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remedial high school
Students work on a math problem in a remedial class. An Israeli study found long-term benefits from after-school remedial classes taught by the students’ teachers. Credit: Meredith Kolodner/The Hechinger Report

There is considerable research on the benefits of intervening early when a child is falling behind at school. Intuitively, teachers and parents know that it’s much harder to improve a person’s academic trajectory later in life. Meanwhile, interventions aimed at teenagers, such as dropout prevention programs, often disappoint. 

But researchers occasionally find things that work with high schoolers. One such example is a remedial high school program in Israel, now defunct, that gave thousands of disadvantaged and lower achieving 16- and 17-year-olds after-school instruction in small groups, similar to tutoring. A 2005 evaluation found that the program raised the number of students who passed a series of difficult high school exams required for university entrance, earning what is called a Bagrut certificate, by 13 percentage points compared to similar students who didn’t get the extra help. 

The immediate results were encouraging but it would be even more interesting to know what happened to these teens years later. Victor Lavy, an Israeli economist who helped design the remedial high school program and who conducted the initial evaluation, used government records to track the students through their early 30s. To compare the results, he also tracked the students in the control group who didn’t participate in the after-school program.

The benefits of the extra high school instruction were long lasting. Participants subsequently attended college at higher rates and completed a trimester more of college. Their annual earnings were 4 percent higher, equivalent to $5,000 a year in today’s dollars. They eventually rose above their parents’ economic station by about seven percentile points on the national income ladder, rising, for example, from the 30th to 37th percentile. The teens who participated even had higher marriage rates.

“I followed them to their adulthood because at the end of the day, you really want to know what makes a difference in life and not on test scores,” said Lavy, who is a professor at both the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I’m also a believer in early childhood interventions but contrary to others, I don’t think that we have evidence to give up on students who are older. It may be a little bit more expensive than an early childhood investment but the payoff is still very beneficial to the individuals and for society.”

The study is part of a larger body of work in which Lavy has documented positive results from intervening with older students. Another of his studies argues that informing teens they will have higher paying jobs if they stay in school longer is effective. The paper on afterschool instruction, “Does Remedial Education at Late Childhood Pay Off After All? Long-Run Consequences for University Schooling, Labor Market Outcomes and Inter-Generational Mobility,” was conducted with two other researchers at Brown and Northwestern universities and is slated to be published in 2022 in the Journal of Labor Economics. (An earlier version was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research.) 

The Israeli after-school program didn’t target the weakest students, who were in danger of failing many of their courses or dropping out of high school, but instead sought to bolster good students who were on the edge of joining a higher college-bound echelon. The students selected were at risk of failing at least one but not more than three of the country’s high school matriculation exams. These exams are somewhat akin to International Baccalaureate (IB) exams or Advanced Placement (AP) tests, more than what students need for basic high school graduation. At the time, a little more than half of Israelis passed all the exams to earn Bagrut certificates.  

The Israeli government selected 130 lower income schools and reached more than 4,000 students. The students tended to be from lower income Jewish families and were disproportionately of Middle Eastern and North African descent, groups that had been marginalized in Israeli society.

In the remedial high school program, the students’ regular classroom teachers were paid overtime to stay after school and give extra instruction to the participants in small groups of two to five students. Lavy said he thought the program worked well because students weren’t sitting in large remedial classes for all kids who were behind. Instead students received individualized instruction targeted to the specific problems they were having in their homework and in class that week. Lavy modeled it after an on-the-job teacher training program. It cost more than $1,000 per student a year but the extra taxes that the Israeli government collected on these students’ future earnings paid for it after eight years, the researchers calculated. 

Despite the short-term and long- term benefits of the program, it no longer exists. “Unfortunately, here every minister that comes and takes over, he basically undoes what the other one did before him,” said Lavy. Political whims in education are universal. 

I felt that this study was particularly relevant when we are looking for research guidance on helping kids catch up after the coronavirus pandemic. There’s a lot of concern about helping young students who were behind before the pandemic hit and who have certainly fallen more behind since. But this study is an argument for small group tutoring of average high school students who are on the cusp of being college material. Large payoffs, both for the individual and society, may lie here if political leaders are willing to commit the financial resources.

This story about remedial high school was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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