by Quentin Wodon
Imagine a group of elementary school students gathering in a school gymnasium as part of a tutoring session. The students are trying to estimate the gravitational acceleration force on an object at sea level, where Washington, DC, is located. The students throw a golf ball in the air in the gymnasium. They record the time it takes for the ball to fall from apogee to the floor using a simple stop watch. They repeat the exercise 25 times. They also estimate the distance from apogee to the top of the ceiling, which is done by first measuring the distance from floor to ceiling and next by guessing by how much the ball misses the ceiling. The students’ estimate of ‘g’, the gravitational acceleration due to the force exerted by the earth on the golf ball, turns out to be within three percent of the accepted value for Washington, DC, even though each of the 25 individual computations per throw varied widely. This showed to the students how approximate values, when averaged, may converge on true values with reasonable accuracy.
Another experiment used a hygrometer, an instrument for measuring humidity or moisture content as well as temperatures. This was coupled with water and iced water in cans. Students had to figure out the temperature at which beads of water formed on the outside of the tin cans, which was followed by a discussion of what fog is, how temperature affects relative humidity, why clouds form and sometimes rain or snow is produced.
These scenes are not from a movie, but from a volunteer-based tutoring program run in a public school located in Anacostia, the poorest area of the city. Until recently, few children at the school passed standardized mathematics and reading tests, but things have improved. The tutoring program has now been in existence for six years. It is run by Dr. Don Messer a member of the Rotary Club of Washington, DC in District 7620. Together with teachers, school administrators, and a half dozen other tutors from his Rotary club Don designed the program in an innovative way.
The program focuses on mathematics and reading, and on the types of questions asked in standardized tests. This is not to “teach to the test”, but to ensure that children understand potential test questions well. Tutors work with students in small groups of three or four to generate interactions and more learning. The groups meet once or twice a week for the entire school year. The goal is not only to help the students learn, but also to help them understand that there is a future for them that often they didn’t know existed.
Tutoring can work to improve learning – this is why so many parents who have the means to do so invest in tutoring (there is a rather large literature on private tutoring – as just one recent example see this paper on Vietnam). But children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have such opportunities, which is why volunteer-run programs are so important for those children.
To work well, tutoring sessions should be active, varied, and even fun. Sessions should combine structured and unstructured instruction, as well as individual and collective work, and they should focus on specific skills. In Don’s small but effective volunteer program the first part of each tutoring session focuses on prior test problems from DC standardized tests. These tests are augmented by problems that tutors or teachers prepare to emphasize special themes. In mathematics for example, a package would contain around 80 problems, ranging from routine arithmetic operations to data analysis (histograms, bar charts, tables), basic geometry, and problems that require reading to make sense of what is to be done. The problem set is paced by student progress, not by a time schedule. Tutors make sure that if a problem is difficult to understand for one or more of the students, all students understand what the problem is driving at before they start to work on the problem. Students work on the problem until all have finished, but if the tutor sees that at least one student remains confused, a group discussion is launched to help the students get the correct solution. The tutors also try to interject simple science illustrations within the problems to be solved, as illustrated earlier with the gravity constant and hygrometer experiments.
Impact and Recognition
How successful has Don’s program been? No impact evaluation is available to say for sure, but success rates at standardized tests have been systematically higher for tutored than non-tutored students year after year. The results, albeit not based on a randomized study, are encouraging. In part thanks to this program, the Rotary club of Washington, DC, was recognized two years ago as Volunteer Group of the Year by Chancellor Henderson of the District of Columbia Public Schools. For the Rotarian tutors, the experience has been highly rewarding. And in Don’s case, there was no better reward than having a fifth-grader tell him: “You know Dr. Messer, you’re my grandpa.”
In the third and last post in this series, I will discuss results from several programs that operate in Washington, DC, and have been rigorously evaluated, including Higher Achievement and Reading Partners.
Note: Part of this blog post is adapted from a section in a book published by the author entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).