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Chicago public high school students who received intensive algebra tutoring progressed twice as much as those not getting the extra help, a new University of Chicago study showed.

Marc Monaghan

Tutoring Study Points To Potential Answer For Reversing Pandemic Learning Loss

As education leaders look for ways to help students recover academically from the pandemic, a new study points to intensive, high-dosage tutoring as a potential solution.

The study, released Monday, finds that a program that provided Chicago public high school students with algebra tutoring 45 minutes every day was remarkably effective.

Compared with those not attending the tutoring program, the students had, on average, double the academic gains, said Monica Bhatt, the senior research director at the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which did the study. They also were half as likely to fail algebra.

Such gains are comparable to early childhood programs and these findings counter the idea that once students get to high school it is too late to make up ground, Bhatt said.

“In my mind, [it] is one of the most promising and exciting educational interventions that we have studied to date,” she said. “In our search over the last 50 years in particular for effective schooling to help support students who are not performing at grade level.”

This study is part of a body of research that shows concentrated doses of long-term individual or small group tutoring can be effective. This work is highlighted by leaders and educators who are floating the idea of widespread tutoring for students to counter the effects of learning loss during pandemic. The students studied in Chicago were well below grade level.

Bhatt said the program studied is cost-effective for school districts, considering the gains, and, therefore, has the potential to be scaled up. At the time the program was studied in 2013 and 2014, it cost between $3,000 and $4,000 to have two students meet with a low-cost tutor every day. The tutors are part of AmeriCorps, a federally funded service program that provides small monthly stipends to people to work in schools and for nonprofit organizations.

Currently, the tutoring program, which is run by Saga Education, a Boston-based nonprofit, is trying to lower costs. It’s using a blended format with four students working with a tutor some of the time and using educational software the rest of the time.

Antonio Gutierrez, director of marketing for Saga Education, said preliminary results show that the blended model can be as effective. He said the organization must raise money from philanthropies, such as the Gates and Walton foundations, the federal government and school district funding to pay for it now

Gutierrez said the organization is trying to lower costs to $1,000 so it can be paid for entirely with school district money.

He also said that, as leaders across the country look to scale up in the face of the pandemic, it is looking to share what it has learned with other organizations and school districts.

The three key components are that tutoring is embedded in the school day, it is done in high-impact subjects and grades, like ninth grade algebra, and that tutors need to be properly trained.

Chicago Public Schools currently has two contracts with Saga Education, worth more than $6 million, to provide tutoring services at several high schools and some alternative schools for dropouts. Saga Education boasts on its website that it is considered one of the 50 most innovative companies by Fast Company.

Bhatt said she and her team of researchers were not looking to study Saga Education, but were looking to see if a program could make a marked difference in the trajectory of high school students. She said they chose Saga Education because it was a discreet program already doing work inside CPS.

The Education Lab is one of several urban labs at the University of Chicago that aims to use scientific methods to study social programs. The study is the first of several that will be released by the urban lab. The studies are supported by about $3 million from the National Institutes of Health and philanthropies. They include not just quantitative analysis, but also interviews with the young people affected by the programs being studied.

In the past, it looked at mentoring programs and demonstrated that the students involved had better outcomes more than other students. The research led to Chicago putting the mentoring programs, called Becoming A Man and Working on Womanhood, in most high schools in the city.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation @sskedreporter.

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