- Philip Oreopoulos
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This article takes stock of where the field of behavioral science applied to education policy seems to be at, which avenues seem promising and which ones seem like dead ends. I present a curated set of studies rather than an exhaustive literature review, categorizing interventions by whether they nudge (keep options intact) or “shove” (restrict choice), and whether they apply a high or low touch (whether they use face-to-face interaction or not). Many recent attempts to test large-scale low touch nudges find precisely estimated null effects, suggesting we should not expect letters, text messages, and online exercises to serve as panaceas for addressing education policy’s key challenges. Programs that impose more choice-limiting structure to a youth’s routine, like mandated tutoring, or programs that nudge parents, appear more promising.
Tutoring—defined here as one-on-one or small-group instructional programming by teachers, paraprofessionals, volunteers, or parents—is one of the most versatile and potentially transformative educational tools in use today. Within the past decade, dozens of preK-12 tutoring experiments have been conducted, varying widely in their approach, context, and cost. Our study represents the first systematic review and meta-analysis of these and earlier studies. We develop a framework for considering different types of programs to not only examine overall effects, but also explore how these effects vary by program characteristics and intervention context. We find that tutoring programs yield consistent and substantial positive impacts on learning outcomes, with an overall pooled effect size estimate of 0.37 SD. Effects are stronger, on average, for teacher and paraprofessional tutoring programs than for nonprofessional and parent tutoring. Effects also tend to be strongest among the earlier grades. While overall effects for reading and math interventions are similar, reading tutoring tends to yield higher effect sizes in earlier grades, while math tutoring tends to yield higher effect sizes in later grades. Tutoring programs conducted during school tend to have larger impacts than those conducted after school.
Holzer and Baum’s recent book, ‘Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students,’ provides an excellent up-to-date review of higher education. My review first summarizes its key themes: 1) who gains from college and why? 2) mismatch and the need for more structure; 3) problems with remediation; 4) financial barriers and 5) the promise of comprehensive support. I then critique the book’s proposed solutions using some of my own qualitative and quantitative data. Some recommendations are worth considering, while others are too expensive or unlikely to make a meaningful difference without addressing the underlying lack of preparedness and motivation of college students. I argue that making mandatory some existing services, such as application assistance and advice, proactive tutoring and advising, and greater career transition support, has the most immediate potential.
We present results from a five-year effort to design promising online and text-message interventions to improve college achievement through several distinct channels. From a sample of nearly 25,000 students across three different campuses, we find some improvement from coaching-based interventions on mental health and study time, but none of the interventions we evaluate significantly influences academic outcomes (even for those students more at risk of dropping out). We interpret the results with our survey data and a model of student effort. Students study about five to eight hours fewer each week than they plan to, though our interventions do not alter this tendency. The coaching interventions make some students realize that more effort is needed to attain good grades but, rather than working harder, they settle by adjusting grade expectations downwards. Our study time impacts are not large enough for translating into significant academic benefits. More comprehensive but expensive programs appear more promising for helping college students outside the classroom.