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Small Study Groups Help Struggling Students

Federal tests have shown that half the male African-American population hasn’t mastered basic math skills by the 8th grade. This suggested not only a severe lack on the part of the educators but dissonance in the educational system itself.

In response to this need, a study was conducted by Jens Ludwig, the co-director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab where she and her colleagues took it upon themselves to tutor a group of 9th and 10th grade students who exhibited the following: poor math skills, streaks of absences and disciplinary problems. The study took place within an eight-month period and they tackled a curriculum which the average American high school programs typically take up within the span of three years. They had 106 participants (all chosen randomly), all male and all from the W.R. High School in one of Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods which is known for violent gang behavior.

They tutored the students after school for an hour a day, every day. After the trial period, the results revealed statistics unlike any that the team had seen before—most of the students showed indicators of academic improvement and a lot of them even met the standards set to be eligible for graduation in the near future.

Professor Ludwig says that the key to the success of their experiment was specialized education: they assigned one tutor for every two students. The big problem with the educational system, he says, especially in struggling neighborhoods, is that one teacher simply cannot be charged with all the questions and educational needs of 25-30 kids—especially a handful of them have been diagnosed with learning disabilities. For a lot of these students, the basic guidelines of learning do not apply: the way Math is taught to them needs to be tailor-fit to their needs.

Tutoring seems to be the answer: and not tutoring in the sense of study hall, which is common in American high schools, but intensive, teacher-to-student tutoring which zones in on what makes the study material difficult for the student to understand.

The total cost of the study was $4,400 per student. However, Professor Ludwig says that this investment will shrink costs, in the long run because instead of shrinking classes because the cost of hiring would be significantly lower.

The study was modeled around an operation already applying the method, Match Tutors. Their president, Alan Safran says this could definitely be the future of education as hiring tutors is easier than looking for certified teachers—most of their tutors are recent college graduates or people looking to do something before Medical or Law School.

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and co-author of Ludwig’s study stresses further that what struggling students need, above and over the academic aspect of education, is the human touch—most of these kids need positive role models look up to; this is why tutoring almost always works and study hall doesn’t. In 2011, he conducted a similar study in Houston and attained similar, consistent results.

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