McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy University of Chicago
There is growing concern that improving the academic skills of children in poverty is too difficult and costly once they reach adolescence, and so policymakers should instead focus either on vocationally oriented instruction or else on early childhood education. Yet this conclusion may be premature given that so few previous interventions have targeted a key barrier to school success: “mismatch” between what schools deliver and the needs of youth, particularly those far behind grade level. We report on a randomized controlled trial of a school-based intervention that provides disadvantaged youth with intensive individualized academic instruction. The study sample consists of 2,718 male 9th and 10th graders in 12 public high schools on the south and west sides of Chicago, of whom 95% are either black or Hispanic and over 90% are free or reduced price lunch eligible. Participation increased math achievement test scores by 0.19 to 0.31 standard deviations (depending on how we standardize), increased math grades by 0.50 SD, and reduced course failures in math by one-half and also reduced failures in non-math courses. While some questions remain, with a cost per participant of around $3,800 (or $2,500 if delivered at larger scale), these impacts on a per-dollar basis are as large as with almost any other educational intervention whose effectiveness has been studied.