Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Twilight Tutoring

There has been a lot of discussion on the relative value of lengthening the school day. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of disagreement about the need to lengthen the school day in successful schools. However, there is almost unanimous agreement that the school day needs to be lengthened in schools where student academic proficiency rates are low.

As the son of a Civil Rights Leader who knew and marched with Dr. King, Head of School of a Charter School in Trenton, a school board member in New Brunswick, president of the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission (MRESC) and chair of the New Brunswick Housing Authority, I have a unique understanding of education and the roots and consequences of poverty in America. However, I returned a few days ago from an amazing 14 day trip to China over Christmas and New Year’s that opened my eyes to the deficiencies in the American education system.

This trip was designed to connect New Jersey and New York school leaders with Chinese educators to share best practices and foster student exchanges. However, to my surprise, it provided extraordinary insight into the ways that the US needs to adjust our approach to education to maintain our competitive advantage over other countries.

Most educational leaders know that Chinese students are among the best in the world when it comes to international assessments of academic achievement. The US is falling further and further behind other countries on these tests. My trip to China taught me some fascinating things. First, the good news is that the American education system is the best in the world when it comes to educating students from 8am to 3pm. Our class sizes, the quality of our classrooms and our teacher training is as good as it gets.

Contrary to the view of many educational leaders, I do not think we need to make major adjustments to our standard educational approach before 3pm. We visited some of the best schools in China where the ratio of teachers to students was more than 50 to 1 and the classrooms (and bathrooms) were so cold every student wore a heavy coat throughout the day. No American parent would tolerate student learning in these conditions. However, academically, these students can run circles around our best students.

I therefore asked myself the question, if our schools are better during the day how can we be so far behind academically? I was initially confused by this contradiction until I realized that China is as focused on the education of students from 3pm to 8pm as they are from 8am to 3pm. Many of the K through 12th grade schools in China have more than 6,000 students. However, students from very poor families and those that live far away are housed for free near the school. Consequently, to create a culture of learning at the school, more than 4,000 of these students live in local dorms. These dorms ensure that students are as focused on academic excellence after school as they are during the school day. This is not the case in the US.

This trip opened my eyes to the reality that the primary reason American students are not doing as well academically as Chinese students is that in suburban, urban and rural schools most students are more focused on entertainment from 3pm to 8pm than they are on learning. They would rather listen to the most popular music, play the latest video game, watch TV or communicate via social media than study the subject areas that confuse them. Most students do their homework. However, academic excellence comes from working on academic weaknesses in addition to completing homework in the evening. American students are not doing this. We have a culture of after-school entertainment while China has a culture of after-school learning.

Proposals for a longer school day are being criticized by teachers unions who want more money for a longer day and parents who think their students have enough homework. I believe that the school day should be lengthened only for struggling students and teachers that are willing to work for standard hourly rates. If government is serious about increasing student achievement it should advocate for (and in some cases support financially) a two hour academic excellence program immediately after the end of the school day for struggling students. I call this a “Twilight Tutoring” program.

The good news is that new technology programs allow for very focused and productive tutoring. The only way that this tutoring will be effective is if the students are assessed weekly by a technology program that is highly correlated with state standardized tests that identifies the specific remediation needs of the students (and provides curriculum to help them address these needs). The tutoring must therefore be aligned to this curriculum and focused specifically on the areas were the student is weak based on the assessment. The program will enable the school and the students’ parents to measure academic growth on a weekly basis.

To manage program costs the government can set hourly rates and open it up to teachers and others who have the knowledge and experience to ensure that the tutoring is aligned to the unique needs of the students. This will keep contentious negotiations out of the process and enable the most committed tutors to participate. This approach will not guarantee that the US catches up academically to China. To do that we need to establish boarding programs directly aligned with poor performing public schools. This will ensure that struggling students are in environments in the evening that are conducive to achieving academic excellence. However, the Twilight Tutoring program that I am proposing will significantly increase the academic achievement of struggling students. This approach is an essential first step in making American pre-college education a global leader once again.

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