It always seems that whenever tutoring is discussed, the topic eventually turns to costs. From the smallest SAU in New Hampshire to the mega-systems of New York and Texas, the question is always raised: “Why do we need tutors when the teachers can do the job?”

Of course, anyone who is seriously concerned with the educational systems in the US knows that that point of view is not only groundless, but sometimes downright inexcusable.

Last month the New York Times published the results of a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research which indicated that “a program of intense tutoring, in combination with group behavioral counseling proved highly valuable to a group of low-income ninth- and tenth-grade African-American youse with weak math skills, track records of absences, or disciplinary problems. Those students learned in an eight-month period the equivalent of what the average American high school student learns in math over three years of school, as measured by standardized test scores, over and above what a similar group of students who did not receive the tutoring or counseling did.” (NYT, Motoko Rich, 1/26/2014)

This study, while it concerned disadvantaged youth, can obviously be applied to those who are not “disadvantaged,” but still struggling academically and socially. The fact that these students made such remarkable strides in math proficiency should be a clarion call for parents – and school systems – everywhere.

The study extract concludes, “While some questions remain about the intervention, given these effects and a cost per participant of around $4,400 (with a range of $3,000 to $6,000), this intervention seems to yield larger gains in adolescent outcomes per dollar spent than many other intervention strategies.” Of course financial comparisons cannot be made one-to-one with an inner-city Chicago school, but they can certainly point to a general pattern of efficacy.

This study was conducted within the schools, with two students per tutor. A comparison mentioned in the New York Times article between one class without the tutors and one with the tutors was like night and day in terms of work produced and results gained. The main difference between the two classrooms was that the students in the second class had “a body in front of them” who provided immediate intervention when necessary. In the first class, the researchers found chaos and very little learning going on. It should be noted that the classes were not segregated according to experienced or inexperienced teachers, or effective or non-effective teachers, so the presence of the teacher was not germane.

This leads back to the opening of this post, namely costs and staffing. It seems obvious to me that the more adult supervision/tutoring that is available will provide more learning opportunities, which leads to the current drive to reduce class size as much as possible. But more classes with fewer students is by far the most costly option, especially for a rural school system with limited resources.

The researchers in the Chicago study “modeled the tutoring on a program developed by Match Education, a Boston-based nonprofit group that provides tutoring for about 2,200 students. The group hires recent college graduates or retirees willing to work for an average salary of $17,000 a year full-time for 11 months. Generally, the tutors are not credentialed teachers.”

It would remain to be seen if a program like this could work in smaller schools systems, but it is an interesting concept being testing just south of us in Boston.

Finally, we can surmise that for some of the disadvantaged youth in Chicago, the presence of a positive, stable adult who is totally committed to two or three students for an hour must be a significant part of the equation of why this program reports such remarkable successes.

If you are interested in more studies like this, visit, the National Bureau of Economic Research. The studies are available for free if you are in education or journalism, and for a modest fee if not. Here you will find not only educational studies, but also other papers with an economic focus. This is an invaluable resource for school systems as they struggle with ever-present economic constraints.

Please feel free to comment on this article below, contact me privately, or post on our Facebook page We love to hear from our readers.

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