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 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
updated 12:42 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
updated 4:29 PM EST, Sat November 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
updated 5:00 PM EST, Fri November 14, 2014
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
updated 11:57 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
updated 9:55 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
updated 8:47 AM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
updated 8:58 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
updated 3:14 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
updated 1:21 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT