In a new policy proposal from Brookings, researchers suggest a straightforward way to help the thousands of students who fall behind each year to catch up: individualized tutorials. The proposal is based on a model developed in 2004 by Match Education at its high school. Match—a highly respected charter network with four campuses that span grades pre-K–12—implements a high-dosage tutoring program at all of its schools.

In 2014, Match formed SAGA Innovations as a vehicle to extend its model into traditional public school systems. It works like this: Two students who have fallen behind in math are paired with a single tutor. Tutorials occur every school day, in addition to regular math classes. The small tutor-to-student ratio allows for individualized instruction and meaningful relationships. Students begin at the lowest math skill they have yet to master and then progress into more advanced work as their proficiency improves. Frequent assessments measure progress and pinpoint new areas for growth.

To test how this program would fare in traditional public schools, researchers conducted a large-scale, randomized controlled trial during the 2013–14 school year in twelve disadvantaged Chicago high schools. With the help of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), researchers identified over 2,700 incoming male ninth and tenth graders who were at an elevated risk of dropping out. Approximately six hundred students were randomly assigned tutorial intervention, while the control group continued to receive the usual services provided by CPS. Ninety-five percent of participants in the study were either black or Hispanic, 90 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 49 percent had failed at least one course the prior year. Participants had also missed about a month of school on average and carried a 2.2 GPA.

Results from the trial are impressive. Researchers estimate that the program helped students gain between one and two extra years of math above what is normally learned in a single year. Students who participated in the tutorials also saw substantial gains in math test scores compared to the control group (as measured by ACT’s Explore and Plan tests and additional math achievement tests administered to a randomly selected sub-sample). Participating students improved their math grades, and the chances that they would fail their math courses were cut in half. Students improved in other subjects as well: Their chances of failing a non-math course were reduced by 25 percent. Finally, researchers found that the program narrowed the black/white test score gap by almost one-third in one year (though they also point out that this intervention would not cut the test score gap by that much every year).

Of course, no policy proposal would be complete without a discussion of costs. The researchers note that the program spends about $3,800 annually per student, but they estimate that this amount could be lowered to $2,500 per student if the program were delivered on a large scale. The authors suggest that districts use Title I funds or take advantage of ESSA’s new provision allowing states to reserve up to 3 percent of funding for “direct student services” such as tutoring. (In most places, though, federal funds won’t be nearly sufficient.) Finding enough tutors is another important question, though the researchers have a clear answer for that as well. Match currently operates their program with thousands of students in several cities but continues to receive approximately 5–20 applications for every opening. Overall, despite the high cost, Match’s individualized tutorial program is a promising idea—one that struggling districts would be wise to consider.

SOURCE: Roseanna Ander, Jonathan Guryan, and Jens Ludwig, “Improving Academic Outcomes for Disadvantaged Students: Scaling Up Individualized Tutorials,” Brookings Institution, (March 2016). 

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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