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As we recently reported, by the time a child from a low-income family reaches sixth grade, he or she has spent an estimated 6,000 fewer hours learning than a peer from a wealthy household.

How did researchers come up with 6,000 hours? At a Halloween morning conference at the Ford Foundation (one of our funders at The Hechinger Report), we got a breakdown of the math, courtesy of The After-School Corporation, or TASC. It goes like this:

– 220 fewer hours being read to by family members

– 1,395 hours not spent in pre-kindergarten, which poor children access at much lower rates

– 3,060 fewer hours doing after-school and extracurricular activities in elementary school

– 1,080 fewer hours in camp and other summer programs

– 245 fewer hours visiting zoos, museums and the like

So what to do? Early intervention as prevention is key, obviously, but what about all the low-income students who have already made it to sixth grade and beyond? Either they need more time in school to catch up, or they need to ask the wealthier kids ahead of them, “please take Thursdays and Fridays off,” Harvard economist Roland Fryer quipped via satellite to the philanthropists, educators and advocates gathered in Midtown Manhattan.

But simply more time doesn’t guarantee better results. The question is how to spend it. In Houston, Fryer’s research team had great success in closing the achievement gap in math at 20 low-performing schools through an extra hour a day of targeted tutoring. Math, though, was described by one conference speaker as “low-hanging fruit.” Moving the needle in literacy is much harder once students are already behind. Oftentimes students are able to get by reading the words on a page without actually understanding what they mean.

Here in New York, a new pilot is underway at another 20 schools, where sixth graders stay an extra 2.5 hours a day, receiving dinner and two extra periods of instruction: one in the arts or some other type of enrichment or hands-on project, provided by a community partner, and the other in guided reading.

For the guided reading hour, four students grouped by ability help select a book that they want to read. They take turns reading aloud to a tutor, who asks questions prewritten by Harvard EdLabs to gauge comprehension as the others read silently, then brings everyone together for a group discussion. (Those of us at the conference got to practice being sixth graders again as mock tutors came around to our tables and drilled our comprehension of a chapter from Francisco Jimenez’s The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child. Duly noted: The main character was in a bad mood after the last day of seventh grade; his friends were preparing for a summer of of vacations and camps while he was going to pick strawberries, cotton and grapes.)

Numerous eyes are watching this guided reading trial, in the hopes that it can provide the sort of scalable intervention needed by so many kids lagging 6,000 hours behind. The tutors in the New York program are supplied by ReServe, which places professionals ages 55 and up in places where they can be of service. Most are retirees; more than half have experience in teaching, social work or related fields; and all are willing to work for a small stipend.

Which brings the conference organizers to one of their key points: In cash-strapped schools, educators who don’t think they have the money for extra time and intervention actually have a whole lot of resources at their disposal. Many community organizations and members can add value, they say. The folks at TASC have assembled a list of 38 funding streams available to New York schools that want to add time to their day, several of them applicable elsewhere.

Michael Weinstein of the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation presented the group with some admittedly fuzzy math to illustrate the potential impact of making up for lost time:

– With a partner like ReServe, 1 hour a day of intensive tutoring x 180 days per year x 3 years = a total cost of about $2,500 over a single student’s middle school career and $10,000 for a tutoring group of four.

– Roland Fryer’s results in Houston suggested a large enough improvement in math performance to save at least one of the four students in a tutoring group from dropping out of high school.

– A student with a high school diploma earns at least $120,000 more over a lifetime than a high school dropout and lives an average two years longer in good health, worth another $100,000. Very conservatively, that’s a $200,000 benefit to society.

“Do a division, a little seventh-grade arithmetic, and you’re talking about a benefit to cost ratio of about 10 to 1,” said Weinstein, a former economics columnist for The New York Times. “This is a monstrously important, powerful intervention.”

And yet, he went on, the math intervention is the easy part: “I said to Roland, ‘Stop wasting your time picking on the low-hanging fruit. Do something serious with your time. Let’s go to New York, let’s put together a program of intensive tutoring for at-risk kids, and we’re going to do it in literacy, and we’re going to overcome the major failing of even the best of our schools.’”

The trial is now running its course. Meanwhile, for so many students around the country, the high-hanging fruit is ripening.

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