STEM Education and Tutoring in the Capital City: Part 3 – Achieving Impact

Note: This post is part of a series of three on tutoring for science and mathematics among disadvantaged students. Part 1 looks at needs. Part 2 and part 3 give examples of successful programs.

by Quentin Wodon

The United States and especially the District of Columbia are lagging behind in STEM education, as discussed in the first blog post of this series. When Don and his team designed the small Rotary-led tutoring program described in the second post of the series, they did not start with a review of the evidence from the literature on what works. But through the experience of the teachers and principal at the school, as well as their own experience, they had a pretty good idea of what could be useful. As a result, the design of the program actually corresponds to what the literature recommends.

Don, a teacher, and a few of the tutored students
Don, a teacher, and a few of the tutored students

Lessons from the Literature

The literature on tutoring and out-of-school-time programs (see for example the review by Heinrich and Burch) suggests that in order to achieve impact, it is often useful to: (1) provide consistent and sustained instructional time, for a total of at least 40-45 hours; (2) provide tutoring to small groups of students, preferably less than ten at a time; (3) follow a curriculum that is rich in content and takes into account the specific needs of students while being also closely related to what students learn during the regular school day; (4) ensure that tutoring sessions are active and varied (for example by combining structured and unstructured instruction, as well as individual and collective work time) and focused on targeting the development of specific skills; (5) foster positive relationships between tutors and students; and finally (6) foster collaboration between teachers and tutors with support of administrators, including for constructive evaluation. All of these features are at work in Don’s program.

There is substantial interest in tutoring today in the US. As mentioned in the first post in this series, under the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act adopted a dozen years ago, public schools not making enough progress in learning assessments for two consecutive years must provide tutoring services to children. Tutoring initiatives are being implemented throughout the country. Earlier this year Mayor Emanuel announced the expansion (with private funding) of a mathematics tutoring program in Chicago that University of Chicago researchers found helpful for at-risk students in public schools (see the review of the study in the New York Times).

Examples of Great Programs

Another example of intensive tutoring program having impact is Higher Achievement. The NGO operates in Washington, DC, Baltimore, Richmond, and Pittsburgh. Students in the program meet three days a week during the school year. They first complete homework with support from teachers and volunteers. They then have dinner and work on a specific subject in small groups of two or three with a trained volunteer mentor. This is a rigorous program – overall, students spend a total of 650 hours a year in the program between 5th and 8th grade.

Data from Higher Achievement suggest that three fourth of the enrolled students improve their grade point average (GPA) by at least one letter grade, and 96% graduate from high school – two times the rate of their peers. Three fourths of the students also go on to graduate from college – four times the rate of their peers. The program has been evaluated rigorously by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin compared Higher Achievement students (“scholars”) with a control group of students who applied to the program, met the admissions criteria, but were not selected to participate through a randomized lottery.

According to the evaluation of Higher Achievement published last year, the program had a statistically significant positive impact after one year in the program on mathematics proficiency and reading comprehension, as measured by standardized tests. The mathematics impacts lasted four years after enrollment in the program. The program also increased the probability that the students would enroll in high performing private high schools. These findings suggest that intensive OST (out-of-school-time) programs like Higher Achievement can be beneficial.

Another program that also operates in Washington, DC, and that has been rigorously evaluated by MDRC is Reading Partners. The program serves more than 7,000 students in over 130 schools in California, Colorado, New York, Oklahoma, Maryland, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington, DC. As was the case with the small Rotary-funded program in Washington, DC, and the larger program operated by Higher Achievement, Reading Partners works in (large) part with volunteers, which helps in keeping costs down. The evaluation of Reading Partners was conducted in 2012-13 in a subset of the schools where the program operates. Results suggest gains in reading proficiency. While this evaluation was not about STEM, it suggests again that tutoring programs can make a difference.

Policy and What You Can Do

From a policy point of view, there are legitimate questions about the cost effectiveness of some tutoring programs. This cost effectiveness issue must be looked at carefully on a case by case basis. But when the programs are staffed in part or fully by volunteers, they are more likely to be cost effective. Tutoring may also in some cases – especially when it is profit-motivated, act as a substitute for good quality teaching. This may be a serious problem in some developing countries (as an example, see this paper on Nepal), but probably much less so in developed countries. In most situations, tutoring is likely to lead to positive changes.

For those who care about helping disadvantaged students better succeed in schools, the good news is that there are many ways to contribute. If you have or can take the necessary time to do so, you can get personally involved like Don and his fellow Rotarians are doing, going every week to a school and working with a few students. But if you do not have the time, you can still help by contributing funding to organizations that are doing a great job on the ground.

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