As Individualized Instruction Goes National, What Do We Know?

Individualized instruction has gotten a lot of good press over the past month. Check out this piece in the Times about Nick Ehrman’s Blue Engineers, and this one in the Chicago Sun-Times about Match Education’s partnership in Chicago.

This press is well-deserved; if anything, it’s overdue. What started almost eleven years ago as a Match “summer high school” on the MIT campus has grown into arguably the highest leverage intervention out there. To quote the piece on Blue Engine, “Gains like this are not often seen in education … it’s worth taking notice.”

As the movement has grown, Tutors for All is increasingly being asked to offer counsel to schools and community organizations starting their own programs. It’s a gift of an opportunity; far more kids are in need of the practice than twenty Blue Engines, Match’s and T4A’s could serve. As we do so, however, it becomes clear that our counsel (and, for that matter, the advice of companion organizations) is based on our particular philosophy and history of success more than on a more general research base.


We’ve said in the past that successful tutorial depends on six factors:

  • High Quality oversight
  • Coordination at 20,000 feet/Separation on the Ground
  • “Professionalization” of tutors
  • One-on-one (or one-on-two)
  • Frequent Formative Assessments
  • Tutors for an entire cohort of students

However, many of these are ambiguous (what is “high quality oversight”?  What does it mean to “professionalize” tutors?), and none of them are rigorously tested independent of the others.  While we have a whole lot of evidence in support of T4A programs in charter and district schools, we don’t know what is essential and what is incidental to our programs’ success.

Because we share a history with Match Education (yours truly cut his tutorial teeth running the reading component of that summer school in 2002), we share a lot of its philosophy.  Since the beginning of MatchCorps in 2004, however, they have added a seventh factor – massive dosage.  While our programs serve students between 20 and 60 hours per year, their programs serve students between 100 and 300 hours annually.

There’s no argument against increased dosage.  More is more, and the Match results have been truly astounding.  But in an environment of limited resources, more dosage means greater costs, larger ratios, or fewer students tutored.  There are trade-offs, and these trade-offs have serious implications.  Similarly, Blue Engine’s success would seem to indicate that one-on-one may be over-rated, at least in a classroom setting.  If one-on-five can lead to profound academic gains, then that opens up a range of opportunities that T4A, Match, and other organizations running similar programs (Blueprint Schools and City on a Hill come to mind) may be ignoring.

For eight years, Tutors for All has been honored to serve as evangelist and proof point  in the spread of individual instruction.  Now that it’s hit the big time, we’re hoping to share our experience, draw on the experiences of others, and play a role in the kind of research that can help schools and districts building their own programs make the best possible decisions around options and resources.

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