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What really works?

I was having a brief discussion on Skype today with Scott McLeod where I shared some things that are going down at my school site, and he ended up asking me a hard, but good questions about it. Here is the background…

Next year, my school site will be getting “help” from outsiders. There is displeasure with our test scores (although as I pointed out to Scott, results from this Spring’s tests will not be in until August, and the last Benchmark scores may not be in yet, and do not always match the state test scores). I told him I was working with three great administrators this year: an assistant principal, a school principal, and a retired principal who runs the SES tutoring program that I am the site coordinator for.

First up, the SES tutoring. This is tutoring mandated by NCLB for schools in successive years of program improvement. Scott asked if the tutoring was helping kids test scores. I said I wasn’t sure because they aren’t in yet, but the admin had run a program at a school that exited program improvement last year. I imagine the question came up because of this article, Mandated Tutoring Not Helping Md., Va. Scores – washingtonpost.com, which points out many of the problems that SES programs can suffer from. My own experience prior to this with SES was NOT good. The money is great, for example the pay rate is $50 an hour for tutoring in my district, and in the program I help run we have very small groups (our break-even is at about 2 or 3 students so groups are only 4-6 students and some smaller — I worked one-on-one with one kid at the end of the year). Previous experience with a district/site run program had 15-20 students in groups. THAT is not tutoring, that’s an extended school day. That $50 does not come without strings. You have to fill out paperwork with standards based goals to try to ensure that student are being remediated in a way that will increase their test scores, and not just randomly. I also like that this particular program encourages tutors to not just have the kids doing release questions, and sitting and getting. So one teacher had students moving around and doing kinesthetic stuff. I will be sharing a project from another where students made a movie showing graphing of functions at NECC Unplugged/EduBloggerCon.

Next, because our administrators have have done a fantastic job of building partnerships in the community, we have a ton of tutors from a local church, a local high school, a local community college, and AmeriCorps members. Just looking at these efforts casually, these resources have not always been used to the best effect and I’m part of an effort to rationalize this whole process so that the activities are clearly tied to a remediation goal, and communicated to tutors effectively (and vice-versa).

But how do you know scientifically if the tutoring has made the difference? That was the conundrum when RAND did a study on class-size reduction in primary grades in California (twenty-to-one). Basically, so many things were changing in teaching in the state simultaneously due to wholesale education reform, that to pick out one thing that made test scores go up was impossible. It was part of a larger whole. Still, we don’t even know how things are going, until August when scores come in.

This still begs the question, have our scores gone up, down, or flat, and if it’s the two later, what should we be doing about it? I’m in a funny place with regards to this. I’m not teaching one class, and I’m not assigned to a core subject (although I certainly teach them), BUT I’m in a central position working on the SES tutoring, and being on the site SST (Student Study Team, might be Child Study Team or some other acronym where you are). Maybe we are failing, but having someone come on campus and tell us what we’re doing wrong, when we have many active processes to analyze our practice, and improve how we do things (ex., we have a recently formed teacher run Site Improvement Committee) feels like a hindrance. Some things I’m doing now to analyze our tutoring/instruction goals and how they are communicated to the myriad different outsiders who come to our campus to help will probably make a huge difference, but that will be next year, not two months ago when students were tested.

I appreciate Scott’s call for accountability, but the frustration I have is that the school I left did get out of Program Improvement, but in a way that Scott would not approve of. They taught to the test. This year, in their first year out of PI, I’ve heard they have volunteered to testing of first graders. Their test scores improved, but…

Are we doing a bad job? Well, there have been some heated (but professional) discussions on my campus this year. There are some changes in grade-level assignment (and some hard self-assessment that led to this), but is this just about teaching? Eduwonkette has been writing a lot about this, and a new post this week provides a nice summation about the achievement gap and the origins of it which can pre-date entry into school:

I really do hate my permanent residence in the reality-based community, but at least half of the achievement gap that exists between black and white students – the fact that the average black 12th grader performs at about the 16th percentile of the white distribution (a gap of about 1 standard deviation)- cannot possibly be attributed to the K-12 schools. Why? The average black student enters kindergarten testing at about the 25 percentile of the white distribution in math (a gap of .663 standard deviations), and the 35th percentile of the white distribution in reading (a gap of .4 standard deviations). “Squeezing teachers,” “dealing with teachers who don’t teach,” or “holding teachers feet to the fire,” I’m sorry to say, are not going to address that gap. And between kindergarten and 12th grade, kids are only in school 22% of their waking hours. It turns out that poor students’ slower rate of learning in the summer plays a significant role in increasing existing gaps.

Now, this is discussing black/white gaps, but I’ve got to think that being a language learner (~40+% of our school’s students) would add more to the challenges to overcome. In my newspaper this week comes this information about another huge part of our school population, SE Asian refugees:

Just 7.5 percent of Hmong immigrants, 9.2 percent of Cambodians and 7.7 percent of Laotians had earned a bachelor’s degree in 2000, compared to 43.8 percent of Filipinos and an identical proportion of Koreans.

I wonder if this was one of the mistakes I made on my Google Academy app, putting up that we have a high Asian population, but not communicating that it is a group that has very low-rates of college attendance, etc. instead of being a “model minority”. Sometimes I forget that other adults don’t know what I know.

Daniel Baisell, who runs a tutoring/mentoring project out of Cabrini Green in Chicago, has started a new Ning social network that he calls the village – Tutor/Mentor Connection I’m gonna start hanging out there and share some of what I’m learning, and find out what he’s got going on. Anyone with an afterschool or other tutoring program using folks in the community should probably check it out too.

photo: puzzle pieces

4 Responses to “What really works?”

  1. JackieB says:

    You said “But how do you know scientifically if the tutoring has made the difference?”

    This question is an important one. How do we know? Was there a control group? Was there only one practice changed at a time? Was every student in each group exactly the same? NO – of course not.

    I don’t envy the position you (and your school) are in.

  2. alicemercer says:

    I can tell you that my gut instinct tells me if there are gains, part of it is the SES tutoring, and I’d like to think it’s not just cause they pay me so well. The non-professional tutoring was just not as well organized, and was the paint the wall by polka dots type, but what happens in the classroom needs some consideration too.

  3. Alex says:

    I’m from the UK. In the good old world of twenty years ago, growing up bilingual (which usually meant one of your parents was British, and the other from the continent) was definitely a GOOD THING regardless of background. It was thought to improve ability with language, cultural knowledge, empathy and knock-on to help pretty much everything else too.

    Likewise, majority UK whites who were only brought up on English but learnt a second language to fluency at school are highly in demand by business, partly for the ability to connect with foreign clients but also for the flexibility of thinking and different slant it’s thought that the ability to think in two languages brings.

    My question is, what has changed? If learning a second language or growing up bi-lingual is good for a well-off kid in the UK, why shouldn’t it be good for a poor kid in the US?

    I’ve got to wonder – and no, I don’t have an answer – whether it’s because their English is *just that weak* or whether it’s because their parents aren’t reading to them at home, aren’t valuing success at school – aren’t doing enough for them in any language, English or not.

  4. [...] Alex, thank you very much for comment, you bring up some excellent points. [...]

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