level.  By then they can benefit from what’s being taught in regular classes and have real hope for a high school diploma.”


One thought on “Intensive Math Tutoring Raises Achievement Among Young Men in Chicago High Schools

  1. Nice to see evidence that actually acting on, rather than just collecting, data has an impact. I was beginning to think that all we needed to do was keep collecting. Who was the genius that saw that actually teaching, mentoring and befriending students in need of intervention might work? Maybe this is a program that could be duplicated. Here in my home town in MA we have a very strong volunteer program and a mentoring program. It is phenomenal-kids love the one-on-one and it works. Sometimes all a student needs to succeed is an adult that cares.

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