In the midst of national debate over how to differentiate instruction, a new program shows potential to significantly boost mathematics and science learning by leveraging a group of students who often go unnoticed: middle-of-the-road achievers.
“One of our principals calls them our invisible middle,” said Leslie S. Keiler, an associate professor of education at York College in the Queens borough of New York City.
The Peer Enabled Restructured Classroom program recruits average students to create a small army of teaching assistants in math and science that is significantly boosting both their own academic progress and that of their peers. The program, now operating in nine Big Apple secondary schools, was created by the National Science Foundation-funded Math-Science Partnership, a collaboration by researchers at several colleges in the city university system.
Compared to demographically and academically matched students from other schools in New York City, high school students who took part in the Peer Enabled Restructured Classroom program were more likely to pass New York State Regents exams.
Source: Math-Science Partnership
After a year in the program, students taught in PERC courses were 1.67 times as likely to pass the New York Regents biology exam and nearly twice as likely to pass the algebra test as matched students who had taken regular classes, according to a study by Sarah M. Bonner, an associate education professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and the head of research and evaluation for PERC.
Moreover, of the students who participated in a separate PERC-based summer school after failing the associated Regents exam the previous January, 90 percent retake and pass the test at the end of the summer, compared with about 30 percent of students in regular New York City summer schools. (Student tutors are paid to participate in the summer program.)
It costs the 650-student East Bronx Academy for the Future, a public secondary school, about as much to use the PERC model for four classes in algebra, physics, and chemistry for one school year as it would to hire an additional teacher, according to Principal Sarah Scrogin. But, she added, “I think the benefit has been more than just hiring an additional teacher, because it’s shifted practice” for all teachers. “There’s more differentiation, more collaboration, and there’s a model, so it’s not just another change.”
Ms. Scrogin said the program may be particularly helpful for overcrowded urban schools, which often have neither the resources nor the physical space to hire more staff.
In the packed freshman algebra classes at the 620-student Juan Morel Campos Secondary School in Brooklyn, it can be hard to differentiate instruction for the honors kids, the struggling students, and the vast, quiet group that just gets by.
“It’s always been a challenge to give students the individual attention they need in a class of 33 or 34 students,” said Josh F. Good, who teaches both standard and PERC algebra classes at Juan Morel Campos. “In classes [using peer tutors], we’re able to cover much more than I can cover in my other classes, and I know every single student is engaged the entire time.”
In each class, Mr. Good lays out new material, which is then reinforced in small groups of four to five students, each led by a teaching assistant. About one-quarter to one-third of teaching assistants are English-language learners, and Mr. Good noted that they often provide their own mini-lessons and additional explanations for students still learning English.
“I’m able to rely on them 100 percent,” he said. “It’s really changed the dynamic of what it means to be a strong student in our school.”
Growing Student Leaders
The teaching assistants are drawn not from the ranks of honors students, but from rising 9th graders who earned on average 65 out of 100 on the state Regents exam in their subject. This score, while considered passing, is below the 75 required to be considered “college ready,” and well below the admissions cutoffs of 75-80 among selective, four-year colleges in the state.
That means the Teaching Assistant Scholars come from a pool that is often overlooked for either academic intervention or leadership, according to Ms. Keiler, from the PERC leadership team.
“They’re on track to graduate high school and go to college needing remediation,” she said, “and after that, the stats look really bad” as students who need remediation in college are significantly less likely to graduate.
In addition to helping the freshman class, teaching assistants take a daily four-part training class, covering teaching strategies, personal goal-setting and time-management, advanced coursework in the subject, and college planning.
“What’s the hardest is really the simple stuff,” said Adonis Duran, a 10th grade algebra TAS, “like being patient with students, and all the different ways to say something if someone doesn’t understand how you said it.”
Mr. Duran said his own algebra skills have grown through teaching the younger students. In his first attempt at the Regents in algebra last January, he scored in the low 70s; on retaking the test this January, he earned an 85, fully “college ready.”
“His confidence and his excitement in being here has really changed dramatically,” Mr. Good said.
Mr. Duran is not alone. Ms. Bonner found more than twice as many teaching assistants passed the Regents in biology and algebra with “college ready” scores of at least 75 to 80 points than did demographically and academically similar peers drawn from matched comparison schools identified by the city education department.
“Of course, as principal, I like students passing exams,” Ms. Scrogin said, adding, “but I think there is this cultural piece that happens, where kids become much more self-aware as learners—not just the tutors, but also the students being tutored.”
Now in the fourth year of its second five-year NSF grant, the project is in talks to expand the program to other districts, including Miami and Washington.
Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as ‘Middle’ Students Find Success as Peer Tutors