Monday, November 2, 2009

What can college students do?

A few weeks ago we hosted a discussion on the achievement gap. At the end of the community discussion a parent of two elementary students came up to me and said, "I don't know how parents do it? I'm a college-educated, career woman with a flexible work schedule and I can barely support my two children in their school endeavors. I can barely supervise their homework and project schedule and as they get older, I can barely keep up with the level of their work. I don't know how parents who have less education or less flexible time can manage to oversee their children's education."

Her comment highlights two crucial challenges for parents. First, given the complexity of family schedules-- how can you find the time and energy to stay on top of school responsibilities? Second, how do parents effectively help their children when they don't feel confident or competent in the subjects being studied?

According to a new survey sponsored by Intel, parents described themselves as particularly over matched by science and math. The researchers framed the the issue as parents feeling more uncomfortable talking about drug abuse than math or science with their children. It's an interesting framing of the problem by the researchers. The issue is not that American parents feel strangely capable of engaging their children in conversation about drug use, but that they don't believe they have the confidence or know-how to support their children when it comes to math and science.

So what does this have to do with college and high school students and after school programs? While parents might be decades away from their last chemistry or algebra course, teenagers and young adults are concurrently taking courses in math and science. If we had systems in place that provided these young people with opportunity to support the learning of younger students-- two benefits would be realized.

A. Children whose parents  don't have the knowledge, confidence, or time to help their children with math and science, would be getting help.

B. Numerous studies report that cross-age tutoring benefits tutors. Tutors demonstrate increases in attitude, peer relationship, self-efficacy, achievement scores, and in developing a more coherent understanding of the conceptual ideas at the heart of the material they are using with younger learners. In other words, the truism holds: "to teach is to learn and learn best."*

After school programs can become settings that provide time, space, and logistical support for cross-age tutoring and academic coaching. The apprenticeship model of Project Coach can serve as a model for the kinds of intensive support and preparation needed if 'tutors' are to be successful and derive a benefit from the process.

*See for example, Cross-Age Tutoring for Young Adolescents. By: Thrope, Lynne, Wood, Karen, Clearing House, Vol. 73, Issue 4, which finds that Cross-age tutoring is a form of cooperative learning in which an older student, often one who can benefit from additional reinforcement, is paired with a younger student who may or may not be in need of remediation. Putting students in cooperative groups or pairs has a long history of improving everything from achievement scores to self-esteem to peer relationships."

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