Proving Ground

[Photo credit: Maya Dukmasova]

[Photo credit: Maya Dukmasova]

The Fall 2015 issue of University of Chicago Magazine includes a piece, “Proving Ground,” about the work of Match tutors in UChicago’s Education Lab. (This work was also the subject of a New York Times article last January, “Closing the Math Gap for Boys.”) We think it’s a great story about how day-to-day work in schools can fuel broader policy change. In fact, the author does a such a good job untangling the challenges and decisions a district or school leader faces, we thought we’d respond directly to a few of the most salient bits. Here goes:

“In any school system, the differences in students academic skills grow larger and larger as they progress through grade levels…no amount of pressure on high school teachers to teach algebra better will help their students working at a third-grade level who haven’t yet mastered multi-digit arithmetic.”

You may know that Match was founded 15 years ago, as a high school. We’ve since expanded to enroll students in the middle and elementary grades -- we wanted to serve more students, but we also believed enrolling children earlier on in their academic careers would translate to better results. These days, our preschoolers talk about college and many of our sixth graders are already planning to take AP Calculus. Are all of our students performing at grade level in Math and ELA? No. But we’re tracking in that direction. Less catch up, more mastery – that’s the trajectory.

“The challenge has been not abut solving a pedagogical problem so much as an economics problem: how to give Oxford-style instruction at Chicago Public School prices.

“Match Education may have found a way. ‘The key a-ha moment Match had,’ says Ludwig, ‘was to realize that teaching one or two kids is fundamentally different from teaching 25-30 kids. What you need to be able to do to be a good tutor is massively different from what you need to be a good classroom teacher.”

The Ludwig quoted here is our friend, Jens Ludwig, co-director of the Education Lab and a UChicago professor of social service administration, law and public policy. He’s right: training someone to be a great tutor is a lot easier than training someone to be a great teacher, primarily because being a tutor is just a much simpler job. (Tutoring is about building relationships and helping students master content; it’s not about pedagogy, classroom management, performance, high-volume decision making, data analysis and all the other things one needs to be a stand-out teacher.) It’s also effective. As the author notes, “About half way through the study, the students in Chicago Vocational Career Academy’s Math Lab doubled the amount of math they would have been expected to learn without tutoring…”

Starting in 2nd grade, Match students receive one to two hours of tutoring every day in Math and English Language Arts. That consistent, personalized attention is a big driver of our students’ achievement (alongside outstanding teachers, a commitment engaging parents and a joyful and orderly school culture) and a big reason why parents choose to join our community.

“Our theory of change is if you can show the government how to spend $200 billion better, or it’s $500 billion better, that’s how you start to have a really big impact.”- Jens Ludwig, co-director of the Education Lab and Chicago professor of social service administration, law and public policy

We like that. The theory of change Ludwig talks about is the reason underlying Match Export. It’s also one of the things that differentiates Match from other high-performing charter organizations, like our friends at KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Once we max out our school enrollment (1,250 students), our plan isn’t to start another school – it’s to do the best we possibly can for the students we have, and to figure out better, more efficient, more engaging ways to share what we’ve learned with anyone looking to improve outcomes for kids: large urban school districts, charter school operators, traditional teacher prep programs and policymakers. Match Minis are the latest, and arguably coolest, thing we’ve done so far.

One final note: Match is no longer in the business of exporting our high-impact tutoring model to other cities – that important work has been taken on by our friends and former colleagues at Saga Innovations.