PROBLEM: The “achievement gap” in education is one of the most pressing equal rights issues in the United States: all over the country, public schools students in low-income, largely minority communities are consistently performing at lower levels than their middle-class, largely white counterparts. A plethora of federal initiatives have been mobilized over the years to address the problem, ranging from the second Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind,” to programs like Teach for America that funnel highly-educated college graduates into high-need public schools. But internal political battles at the level of school system leadership seem to deter fixing the problem, and furthermore each programmatic intervention proves to be either slow in revealing results or simply flawed. While debates continue to rage over issues like teacher tenure, metrics for student progress, and the benefits of charter schools, students in low-income communities fall further and further behind.
SOLUTION: BlueEngine is a startup non-profit that provides highly-motivated and competent tutors in high-need New York City schools through one-year fellowships for college graduates who want to pursue careers in education. Now in their first year of operation, they currently have 12 fellows working with 8th and 9th-graders in a Washington Heights public school.
The inspiration for CEO and Founder Nick Ehrmann to create BlueEngine originated in his experience as a Teach For America volunteer in Washington, D.C. The fourth-grade classroom he was teaching were part of an experimental I Have a Dream Foundation program which promised four-year scholarships to young students in order to motivate them toward academic achievement. While completing his PhD in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann compared the experimental and control groups of fourth-graders and determined that the difference was nearly nonexistent. His dissertation not only led him to see the program as ultimately limited, but also to the belief that metrics were in need of rethinking: “If you don’t see a change, either you’re not measuring things that are changing, or you’re not measuring things accurately; you might have a broken scale.”
Ehrmann began to look for cases of successful interventions, which led him to develop the “theory of change” that forms the backbone of BlueEngine: “There’s a consensus in the literature,” Ehrmann told Dowser. “The strongest predictor of success in higher education is the academic rigor of your high school environment.”
Here, “academic rigor” refers to a particular notion of learning: “what’s happening in the brain when you’re learning,” said Ehrmann, “when you have synapses in your brain that are creating new pathways, pushing the boundaries of your brain’s ability, becoming frustrated when your brain hits a wall and you have to figure out how to get around it.” BlueEngine fellows help students develop the capacities to get around those walls through small-group tutorials.
Fellows are provided with training that is customized to the site they are working in, based on the notion that understanding the cultural and historical context of a school’s environment, including its neighborhood, will enhance teachers’ ability to connect with students.
RESULTS: As of next year, BlueEngine is more than doubling its number of fellows and expanding to provide tutorials in English/Language Arts and Geometry. They are in an “experimental phase,” which means that they are evaluating the work they are doing as they go, and adjusting their model based on that evaluation. Ten of the current fellows are staying on for another year of service, despite the fact that they are living in New York City on a monthly stipend of $1200 (BlueEngine’s website provides advice as to how to live on such a tight budget).
The 8th and 9th-graders who are currently receiving BlueEngine support were given a mock regents test in January, and they scored at the levels of what students their age and level would typically reach in June, indicating that the intensive tutorials have put them ahead by about half a schoolyear.
“BlueEngine lets us do more for students,” said current fellow Shavonda Guilford, who is going on to become a New York City Teaching Fellow next year. “We are constantly giving them feedback. Each student has a [fellow] there to answer questions. One teacher just can’t answer 32 students’ questions. Also we handle things like planning. It lets the teacher actually teach.”
Not only are students benefiting from the tutorials, but the fellows themselves are transformed by the experience. BlueEngine fellow Eric Dufault signed on to the program to get some experience in the classroom before becoming a full-time teacher. “It’s been a challenge learning to work in a team,” he said of his experience. He’ll be going on for a second year of fellowship next year,