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Small Group Tutoring Is Key To Help Students Get Back On Track, Study Of Chicago Schools Shows

Extra math classes helped students jump two to three grade levels in one year, the study showed.

Students attend class at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School during the first day of in-person learning for high school students on April 19, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A study touting the benefits of in-school tutoring for struggling Chicago Public Schools students has received a stamp of approval from education experts.

The study by researchers at Northwestern University, University of Chicago and other institutions — called “Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes Among Adolescents” — was peer-reviewed and published in the March edition of the American Economic Review.

Researchers partnered with Saga Education to experiment with implementing small-group tutoring courses into student’s daily schedules. Thousands of ninth and 10th grade students at 12 CPS schools in low-income neighborhoods were part of the study, said Monica Bhatt, the senior research director for University of Chicago’s Education Lab.

The “high-dosage” 50-minute bonus math classes aimed to match two students per tutor, according to the study. To reduce costs, the classes were taught by trained paraprofessionals, mostly recent college graduates hired on a part-time basis, according to the study.

The average student was able to jump “two to three years of extra learning in one year,” Bhatt said.

Making learning more personal is “a promising way” to help struggling students catch up, no matter their age, Bhatt said.

“Think about a teacher standing in front of a ninth grade classroom, and some kids are doing college-level math and some kids are doing elementary math. Trying to teach all of them at once every day is a really hard job,” Bhatt said. “Smaller groups allow kids to engage with content at a level that’s right for them.”

The study was conducted 2013-2015. Researchers since then have been collaborating with CPS to expand tutoring across the school system, Bhatt said.

CPS has launched a tutoring corps to provide students with small-group coaching, which “research has shown is one of the most effective strategies for accelerating academic progress,” a district spokesperson said in a statement.

Those tutoring sessions are small groups that meet at least three times a week for 30 minutes each, the spokesperson said.

CPS’ Tutor Corps operates daily in 232 schools with almost 700 tutors, focusing on math for older kids and English for younger students, the district spokesperson said. The largest share of tutors are college-aged students with backgrounds “representative of the communities they serve,” the spokesperson said.

But tutoring is still not reaching the vast majority of students, with only 3 percent of Chicago students spending time with tutors, according to Chalkbeat.

Bhatt said the next challenge is to find ways to scale up tutoring while keeping costs down. Academics are studying the potential of “blended learning models,” where students split time with tutors and “education technology platforms,” Bhatt said.

“We’re committed to understanding how to support student’s learning, but also how to distribute that learning in a more equitable way,” Bhatt said. “Tutoring can help kids feel like they can be good at school.”

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