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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

“Evil Vegetables?” (and other harmful headlines like “Tutoring Doesn’t Work”)

If you’ve read the screaming headlines lately such as “Duncan to Florida: Tutoring Doesn’t Work” in Education Week, and similar articles in local papers across the country, you might believe that the Secretary of Education thinks that tutoring doesn’t work.  I don’t think that’s true.  Secretary Duncan is actually questioning if tutoring done under the convoluted regulations of the Supplemental Educational Services (SES) provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is working.  And he’s absolutely right, it isn’t working.

I’m a fan of Arne Duncan and this administration’s efforts to reform our education system.  Programs like Race to the Top are forcing everyone involved, including public schools, teachers, charter school operators and ed tech innovators —to re-think how we should work together to create the right solutions for achieving better results.  Students need us adults to figure out some tough issues right now, or we will continue down our current path of unacceptable numbers of students who are unprepared for college or careers in this economy.

Focused and personalized attention from a thoughtful educator (a.k.a. Tutoring) is an important part of those solutions. Giving students the opportunity to work one-to-one with a high-quality tutor is one of the few strategies that a significant body of research has proven that it works.   Search for and read the often-cited work by Benjamin Bloom in 1984 at University of Chicago and Northwestern University.  And read the more recent work in 2011 by Harvard Professor and Economist Roland Fryer in the Houston schools. The most thorough studies conclude that tutoring is highly effective, when done right.  (Happy to email the full papers to you if you ask, gcigale@tutor.com).

More affluent parents don’t need research studies to know that tutoring works. These families spend an estimated $5 Billion annually on tutoring and test prep, often paying over $100 per hour for the highest quality.  Unfortunately, that’s not the quality and results that less affluent students are getting when they receive SES tutoring in local school districts, even though the cost is very high.

Having students sit in a school room for a group tutoring session doesn’t mean they are learning.  There are many more ways to do tutoring poorly than well, and SES created a structure and set of incentives for finding lots of ways to do it poorly while allowing the companies (and some districts) that provide it to reap financial rewards.  I can write at length about those details, but common sense says tutors need to be able to focus on student needs; tutors need to have timely information about student weaknesses; tutors need to be held accountable for student improvement; students need to want to be there…

Duncan and his team have seen enough and read enough evaluations of SES tutoring to conclude that there are better ways to achieve results.  The headlines, and stories are wrong – we need to invest more in the types of tutoring that do work, and Duncan’s team knows it.   I’m trying not to be defensive or self-serving, but having education publications screaming that “Tutoring Doesn’t Work” is like writing “College Isn’t Worth It” when some higher ed models are implemented poorly, or health magazines writing “Evil Vegetables?” when over-use of pesticides is causing health problems.  Such headlines and stories are intellectually lazy and do a great deal of harm, especially when they are reprinted and quoted widely in local papers.
I founded a 24/7 online tutoring service over a decade ago.  I know from firsthand experience that providing students with access to one-to-one help from experienced, expert tutors does indeed work. 

While I write this, several thousand students from across the country are working with a Tutor.com tutor, in real-time in our online classroom.  I can see in the queue of requests from students that there’s algebra (lots of them), chemistry, physics, calculus and writing questions directly tied to the work students are doing in school.  A key part of our formula for great tutoring is that no reservations or appointments are ever needed – students get help the minute they need it, just as they are experiencing a need and are motivated to overcome the challenge.

On average, our students spend about 20-30 minutes with the tutor, getting the tutor’s complete undivided attention.  At the end students complete an evaluation of their experience.  We record and save every session, and the content is compiled into in-depth reports for the schools and other institutions that pay for the tutoring. Complete transparency and accountability. 

We know, after completing more than 8 million one-to-one on-demand sessions, that more than 90% of the students report they are more confident in school, completing more assignments and improving their grades.  In 2009 we asked more than 1,000 students their attitudes toward tutoring and achievement.  Here’s what they said:

Ø 86% of student respondents say they would be more likely to take an AP Course if they knew that an expert subject tutor was available to help them online, 24/7, one-to-one, and on-demand, any time they get stuck.

Ø 96% of student respondents say they believe that having an online tutor available   whenever they need help would result in them being more ready for college.
But don’t just trust our statistics – read Bloom’s and Fryer’s thoughtful studies about tutoring.  Any self-respecting educator and researcher knows that tutoring works well when it’s done right.  Interestingly, both Bloom and Fryer (almost 30 years apart in their research), conclude that we need to find more cost-effective ways to deliver tutoring.  Well, at Tutor.com, we think we’ve done that by using technology in a smart way, and I’m sure we are not alone.
U.S. students need more access to high quality tutoring, not less, and we need to learn from recent innovations and replicate these success models.  Maybe not as simple and easy to write, but I’ll be working towards that headline.

George Cigale

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