The Impact of Tutoring
Despite its reputation as one of the world’s most advanced countries, the United States is still far behind the pack when it comes to education. We want to understand why students in the United States are falling behind. As more students need help outside of the classroom, we’ll also explore the impact of tutoring and its benefits.
Overview of US Education
The US is falling behind
The Programme for International Student Assessment’s (or PISA’s) 2018 test compares student proficiency across the globe. The United States ranked 39th in math, 19th in science, and 14th in reading out of 79 countries.
These scores increased marginally from the 2015 PISA tests. However, this was due to a slight technical change in the United State’s score calculations process. Currently, the United States is not only lagging behind other countries but also shows no signs of growth. When looking at the total gains in any category of learning compared to other developed nations, the United States comes in dead last.
Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Math is certainly the United States’ biggest weak spot. According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP) test, only 41% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders are proficient in math. These percentages are nearly identical to what they were in 2009, a decade ago. The trouble is, gaining proficiency only becomes more and more difficult as students grow older.
As expert tutor Elie Venezky writes in US News and World Report:
“Eighth grade is often the cut-off of when students lose all confidence in math.” After this, it’s unlikely a student will gain proficiency through school alone.”
Students in the United States also struggle with reading skills. Only 35% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders are NAEP proficient. These percentages are slightly lower than they were when the last NAEP assessment in 2017. Unfortunately, like math, literacy has not been shown to improve as students grow older. As economist Jonathan Rothwell found through his analysis in Brookings, “for the nation’s 17 year olds, there have been no gains in literacy since the NAEP began in 1971.”
While the quality of education in comparable countries continues to improve—Macau, for example, jumped several spots in reading and science between the 2015 and 2018 PISA tests—the United States remains in an extended period of academic stagnation. And even, possibly, descent.
How the US Education System Makes Students Struggle
So why exactly does the United States’ education system make students struggle? We first need to dive deeper into how we approach education.
Rote memorization vs. inherent learning
The United States curriculum prioritizes rote memorization as opposed to inherent learning. In other words, students understand any bit of knowledge as something that can be recited. So, they do not deeply understand, internalize, or contextualize that knowledge. Neglecting the fundamentals is a bit like expecting a child to form words without teaching them the alphabet.
Take math, for example. Math is really a complex language that requires a complex understanding of how said language functions. But the United States curriculum teaches math as fast facts that can be memorized. Instead of deeply understanding how a problem works, students learn rhymes or song devices to memorize instead. While these devices can be successful on a basic level, on a wider-scale they negatively impact student learning.
Results of the 2015 TIMSS test prove this. Alana Semuels puts it best in her analysis of the results in the Atlantic:
“Japanese students were explicitly taught how to solve just 54 percent of the problems on the international Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test, but received an average score of 565, according to the Lesson Study Alliance, an education nonprofit. Students in the U.S. were explicitly taught how to solve 82 percent of the problems, yet received a lower average score, 518.”
A fixed educational mindset: is there only one right answer?
Another issue hindering learning in the United States is the educational mindset. Students in the United States are taught within the confines of a fixed mindset. They believe that every problem has a single answer. If they can’t find this answer immediately, through memory, they believe the answer must be impossible. “They think learning is supposed to be easy. That’s really not what learning is about,” said James Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA. What is needed is actually a growth mindset: the belief that anything is possible through hard work. The growth mindset is precisely what has led students in countries like Japan, China, and Estonia to excel.
A fixed educational mindset does two things.
- It fails to give students agency over their own learning.
- It fails to consider students as complex beings in need of a holistic set of skills.
What students need is a more personalized approach like that of Finland. Despite spending less than the United States does per student, according to an analysis by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Finland’s student-centered approach to learning is precisely what has led them to top the PISA charts since 2000.
The Beneficial Impact of Tutoring
It will take years—or more likely, decades—for the United States’ education system to catch up with the rest of the world. Doing so would require a sweeping policy reform that does not appear to be coming any time soon.
Tutoring is vital to any student’s ability to thrive. It is the next best way to combat the United States’ failure in education by providing a version of the personalized, growth-minded approach that has made certain countries excel. The impact of tutoring addresses all aspects of a student’s life.
The academic benefits
Countless studies have cited the impact of tutoring and its benefits. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2001 touchstone report, Evidence That Tutoring Works, found that “students with below-average reading skills who are tutored by volunteers show significant gains in reading skills when compared with similar students who do not receive tutoring from a high-quality tutoring program.” The department cited an Oregon tutoring program that, through two 30-minute tutoring sessions per week, “led to increases in words per minute read aloud from 45 to 61.5 by the end of second grade, and increases from 77 words to 91 words by the end of the third grade.”
This shows that, through consistent weekly sessions, tutoring positively impacts learning. Students with below-average reading skills who are tutored by volunteers show significant gains in reading skills when compared with similar students who do not receive tutoring from a high-quality tutoring program.
The impact of tutoring and its success has been found across all age groups. A study done at San Bernardino Valley College found that students who received tutoring on campus between 2012-2015 “had an overall success rate 7 percent higher than the campus-wide average”. In STEM courses in particular, tutored students overall success rate was 13 percent higher. Moreover, a 2010 study at East Stroudsburg University showed that students who were tutored showed higher rates of retention and degree-attainment.
The motivational benefits
But tutoring does more than just boost a student’s grades—it also boosts their self-confidence, an essential ingredient to learning. In an analysis published in the Journal of Applied Sciences, researcher Mohammad Aryana found a positive correlation between self-esteem and academic achievement. The aforementioned 2001 government report also noted that tutoring increased self-confidence and motivated students. This, in turn, led to improvement in reading skills.
We should not understate the importance of self-esteem. Grades and test scores only extend so far into our lifetimes. Confidence, on the other hand, will carry a student through the ups and downs of adult life.
Having a tutor gives students a space to grow and see the value of knowledge in the real world. With tutoring, knowledge is a gift that is shared and tied to the broader world, rather than something that one is expected to memorize but not deeply understand.