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February 14, 2014

Pilot education study benefits urban youth

Researchers at the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab received promising results from a behavior intervention project aimed at improving the academic performance of high school students in Chicago.

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published the results on January 27. The study was developed in the University of Chicago Urban Education Lab by a small group of researchers, three of whom are University of Chicago professors.

The problem in urban education may be a “mismatch” between what students need and the support they are receiving, according to the study. The project takes a two-pronged approach that aims to improve both students’ academic skills and their social awareness. Participants receive an hour of one-on-two math tutoring every day. In addition, students attend Becoming A Man (BAM) social awareness group sessions once a week. BAM is a program developed by Chicago Youth Guidance that aims to teach values, social sympathy, and cognitive creativity to male students in grades seven through 12.

Jens Ludwig, co-author and Crime Lab co-director, said that teachers often do not have the time to help students below grade-level standards catch up, keeping those students from catching up with classroom instruction.

“The sort of intensive, individualized instruction in math that we tested in our pilot study seems to generate an extra three years’ worth of math learning in one academic year, the equivalent of over half the black-white test score gap in math that we see in national data sets,” he said.

According to the Urban Education Lab, the program reduced course failures by 57 percent and increased the likelihood that youth will graduate high school by 50 percent after six months.

The pilot program focused on 106 ninth and tenth grade male students attending Harper High School, a Chicago public school in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood. The report stated that 95 percent of the participants were black, and 99 percent qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

According to the study, the estimated investment of the program is $4,400 per student. Presently, the project is sponsored by private funding, but Ludwig hopes that the pilot project’s success will lead to more public funding and said that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been supportive of the project’s approach.

“Our current demonstration project is structured like a randomized controlled trial of the sort that provides gold-standard evidence in medicine, and can provide convincing evidence that this approach can work at scale. That sort of evidence would then, under the mayor’s vision, provide the basis for appealing to the federal government for additional flexibility to let the city repurpose its federal grant dollars to support evidence-based approaches like this,” Ludwig said.

According to Amanda Norton, communications director for the Crime Lab and Urban Education Lab, the researchers hope to replicate the program in other cities.

“What we are seeing is very encouraging, and we have been fortunate that Chicago Public Schools is a really collaborative partner and eager to help figure out what interventions might truly be effective and cost-effective, and might be able to help at-risk youth not only in Chicago, but also in other urban areas,” Norton said.

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