An evidence-based approach to raising academic success

ementorYoung men of color’s math scores lag far behind young white men, and they are at high risk for dropout. Indeed, only about 60%  graduate from high school in four years, compared with 79 percent of young white men. In this week’s New York Times, an article by David Kirp provides encouraging data to suggest that there’s an evidence-based approach to redressing this problem.

As the article points out:

After just a single year in Chicago’s intensive tutoring and mentoring program, known as Match, participants ended up as much as two years ahead of students in a control group who didn’t get this help. A report that is being released Sunday by the University of Chicago Crime Lab also finds that they performed substantially better on the Chicago school system’s math test; their scores on the N.A.E.P. math exam reduced the usual black-white test score gap by a third. This success carried over to nonmath classes, where these students were less likely to fail. Greater success in math also helped get them on track to graduate. It also led them to become more engaged in school, and they were 60 percent less likely than members of the control group to be arrested for a violent crime.”

These are staggering results — I know of no initiative for disadvantaged young men of color that comes close. Bring students like these up to grade level and you’ve gone a long way toward closing the racial and ethnic gap in life success. Yet repeated failures have prompted some researchers to throw in the towel.

For “underperforming students,” high schools should “eschew traditional success metrics like test scores,” the economists Julie Berry Cullen, Steven D. Levitt, Erin Robertson and Sally Sadoff argued in a 2013 paper. Instead, they should stress “more pragmatic objectives like keeping kids out of trouble, giving them practical life skills and helping with labor market integration.” In other words: abandon the hope that these students can make it academically and double down on vocational education.

“In an ideal world,” they wrote, “high schools would perform miracles, bringing struggling students back from the brink and launching them towards four-year college degrees” — but efforts to achieve this on a large scale would probably be “extremely costly and largely ineffective.”

A colleague of Mr. Levitt’s, the Nobel laureate James J. Heckman, presents a similar argument on the science of early brain development: “Skill begets skill, and early skill makes later skill acquisition easier. Remedial programs in the adolescent and young adult years are much more costly in producing the same level of skill attainment in adulthood. Most are economically inefficient.”

But these economists are selling teenagers short. As the Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg points out in his path-breaking new book “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” during the past decade neuroscientists have realized that adolescence, like early childhood, is a “period of tremendous ‘neuroplasticity,’ ” during which the brain has solid potential to change through experience. During the past generation, educators have focused on the growth between birth and age 3, but the teen years may be just as important for shaping a person’s future…

The tutoring program tackles this problem with intensive support, providing a safety net for students who have fallen far behind. Working two-on-one, the tutors, most of them recent college graduates, can individualize instruction to suit each student’s needs. They are trained not only in how to teach math but also in how to relate to these teenagers.”