Attempting to close educational gaps! Part 3: Six week update

Mike Preiner
4 min readDec 7, 2020

This is the third post in a series where we’re documenting an ambitious (crazy?) attempt to fully close educational gaps in math at an elementary school in downtown Seattle. As a quick recap:

  • Part 1 describes the school, Lowell Elementary.
  • Part 2 describes our program’s approach.

In this piece we’re going to talk about what we’ve seen in the first 6 weeks of the program. Right now we’re working with 10 students in 4th and 5th grade, but based on what we’ve seen so far, we’re looking at expanding the program to more students in January. For the “I don’t have time to read a full 4-minute post” folks, here are the main points:

  1. The combination of 1:1 tutoring with 4th and 5th grade students works really well. There aren’t any counterproductive social dynamics and the kids are having fun with the program.
  2. The kids are behind, and their independent learning skills need to be developed.
  3. The kids are really engaged and want to learn.

For those of you who are interested in the details, read on!

Now I’ll flesh out the main points in more detail.

1:1 tutoring with this age group works well.

I’ve done work with this age group in team settings (for example, as a soccer coach), and I’ve often seen behavior issues arise due to the dynamics between students, especially when one of them is struggling. The 1:1 format completely eliminates that.

The kids also seem to genuinely enjoy the 1:1 interactions, especially when it’s supplemented via chat using remote learning tools. We ran the following quick survey a few weeks ago:

On a scale of 1–5 (1=hate it, 5=love it), how do you feel about your practice sessions? The average response was 4.75, which seems like a big success.

Finally, I’ll add that 1:1 tutoring is also pretty nice from the tutor’s perspective. After 6 weeks, I feel like I already know each of the students in a pretty deep and meaningful way.

The kids are behind in math, and their independent learning skills need to be developed.

Based on what we know about the test scores at Lowell Elementary, it wasn’t surprising to find that the students were fairly far behind on math standards. For example, only 1 of the 10 students was fluent with single digit multiplication, which is a 3rd grade standard. A couple of the students also struggled with 2nd grade word problems.

It also wasn’t shocking that the students didn’t have strong independent learning skills. When working on their own (with no tutor around) they would give up pretty quickly once they got out of their comfort zone, though I suspect this is common with this age group. Regardless, given our goal of creating independent learners, it is clear that we need to work on building up their resiliency and growth mindsets. That being said…

The students are engaged and want to learn.

I’ve been thrilled by how engaged the students are. They show up ready to share, ready to discuss, and ready to learn. I think our program structure really helps here: at the beginning we really focused on relationship building, and it has paid off. The kids love to talk about themselves, and we’re able to use what we’ve learned to build motivation later on.

As an example, one of the students wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. It was a struggle to get him engaged at first, but then we spent some time reading about what it takes to be an astronaut…turns out math skills are near the top of the list! That process really improved his engagement.

In terms of enthusiasm, I’ve been blown away. Almost every student volunteered to practice over Thanksgiving break, and I’ve got students asking for weekend sessions.

To get more concrete metrics, we are quantitatively measuring engagement by tracking how much students practice on their own. At this point every student who regularly attends is typically practicing on their own 2 or more times per week. When you include their 1:1 sessions, they are averaging over 60 minutes per week of active practice (see chart below). I find that pretty encouraging given that a lot of our scheduled 1:1 time is talking about skills, motivation, and other things. It was awesome to see that when they had a week with no school they still averaged over 30 min/week of practice!

The average time spent actively practicing per week (on Khan Academy) across all 8 regularly attending students. The significant amount of practice during Thanksgiving break was very encouraging.

The challenges

I don’t want to ignore any of the challenges. By the far the biggest is attendance. At the beginning of the program, 4 of the 10 students didn’t regularly show up. Two of them eventually got engaged with the class and now show up for almost every session. The other two haven’t shown up for weeks. This will definitely make it challenging to hit the school-wide improvements we are looking for.

Looking ahead, we’ll want to eventually transition the students to practicing more on their own. This will help the students become independent learners and also reduce the long-term cost of the program. We’ve made a good start, but we’re still a long ways from super steady practice habits, and getting there probably won’t be easy.

What does it all mean?

It terms of our long term goal of completely closing math education gaps at Lowell, we need to be able to get 75% of the struggling students to proficiency. For details see the “Is it it realistic?” section in our previous post. If we only get attendance from 80% of our students (8/10), it means we need to get every single remaining student to grade-level proficiency to hit our school-wide goal. It will definitely be tough, but from what I’ve seen in their skill growth so far, I think it is possible. We’ll discuss that in more detail in future posts!

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Mike Preiner

PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford. Data scientist and entrepreneur. Working to close education gaps in public schools.