Two Classes Are Better Than One
The problem with most of these remedial programs, MacIver surmises, is that the students who are behind don't get enough extra instructional time to cover the amount of material their more successful peers cover. Students in pull-out or tutoring programs, he points out, often miss their regular classes and lose additional learning time traveling to and from the remedial setting. Many before- and after-school programs suffer from poor attendance.
But there is some hopeful news. MacIver found that some techniques not widely used in schools do work, and one--a double dose of instruction--works very well. Schools that offer students the opportunity to take a second period of math or reading during the regular school day instead of other electives show significant gains in standardized test scores in both reading and math.
In short, MacIver says, a second period in math or reading can help struggling students stay caught up in a regular class. "If the teacher says something they didn't understand,'' he notes, "they can hear it again.'' It also gives the teacher a chance to elaborate on the lesson that was given during the first period and to move well beyond the basics to higher-level thinking.
Math teacher Phyllis DiMarzio of Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, Mass., shares MacIver's enthusiasm for the extra-period approach. She teaches her 7th and 8th graders two periods of math every day instead of one. DiMarzio uses the second session both to review and to challenge her students. She spends more time with calculators, computers, and other math manipulatives and even has time to discuss how math is used to solve problems in daily life. Students clip newspaper articles that have graphs or mention percents or fractions and write papers on various math applications.
Five years ago, Timilty ranked last in the Boston area on standardized test scores. But after a massive reform effort that, among other things, put all its students on a daily double dose of math and reading, the middle school climbed steadily and reached first place.
DiMarzio has noticed that her students are not afraid of math anymore. But what's more important, she says, is that they now progress rapidly. "I don't have to wait until the next day to reinforce material,'' DiMarzio explains. "When I have them for a second period, they have time to picture it, feel it, and make it part of them.''
Although successful, programs like Timilty's are rare. Only 17 percent of the schools surveyed by MacIver used the double-dose approach. Ironically, schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students were the least likely to use it.
Saturday and summer remedial classes, which also give students an extra dose of instruction, help at-risk students, as well, MacIver reports. But they are not as effective as doubling class time and are often more expensive because schools have to keep the building open after hours and pay teachers overtime. Double-dose remediation, on the other hand, can be implemented with little additional cost, MacIver says, if a school is willing to reshuffle priorities and resources. For example, a school can offer roughly 300 students an extra math class without increasing its payroll by hiring two fewer elective-subject teachers and two more math teachers.
Anne Petersen, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University who is familiar with MacIver's work, calls it "high quality.'' She is especially impressed by the unusually large study sample on which his conclusions are based. "The findings question current practice,'' Petersen says. "But people should be willing to do that.'