16 October 2009 06:22 PM

Tutoring Works

by Dr. Rick

Regular readers of the Dr. Rick Blog will recognize this bit of advice I’ve given innumerable times:  If you suspect that your child is having academic trouble in one or more subjects, get help right away.  Don’t put it off.  Little problems grow into big ones.  The last thing you want is for your child to fall behind in school and his confidence to deteriorate.  Low confidence leads to negative feelings about school.


Low confidence.  Yuck.  We all know what that leads to.


Where to go for help?  There are plenty of teachers who selflessly and without much credit come to school early and stay late to work with students who need extra help.  There’s a special place in heaven for them.  There are National Honor Society high school students who can help.  And there are professional tutors who specialize in providing the extra leg-up students need from time to time.


The company I work for, Sylvan Learning (www.sylvanlearning.com), is the nation’s largest – and in my humble opinion the best – tutoring company.  It’s celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and has helped close to two million students catch up, keep up, or get ahead.  I’ve seen it work.  I wouldn’t stay here for so many years if it didn’t.


Yes, tutoring works.  It’s worked for centuries.  An expert in a particular subject works individually with a student.  The tutor watches the student’s progress each minute of instruction, recognizes when the student hits a rough patch, and smoothes the way, answering questions and providing help immediately.


Every classroom teacher wishes she could do this with each of her students.


If you’re considering tutoring but don’t know what to look for, here’s what research from the U.S. Department of Education says.  It specifically studied tutoring in reading, but the results are just as meaningful in math and other subjects. 

  1. Research is key.  Tutoring programs that incorporate research-based elements produce improvements in reading achievement.  Reading skills like word recognition, passage reading accuracy, spelling and comprehension made significant progress.
  2. The effects are broad.  Tutoring can also lead to improvements in self-confidence about reading, motivation for reading, and behavior.
  3. Work with the classroom teacher.  Tutoring works best when it’s coordinated with the classroom instruction.  No surprise here.
  4. Tutors need training.  Tutors who receive intensive and continuous training are more effective than tutors who don’t.  Again, no surprise.  If you’re looking for a tutor, ask about the training he’s received.
  5. Sessions need to be organized.  Structured tutoring sessions, designed with students’ needs in mind and well-rehearsed by tutors, work best.
  6. Monitor carefully.  Look for strong reinforcement of skills and progress, a high number of learning experiences in which the student moves from being fully supported to working independently, and plenty of explicit demonstration. 
  7. Frequency matters.  The research recommends frequent and regular tutoring sessions, with each session lasting up to sixty minutes.  More sessions a week result in greater gains.  As I’ve often said and written, learning – like sports or art – takes practice.  The more, the better.
  8. Interview your tutor.  Before hiring a tutor, check out his or her credentials, experiences, ideas about learning, track record, and fondness for kids.  Lots of people know math, for example, but not everyone can teach it.  
  9. Ask to see results.  Expect to see periodic results, your child’s work progress, examples of work, and improvement in school.
  10. Ask your child.  How does your child feel about the experience?  Can you sense her confidence improving?  Does her attitude about school seem to be improving?  A good tutoring experience can turn a kid around.

All of us parents, teachers, and significant adults in children’s lives want the very best for our kids.  We want them to enjoy learning, to get the best instruction from teachers who love children and who love to teach.  We want to give them healthy and useful attitudes about learning that will serve them well all their lives.  We want our children to have the great good fortune to come from families who value lifelong learning.


When a child encounters a speed bump along the way – what child doesn’t? – it’s up to us to get help right away and be informed about what help  is best.

18 June 2009 03:53 PM

National Standards

by Dr. Rick

I’ve maintained for years that national education standards in the United States wouldn’t be bad.  I know all the arguments against it.  Education has always been local.  It’s not mentioned in the Constitution.  It should “reflect local values.”  Americans like their government local.  States rights.


But as a school system administrator responsible for curriculum and instruction, I spent many an hour visiting classrooms over a 600+ square mile jurisdiction (the twenty-second largest in the United States), and it wasn’t unusual to see a fourth grade class in one school that looked nothing like a fourth grade class in another.  (Or, sometimes, within the same building!)


No Child Left Behind has changed some of that, but there are still over 15,000 school districts in our country, and their curricula and assessments vary widely.


