It is the most urgent problem in U.S. public education today, but few people have the stomach to take on its challenge. It demands a daunting amount of effort and offers low odds of success: How can high-poverty students entering high school with only fifth- or sixth-grade skills be prepared to graduate as proficient 12th-graders four years later?
The MATCH School in Boston–the Media and Technology Charter High School–not only takes on that challenge but raises the goal: not just 12th-grade proficiency, but rigorous college prep. And MATCH is succeeding, with a model involving massive amounts of one-on-one tutoring provided by volunteer tutors and students in college work-study programs.
One of the ongoing problems in K-12 education stems from students who enter kindergarten lacking the skills necessary to succeed even at that starting level, a situation that applies disproportionately to children from low-income families. When such shortcomings are not corrected in kindergarten, social promotion pushes those students into higher and higher grades, where they find themselves increasingly unable to cope. Many drop out once they encounter the learning demands of high school.
“In theory, we can all posit taking children at the pre-kindergarten level, providing them with the skills they need to succeed in K-12 school, and solving the education problem that way,” MATCH School’s founder and CEO Michael Goldstein told a group of educators and business representatives recently in Boston at the EDVentures 2003 Conference of the Education Industry Association. The real challenge, said Goldstein, is to design a school that takes students already in the K-12 system from where they are now to where they need to be by 12th grade.
Goldstein, formerly a New York City journalist who wrote for Business Week and other publications, developed the MATCH school plan in 1998. In 1999, it was one of only five charters the state approved, out of 31 applications.
The school’s target population is disadvantaged Boston students, especially those who have been led to exclude a university education from their expectations. The school’s aim is to prepare those children to succeed in college and beyond–in short, to transform their lives.
Mission: To Reverse Underachievement
“The college graduation rate among inner-city students nationally is below 10 percent,” the school’s annual report states bluntly. “Our mission is to reverse that underachievement.”
The school’s student body is roughly two-thirds African-American, a quarter Hispanic, and less than 10 percent white and Asian. About three-quarters of the students come from families that live in poverty, a rate higher than the average for Boston. Like the vast majority of students entering Boston high schools, students entering the MATCH School are on track to fail their 10th-grade MCAS state exams (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System).
“The first thing we have to do is to convince them that college is for them,” said Goldstein, noting that for most students, this would be the first time anyone in their families had gone to college.
The next step is the really difficult one: actually bringing students up to college prep level. Four out of five entering students have failed their 8th-grade MCAS exams and generally perform two to three years below grade level. To succeed, they must make academic gains at the rate of at least 1.5 grade levels per year over their four years in high school.
When the first group of MATCH students took the 10th-grade MCAS exams, 80 percent passed the math exam and 94 percent passed the English exam. This year, the pass rate was 100 percent after a re-take opportunity.
“These students are making huge gains over baseline,” said Goldstein.
Goldstein pointed out the school has established very rigorous standards for promotion to 10th grade. Ninth-graders are not promoted to 10th grade until they have passed the 8th-grade English and math MCAS exams; they must also pass at least three of four core classes with at least a C average. Forty percent of students were not promoted in 2000-01, 28 percent in 2001-02, and about 25 percent in 2002-03.
Parents of non-promoted students remain very positive about the school, and parents overall are very satisfied, rating the school 9.3 on a scale of 1 to 10 in 2001-02. They rated their children’s various former middle schools at 6.8. When the school first opened, it received three applications for every one available seat; that ratio was 10-to-1 at the start of the 2003-04 school year, with 400 students applying for just 40 openings.
Lots of Tutoring
What is the MATCH School’s strategy for bringing students to grade level? The secret is tutoring: approximately four hours a week for every student. The job of the tutor is not to help the student with his or her homework, but to go through a sequential process of instruction in reading, math, and science in order to raise the student’s academic skills and knowledge to the levels required for a college prep curriculum.
In the first year of the school’s operation, the tutoring–which is free to the students–was done by recruiting dozens of unpaid volunteers and mentors. As the school grew in size, the need for tutors increased and recruiting adequate numbers of good, qualified, and dependable tutors became a major challenge. In the second year, school officials discovered they could augment the volunteer tutors by tapping into a largely unused pool of tutors through the college work-study program.
Now, during the summer, 75 of MATCH’s students go to the nearby MIT campus for four hours of tutoring each day. In addition, this year, every 9th- and 10th-grader at MATCH will be tutored for eight hours on the weekend by college students from MIT, Boston University, Boston College, and Harvard University.
Colleges that accept federal work-study funds must allocate 7 percent of that money to community service, and paying undergraduates to tutor local schoolchildren meets that requirement. Although MATCH’s volunteer tutors are unpaid, the work-study tutors cost MATCH about $2 an hour, with the bulk of each undergraduate tutor’s pay coming from the work-study program and the college.
Goldstein believes the work-study model is replicable elsewhere. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a win-win-win-win situation: the college gets to meet its grant requirement; the undergraduate gets a much more satisfying job to do than, for example, reshelving library books; MATCH gets cost-effective access to a large number of tutors; and, best of all, disadvantaged youngsters get tutored and mentored by some of the nation’s best and brightest college students.
It’s a good match.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].
For more information …
The MATCH School’s Annual Report for 2002 is available at the Web site of the Massachusetts Department of Education at http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/reports/2002/annual/0469.pdf.
The MATCH School’s Web site is http://www.matchschool.org.