Susan Levine

Susan Levine

Neighborhood Schools Program, MathMatch Tutoring

When University of Chicago Psychology and Comparative Human Development professor Susan Levine and her team wanted to examine how working with undergraduate tutors might benefit local second graders’ math development, UChicago’s Neighborhood Schools Program (NSP)—which has placed UChicago students as tutors and aides in Chicago classrooms for nearly 50 years—was the perfect partner. Mathematics, Levine says, represents a fundamental domain of human thinking and math learning is connected to positive long-term outcomes including high school graduation, earnings, and even health. Working with NSP to design a program that aims to meets young children at a variety of starting points was critical, particularly when many children have lost learning opportunities due to COVID-19.

Levine’s team was able to work closely with NSP and the Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) within which it operates to recruit, interview, and onboard undergraduate tutors; tap into NSP’s existing Chicago Public Schools network to secure participating school partners; and rely on NSP’s institutional knowledge when issues arose. 

“I don’t think we would have gotten this project off the ground without the Neighborhood Schools Program and the Office of Civic Engagement,” Levine said.

The tutoring project, funded by the Overdeck Familly Foundation, is a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Barnard College, where Sian Beilock, president of Barnard and former UChicago faculty member, leads the New York-based group. Though pandemic-related delays and restrictions kept the program smaller than originally envisioned, Levine and her team launched their MathMatch program in partnership with NSP last year. In Chicago, 21 UChicago students met with 33 second grade students across five South Side elementary schools three times per week. Tutors worked with elementary school students one-on-one, virtually or in person, to help the 2nd grade students better grasp math concepts and solve word problems, which can be a stumbling block for young children. The undergraduates additionally measured the second graders’ progress in word problem solving, calculation fluency, and math attitudes during the project.

Levine says they are considering this first phase of the program as a pilot study and are planning to build on findings and expand it next year. “We learned a lot about what we want to do going forward,” she said. Virtual tutoring, for instance, initially seemed easier to scale but in fact proved to be more logistically and socially challenging. Future iterations of the program might bring tutors into classrooms twice a week rather than three times a week, which was challenging for both tutors and for schools. They are also considering incorporating parental involvement, Levine said. 

No matter what form the program’s next phase takes, Levine and her team say they look forward to continuing to partner with NSP and build off what they’ve created together. “The knowledge within NSP and OCE was very helpful,” Ariadne Nelson, the postdoctoral scholar leading support on the project, said. “Being able to go to NSP leadership and be like, ‘We’re having these issues, how do we handle them?’ was instrumental as it was grounded in their deep knowledge and experience working with undergraduate students and school partners.”

Levine says she hopes the data can one day serve as a model for other universities that want to leverage their undergraduate student infrastructure in an impactful and meaningful way.

“It is important to do basic science and understand how the mind/brain system develops but within developmental science we also have an obligation to partner with people so what we learn about learning and development can have a positive effect on society,” Levine said. “We know that there are achievement discrepancies, largely due to differences of the early learning opportunities children have. By using the tools of developmental science in combination with the expertise of community partners—the NSP team, teachers, people with teacher professional development expertise—we can have a positive impact on both supporting excellence and equity and narrowing achievement gaps in math.”

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