Data

With the recent success of our pilot program, we saw some really exciting data. However, in truth our sample size was small and our experiment lacked scientific rigor, so we’d like to highlight some third party data that validates a lot of the theory behind Boost. Some of the most convincing studies we’ve come across are two papers by the Harvard Education Laboratory’s Roland Fryer and Will Dobbie, a pair of economists who’ve done extensive research on what works and what doesn’t work in education.

In their 2012 paper, the pair investigated successful strategies employed by charter schools in New York City, focusing on five: frequent teacher feedback, use of data to guide instruction, increased instructional time, high expectations and finally high-dosage tutoring. The authors noticed a strong correlation between the presence/robustness of tutoring programs and successful schools within their sample. Specifically, a school with tutoring had ELA (English Language Arts – a common core standards system) scores that were on average .04 standard deviations higher than a comparable school without tutoring. To determine the robustness of this effect, the authors ran a second study and published a working paper in 2013.

In this study, the authors applied these five strategies to underperforming public schools in Houston and examined the corresponding changes in state math and ELA scores. Interestingly, the authors noticed an even more pronounced effect. In the authors’ words, “students who received tutoring in secondary schools outperformed their peers by over 100 percent.” We at Boost are obviously pretty stoked about what this means for the potential effectiveness of the tutoring we can provide.

- Chris Hopkins

Progress

I’d like to use the opportunity of my first blog post to highlight some of the exciting accomplishments of Boost! Tutoring over the past few months. Upon reaching out to the Blue Mountain Union School in Wells River, VT and the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury, MA, we found that teachers were eager to give their students access to as much personalized instruction as possible. Somewhat surprisingly, when given the chance to take an active role in their education, the students were just as excited, if not more so, about the chance to work with a tutor one-on-one.

Our pilot program with the Blue Mountain Union School of Wells River, VT went off without a hitch and we look forward to continuing our partnership in the fall. The program provided us with a promising proof of concept. Beginning with the very first tutoring session, students of Blue Mountain Union were raving about their one-on-one online tutoring sessions, pestering their teacher about when they would get to work with their new tutors again. Through this personal connection, students were able to take charge of their own education – and with impressive results. After their semester of tutoring, all four students showed greater improvement in standardized test scores than the class average.  Two of the students involved even had test scores higher than the class average for the first time ever. We feel that the jump in test scores as well as the noticeable increase in student engagement, while qualitative in nature, help to validate Boost!’s model.

The partnership with the Ohrenberger School, while successful, had a few shortcomings. While there was great interest among both teachers and students to initiate the partnership, the school did not have sufficient bandwidth to support such a large group of students tutoring at the same time. In response, we increased the ratio of students to tutors from 1:1 to 4:1. While still productive, it was clear that the students were not receiving the full benefits of personal instruction that Boost! aims to provide. We are working closely with the Ohrenberger School to find a solution, and we hope to be fully up and running this Fall.

As for this summer, the Boost! team is working to streamline the user interface to make tutor-to-student interaction as intuitive as possible, as well as looking for partnerships with more schools. In order to do this, we will be kicking off a fundraising campaign. More on that to follow.

- Tucker Hopkins

Foundations

In my inaugural post, I wanted to do a deep dive into where the idea for Boost came from. Posts that follow will be briefer in nature and focus on current developments, but I think its important to lay out the foundation in depth.

Inspiration for the idea

I’ve observed the value of tutoring programs firsthand in several settings. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend a year helping to run the tutoring program at a private boarding high school in the Middle East called the King’s Academy. Additionally, I spent time at a local public school system in a teacher’s assistant capacity. For the first time in the position of a teacher rather than a student, I was able to make a number of observations, and after spending a term living with a friend working for Teach For America at a young charter school, I concluded that my observations may be relevant to schools in general. As simple as they may be, here they are:

  • One-on-one tutoring can have a huge impact on a struggling student’s success (see literature referenced later)
  • Most schools and their teachers do not have the capacity to deliver this one-on-one tailored support

To combat this, my friend’s charter school hosted volunteers on weekends to offer specialized help, but

  • Finding enough volunteers was always a struggle

Though the concepts the students needed help with were trivial for any high-school graduate (and many current high-school students) to explain, getting the turnout required to make a real difference each weekend was very difficult.

At the same time as I was observing my TFA friend champion weekend extra help sessions, I was using Khan Academy - the internet-based learning platform - to brush up on my Thermo in preparation for taking the class the following term. Comparing those two experiences, my friend’s experience struggling to staff weekend tutorials and my own using Khan Academy, I began to start thinking about how you could leverage the benefits of Khan’s internet model to solve my friend’s staffing problems. Khan’s internet model is infinitely scalable: Sal Khan and his team put in a finite amount of time and energy to create a video, and then there’s no limit on how many people in the world can watch and benefit. My friend’s solution on the other hand was not: upon identifying a number of students who needed personalized help, he then had to go out and find that number of qualified, available and motivated people to help each student on a Saturday morning – not an easy task. At the same time, I realized his model had one huge advantage compared to Khan’s: customization. The lessons provided during the Saturday tutorials were 100% customized to a student’s individual need. Looking at both solutions together, there exists a tradeoff between scalability and customization. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to give up one for the other?

The idea

Sometime over the course of that spring, the idea to use the internet to connect students to real people (as opposed to a pre-recorded Khan video) popped into my head. Such an approach would certainly allow for customized tutorials, but would it really solve the scaling problem? At first glance, it wouldn’t. N number of students would still need N number of (virtual) tutors. But what this approach does do is make it easier for a tutor to donate his time. Travel time is eliminated, geographical location is made irrelevant, and a tutor is free to work on his computer from the comfort of wherever he chooses to be.

The combination of these three factors could allow schools to tap into whole new talent pools to provide tutoring services. Volunteer-minded college students or even high-school students could donate as little as two hours a week to great effect. Individuals interested in a career in teaching could first try it out on a small scale as virtual tutors. Talented professionals working at large companies, which like to keep track of and publish the number of hours annually donated to philanthropy, could contribute an hour or two a week from their desks without interrupting their productivity.

Is it worth it?

To the team at Boost, absolutely. We've launched a small scale pilot with the Blue Mountain Union School of Wells River, VT, as well as the Ohrenberger School of West Roxbuy, MA. Though neither program is yet complete, we've seen some really promising results. Gail Nelson, our partner teacher at the Blue Mountain Union School, says her students seem more confident when asking questions and more engaged in class. Though we have no quantitative data as of yet, these qualitative observations are promising. If all continues to go well, we hope to expand our model to other college campuses and reach more schools in need. Stay tuned!

- Chris Hopkins