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The world’s wealthiest families have known for centuries how effective tutoring is. Private tutors long educated the aristocracy and continue to supplement the education of kids whose families can afford it. Now, a national nonprofit has found a way to get tutoring to kids from poorer families, too. And researchers have a growing body of evidence showing it’s incredibly effective.

Saga Education embeds tutoring into the school day. The nonprofit focuses on ninth grade math, a strong predictor of later success. Students who fail algebra in ninth grade are much more likely to drop out of school altogether, making it a particularly important time to get kids on track.

Recent college graduates, working as Americorps members, serve as Saga’s tutors. They work with two students at a time in a special class that follows a Saga Education curriculum tailored to the needs of each student and aligned with their school’s curriculum for their traditional math class. Tutors collaborate with a school’s math teachers and work with the same kids every day, all school year, offering a chance for tutors to form bonds with the students and capitalize on the benefits of mentorship along with the extra math instruction. Tutors, few of whom went to school for teaching or math, are trained on both the academic and relationship-building aspects of their jobs with two coaching sessions per week and daily informal observations that inform the coaching.

The results are, as one researcher puts it, “blockbuster.”

A randomized controlled trial out of the University of Chicago Education Lab found students who received the tutoring class during the 2013-14 school year learned as much as two additional years’ worth of math than their peers who didn’t get the tutoring. The study assigned 2,718 boys in ninth and 10th grade across 12 schools either to get the tutoring or not. Those with a tutor also improved their math GPAs by half a letter grade and performed far better on standardized tests – 20 percent better – because of the tutoring. The program led to half as many math course failures among students who participated and led to almost one-third fewer course failures in other subjects, showing impressive spillover effects.

Monica Bhatt, senior research director of the U Chicago Education Lab, said results for kids in ninth and 10th grade during the 2014-15 school year are even more impressive. Those results will be published in a forthcoming paper. Bhatt, who has spent 15 years in education policy research, said the findings offer a counterpoint to those who argue it is too difficult and expensive to change the academic trajectories of teenagers.

“There’s this idea that you should invest in early childhood and that’s it,” Bhatt said. “We’re seeing even by ninth grade, effects aren’t fixed.”

At this point, the model, which serves about 3,500 kids in around two dozen schools in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., costs about $3,100 per student per year, according to Antonio Gutierrez, a co-founder of the nonprofit. For context, average education spending in the United States in 2017 was $12,201 per pupil, ranging from a low of $7,179 in Utah to a high of $23,091 in New York, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

So far, schools have paid for the tutoring with a mix of Title I dollars – earmarked by the federal government to cover the extra costs of serving students in poverty – and philanthropy.

Besides studying outcomes for the original model, where one tutor works with two kids at a time, University of Chicago Education Lab researchers are studying whether the impressive effects hold out when each tutor works with four students. In that program design, a tutor still works directly with only two kids at a time, monitoring the other two students while they work through math content online. Each day, the tutor switches which students work on a computer and which work with the adult.

Researchers have also conducted a small pilot with first grade reading classes, finding the tutoring model leads to significant gains on standardized test scores for students who participate. And Bhatt’s team designed a study to assess how effectively the program can scale up, given the additional complications that come with having to find more tutors and run a larger program. Results of those studies should be public in the next year or so.

Long-term, Gutierrez hopes that Saga Education will not simply work with more and more schools, but provide a model for schools all over the country to adopt in-house. That would create the systemic impact the nonprofit wants – a prospect that excites Bhatt, who has now been studying the model for several years and knows its promise, particularly in a field with too few ideas for how to close achievement gaps for older kids.

“If we are serious about reducing disparities in kids’ educational trajectories, we have to think about interventions we can apply later in life, because we know disparities grow as kids go through the school system and we have to ensure the interventions are not just effective, but incredibly effective if there’s any hope of closing disparities,” Bhatt said.

Based on the effects of the tutoring program she has seen so far, Bhatt expects Saga Education’s model can close test score gaps between black and white students by 20 to 50 percent. The question now is how to get that model to the kids who need it all over the country.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about math tutoring was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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