This is going to sound crazy. Maybe it is. But I see a path — feasible financially and logistically — whereby Watertown High becomes the top school in Massachusetts for science.
We’d recruit and deploy 25 full-time science tutors so that every 10th, 11th and 12th grader at Watertown High — who wants it — gets an hour per day of advanced science tutoring.
I’ve done this before — with math.
Back in 2004, our team recruited 45 full-time tutors. These were top recent college grads from around the USA. Many wanted to do a service year before medical school or graduate school. They got a stipend and housing. (Old-timers: Do you remember the landmark Ellis The Rim Man auto store on Commonwealth Avenue, near Boston University? We renovated that building’s top floor into a dorm for tutors).
Each day they tutored Boston kids, in pairs, for an hour, in math. That way, students got the personal attention they needed during the school day, but without asking already busy teachers to take on even more tasks.
The results of this hour-per-day tutoring were stunning. Students went from a 20% MCAS proficiency to 95%.
So in 2010, with Harvard economist Roland Fryer, we took this strategy to Houston. This time we recruited 257 full-time tutors, for nine middle and high public schools. Again, the learning gains were tremendous.
So in 2013, my colleague Alan (a Newton guy) brought this model to Chicago Public Schools. This time University of Chicago economists set up the tutoring as a randomized control trial — like a drug test, where half the kids get the intervention, and half don’t. This gold standard evaluation found even larger gains. Since then the program has expanded to NYC, DC, and beyond. It’s been featured in the New York Times.
This particular type of tutoring, called high-dosage tutoring, has been used so far to help struggling math students catch up. What if we used the same playbook instead for science, to get kids ahead?
It wouldn’t be required, just optional. Strugglers could become solid; solid students could become advanced; advanced students could become rock stars. Watertown students would quickly vault past their peers in Newton, Belmont and Lexington, whether measured by science MCAS, Advanced Placement exams or science fair competitions. They’d leave Watertown and enroll in college with a huge academic advantage.
Why Watertown? Two reasons. First, we’re small, with only 150 students per grade. It won’t take many tutors to serve every student who wants one. Second, we have so many life sciences companies coming here. They want to help. But they’ve got businesses to run. Sure, they can host a student group, or send a couple staff members to give a talk, or donate a few microscopes. But evidence on these well-intentioned programs is low impact.
What if instead Watertown’s biotech companies each underwrote one of these 22-year-old tutors? We’ve got 43 and counting. For example, an “SQZ Science Tutor” would teach at Watertown High 5 hours a day, then perhaps go to SQZ’s labs and learn from a mentor. That access to a biotech start-up would help draw top quality tutor applicants. The “SQZ Science Tutor,” having built authentic connections with Watertown High students, could then organize SQZ employee volunteers for occasional meaningful interactions and demonstrations and experiments, in small groups.
It would be win-win-win-win: biotech company staff feel an authentic “giving back” rather than the typical limited or fake stuff; Watertown science teachers end up with more capable, motivated students for their classrooms; tutors contribute meaningful service before heading to med school and so forth. Most of all, our students win. Not that crazy, right?
Mike Goldstein is a dad in Watertown