Want to Fix Education? Give a Kid a Tutor

bloombergIn the late 1970’s, education research was deemed a pseudoscience by many in the field due to a lack of clear data and results that pointed to effective practice. In response, researchers began designing field experiments to test the effectiveness of programs and practices. In recent years, as concern over U.S. educational performance has increased, more and more such experiments have been conducted.

Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who specializes in education and racial issues, has collected the outcomes of 196 policy experiments, and found some consistent lessons.

Fryer’s survey paper is intended to elevate the status of research by picking out the studies that use randomization to control for outside factors. He looks at interventions in schools, homes, and early childhood education, focusing only on rich countries like the U.S. He examines educational performance — test scores and graduation rates — and future income as measures of success.

So what does Fryer find?

First, the big lesson: If you want to improve student outcomes, the school — not the community or the home — is the place to make changes. Fryer writes:

Experiments in early childhood and schools can be particularly effective at producing human capital…Interventions that attempt to lower poverty, change neighborhoods, or otherwise alter the home environment in which children are reared have produced surprisingly consistent and precisely estimated “zero” results.

The evidence is mounting that school is really where the magic of learning happens.

So what do schools need to do?

Fryer’s most consistent finding is that high-intensity tutoring — basically, extended one-on-one mentoring — is extremely effective. That’s true both for children and for adolescents, contradicting the claims of some education researchers who believe that only early childhood intervention is important. Give students a tutor, and they improve a lot.

That finding decisively rejects the gloomy assertions of those who claim that nothing works in education. Yes, something does work. Getting every low-income student in the U.S. a personal tutor for his or her entire childhood is probably prohibitively expensive, but it’s nice to know that disadvantaged students are capable of improving their performance a lot when given sufficient help and attention.

What about charter schools and vouchers, the two main institutional reforms suggested by conservatives?

The answer is that charters can work, especially if implemented in the right way, but that school vouchers basically don’t do anything. The latter result fits with other studies — at this point, we can probably say with reasonable confidence that vouchers are not the best approach to improving the U.S. educational system.

Charters are a trickier proposition. The literature essentially shows that charters are not effective for the average student, but are often very effective for poor and minority students. Charters might therefore be an important targeted tool for helping poor minorities close the gap.


For additional commentary, see Bloomberg View: Give kids a tutor.

For more information on Fryer’s Research, see Fryer’s Paper.