The company I work for now, Sylvan Learning, in forty-nine states and counting, has the closest thing to a national curriculum our country has ever had.  Our students in Portland, Oregon, get the same instruction as our students in Portland, Maine.  That uniformity (not to be confused with lockstep) is particularly helpful for a mobile society like ours, where children routinely spend time with one custodial parent or another, or where families regularly relocate.  (I was an army brat as a kid.  I know from moving.)  Move from one of our learning centers to another, and the child never misses a beat from her lessons.


Still, I never thought I’d see the day when there would be a serious discussion of and a states-driven national movement toward common education standards and testing in America’s schools.  “Not in our lifetimes,” I tell new teachers and teacher candidates.


Seems I’m wrong.


Earlier this month came the news that forty-six states and the District of Columbia are taking the unprecedented step toward developing national academic and assessment standards for students in kindergarten through grade twelve.  The initiative came from governors, not the federal government.


This could be a good thing.  Rather than the district-to-district, state-to-state patchwork system we have now, with hundreds of different tests and curricula nationwide and an equal number of reporting systems, there could be a consistent, simpler, and clearer set of expectations for our children and schools.  Our American educational system is already known for its overly broad goals, some say at the expense of depth.  A pared-down set of criteria couldn’t hurt.


Here’s the understatement of the day: there will be plenty to fight over.  Who doesn’t have set ideas about what kids should be learning in schools?  But we cannot shy away from the spirited – some predict fierce – discussions that are inevitable.  (What kind of math?  What reading methods?  What literature?  What science?  How much testing?)


There may even be some economies of scale to take advantage of.  Think of the money we now spend on the fifty state tests we administer to students, tests that are hard-pressed to be compared state to state.  In Maryland alone, where I’m writing from, we spend, according to the state superintendent of instruction, about $2 million per grade and subject to develop our state test.


By July, groups of busily working educators and curriculum experts will introduce standards for the states to agree on.  I’ve worked on similar endeavors.  I wish them well.  And patience, and endurance, and wisdom, and strength.  They’ll need it.


But, in my humble opinion, it’s a road worth traveling.  Consistency of standards.  Simpler, more realistic goals.  Less expensive.  If common sense alone doesn’t demand this, our kids’ learning does.

16 March 2009 11:20 AM

President Obama's Emphasis on Education

by Dr. Rick

I love what President Obama has been saying about education lately.  I’m heartened by his words not only because I agree with them, but also because I’ve been saying many of the same things right here in this blog.


In his speech to the Joint Session of Congress last month, the President, talking of education, stressed several themes:

  • Increased accountability of schools
  • Helping students meet world-class standards aligned to the demands of the 21st century workforce
  • Closing an achievement gap among learners
  • New reforms in the teaching profession
  • Attracting the best and the brightest to the teaching profession
  • Confronting the dangerous drop-out problem
  • Strengthening the transitions to college and careers
  • Encouraging personal responsibility

In his expansion on his education agenda on March 10, he focused on even more specific goals.

  • Recognizing what research and common sense tell us, the President pointed out that “the years before kindergarten comprise the most critical time in a child’s life to influence educational outcomes.”  He called for a “Zero to Five” effort to improve developmental outcomes and early learning.
  • He called for improved data collection, especially from early learning programs like Head Start.
  • He emphasized enhancing curricular rigor in K-12 education to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and the innovative use of knowledge needed to meet 21st century skills.
  • He stressed the importance of new, state-of-the-art assessments.

I’m particularly interested in what he says about teachers and the teaching profession.  Once again, we agree.


“Teachers are the single most important resource to a child’s learning,” he said.  He can be excused the redundant syntax (“single most important”) because he so evidently means his words.

  • He called for improved professional development and mentoring, especially for new and struggling teachers.
  • He supports a new national investment in recruiting the best and the brightest to our profession.
  • He supports performance pay models and other rewards for effective teachers.
  • He supports charter schools with rigorous accountability.
  • He called for shutting down failing charter schools.

And, in another area in which we agree, he called for personal responsibility on the parts of parents – turn off the TV and the video games – and of students, telling them that when they drop out they give up on themselves and their country.


It’s good to hear such intelligent, impassioned, common-sense remarks about education from the President.  It’s even better to have some of my own thoughts and opinions affirmed.


Regular readers of this blog will recall my thoughts on many of the topics the President addressed: 

These are only a few examples.  There are others.  See the “Archive” section above for more.


It’s early yet in Mr. Obama’s administration, but I’m encouraged by his insistence that educational excellence begins at home with supportive and involved parents and extends to well-run schools with dedicated, motivated professionals with kids’ best interests at heart.

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