Editorial notebook: Tutoring to close the achievement gap

Often not considered in education reform: What to do about the teenagers who have already been left behind in learning year after year? While no one will say it, sometimes there is an assumption that it's sadly just too late for them, and that society should move on to try helping the next generation.

But a study of tutoring conducted in a high school in one of Chicago's roughest South Side neighborhoods — the homicide rate there is 10 times the national average — offers some hope, particularly for Tampa Bay with its stubborn achievement gap between white students and other students. The results, just published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, tested ways to improve the math skills of ninth- and 10th-graders. All of the participants were male, almost all were black and all but one qualified for free and reduced lunch. One quarter of them had been diagnosed with a learning disability.

But after eight months, most had gained three years of math achievement. That's a jaw-dropping number. It meant that 60 percent of the black-white achievement gap evaporated for the tutored students. Their likelihood of graduating rose by 14 percentage points.

How? The math tutoring occurred for an hour every school day and used one tutor for two students. Because of the low tutor-student ratio, students couldn't goof off. And tutors started where the students were academically, not where the state said they should be. Also, the students received what lay people might call character-building classes to help with impulse control, recognizing alternatives and developing grit.

The researchers make an important point, saying that many interventions fade with time. And many of these ninth- and 10th-graders are at a key point in their lives when they can either head toward becoming a productive member of society or go to jail. This is exactly the moment when they most need help to go in the right direction. Chicago is testing the program at more schools — and at $4,400 a student, it's not cheap. But if the combination of academic and character tutoring continues to get results, can you argue that's too expensive? Compared with what?

Jim Verhulst is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.

Editorial notebook: Tutoring to close the achievement gap 02/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 4:58pm]

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