August 15, 2017

Old-School Personalization

By Bellwether

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The post below is by guest blogger Mike Goldstein.

1. Old School

A few years back, my friend Alan Safran spun off a part of Match Education into a new nonprofit.  It’s called Saga.  They do Old School personalized learning.  Not Old School as in Andy R after a long day with the fish.  Old School as in tutoring by actual human beings, not computers.  Back story here.

Saga serves kids in large districts (like Chicago and NYC).  Alan, along with 2 Match High School alumni (Antonio, Ashlie), have been obsessing over quality until they felt “ready to grow.”  It’s that time now: a month ago, CZ made a large investment.

So Saga is likely to take on another other large high-poverty district as a client.  If you’re a big city supe and looking for a program that has gotten large, measurable results in Houston, NYC, and Chicago district schools, give Alan a shout.  Moreover, the politics on this one are pretty good: “ed reform skeptics” often like this particular program.  See here, for example.

Saga is still innovating, experimenting with “half-dosage” tutoring, plus a tiny pilot of great interest to me: tutoring incarcerated youth in Queens, NY.  [A friend recently observed one of the kids there struggling with a quadratic equation.  The tutor ably just sat tight, allowing the struggle.  After some energetic erasing, the kid looks up and nods, says “I got this,” boom, solves it.]

2. What’s In a Name?

We call it “high-dosage”* tutoring, to try to separate it from regular ol’ useless badly managed tutoring.  Roland Fryer popularized the term when we worked with him on the Apollo project in Houston.

But “High-dosage” captures just one of two essential components of Match-now-Saga tutoring.  That’s the “how much.”  Hours are very countable, as are tutor:kid ratios.  Scholars like “countable.”

What’s missing is the “who.”  It’s like describing the Patriots’ “bend don’t break” defense or Spurs ball movement — and expecting those strategies to work without Devin McCourty and Bill Bellichick, without Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich.

The Saga team carefully vets tutor candidates, rejecting for more candidates than they accept.  Sometimes just 1 in 20 gets taken.  Then they obsessively coach and measure the tutors.  So it’s really “High Dosage plus Unusually High Quality Tutoring” that seems to work in the RCTs we’ve done.

What’s missing from the Old School High Quality Tutoring RCT evidence base is all the FAILED tutoring efforts that have happened around the country, in charters and traditional schools alike.  Sometimes low dosage, sometimes low quality, sometimes both.  I can name several off the top of my head.

Strategy matters, but execution matters more.  Sound familiar?  This seems like a common problem in our sector.

Without elite/unusual execution, it’s hard to help kids make large gains through school-based strategies.


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