Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why half of urban kids drop out

By Jonathan Guryan and Jens Ludwig
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jonathan Guryan, Jens Ludwig: Graduation rates for big urban schools about 50%
  • Many believe academic learning not feasible when disadvantaged kids reach teen years
  • They say program of small-group tutoring raised kids' performance considerably
  • Writers: It worked in Chicago, why not elsewhere? Key is not to give up with teens

Editor's note: Jonathan Guryan is associate professor of human development and social policy and faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Jens Ludwig is McCormick Foundation Professor at the University of Chicago and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Guryan and Ludwig are also co-directors of the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab. "Chicagoland," which explores how that city is dealing with its most vulnerable population, airs at 10 p.m. ET Thursdays on CNN.

(CNN) -- The average high school graduation rate in America's biggest urban school districts, which serve large numbers of children from very disadvantaged backgrounds, is only about 50%. In most cities, the figure is even lower for African-American males.

Unfortunately, remarkably few strategies have been shown to improve the schooling outcomes of disadvantaged children, particularly once they reach adolescence. This has led many people to conclude that the harmful effects of poverty are already so entrenched by adolescence that improving academic learning for low-income teens is not feasible. Many experts have called for focusing instead on vocational education for these youth or just doubling down on early childhood.

Jonathan Guryan
Jonathan Guryan
Jens Ludwig
Jens Ludwig

Given all this, some may even question the prospects for success of President Obama's new initiative to help young minority men, My Brother's Keeper.

We believe it's premature to conclude that by adolescence, it's too late to improve schooling outcomes. Few approaches have addressed one of the central challenges facing so many urban schools: the wide variation in students' academic levels by the time they reach middle and high school. Consider trying to teach math to a classroom of 25 to 30 students when some students are at grade level and some are seven or even 10 years behind. Now imagine the same situation from the students' perspective. Asking kids to sit through material so far beyond their knowledge is a recipe for disengagement and dropout.

What urban school systems need is a "safety net" to catch students who start falling behind and get them back to up to grade level so they can re-engage with regular classroom instruction. This safety net must include academic instruction that is both individualized and intensive.

Educators have long known that one-on-one or small-group tutoring is the most effective way to teach people anything. But most urban school systems struggle with the costs of having one teacher in a room with 25 (or more) students; how could we ever have a class size of just one or two students per instructor?

One possible answer comes from Match Education of Boston, a nonprofit organization that runs charter schools and a teacher training program and provides tutoring services to urban districts. Match had the insight that teaching one or two students at a time eliminates some of the biggest challenges involved in teaching a whole classroom of students (like classroom management). Many more people can be good at tutoring compared with being good at classroom teaching; extensive teacher experience and training are not required.

This enables Match to expand the pool of recruits and focus on those with strong math skills who are willing to devote a year to public service for just a modest stipend. This makes the incredibly high dosage of the Match tutoring model feasible. Match has partnered with urban school districts in cities across the country to provide this "tutoring on steroids" model to hundreds of students in each city. The cost of providing this type of intensive tutoring is between $2,000 and $3,000 per student per year.

Of course, the education field is full of good ideas that don't pan out in practice; how does this Match tutoring model actually work in practice? How effective is it really? Last year, our University of Chicago Urban Education Lab tried to answer this question by carrying out a randomized controlled trial of the sort that provides gold-standard evidence in medicine but which remains far too rare in education.

"Common's "The City" and "Chicagoland"
Is she the toughest principal in U.S.?
"Common's "The City" and "Chicagoland"

We randomly assigned 106 male ninth- and 10th-graders in one Chicago public high school to receive Match-style tutoring for a year and to participate in a promising non-academic program called Becoming a Man, developed and delivered by the Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance.

Our study showed that program participation for just six months improved student math test scores by an amount that is equal to what the average U.S. high school student learns in three years. (Or put differently, the effect equals about 60% of the black-white test score gap in data collected for U.S. students overall.)

The program also improved math grades, reduced course failures, increased school attendance and increased by nearly 50% the likelihood that youth were "on track" for graduation according to the Chicago Public Schools on-track indicator.

The cost of providing students with both intensive individualized math tutoring and the opportunity to participate in BAM was about $4,400 per student per year. While this may seem expensive, the benefits of the program were so large that the cost-effectiveness of these programs compares favorably to other social investments that have been shown to be effective (e.g. early childhood education, cash transfers from the Earned Income Tax Credit, or reductions in class sizes).

Moreover, cities like Chicago currently receive millions of dollars from the federal government to support tutoring, which in principle could be repurposed to cover the costs of providing Match-style tutoring to students who need an academic safety net.

Our study results would be striking anywhere but are all the more so because the high school students in our study come from what is perhaps Chicago's most disadvantaged, dangerous South Side neighborhood. Whether this can be equally effective at large scale is the next key question to answer; our team is currently working on this in a much larger-scale experiment under way in 21 public high schools across Chicago.

We think there are two important lessons here. The first is a policy lesson for urban school systems: They need something individualized and intensive, like Match tutoring, as a safety net to help prevent students who start falling behind from falling completely through the cracks.

But there is also a larger lesson here that is relevant for social policy and criminal justice, not just education: It's not too late to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds even once they reach adolescence.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Guryan and Jens Ludwig.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT