What we're learning: From frustration to flourishing: How math tutors boost student confidence and performance

Saga tutors help students with math. Saga Education
Margaret Moffett
Blog Post

Algebra so frustrated Trinity Rodgers that she’d slam down her pencil and surrender.

“I can’t do this,” she’d say, folding her arms across her chest. “I quit.”

It was 2015, and Rodgers was a high school freshman at the University of Chicago Charter School’s Woodlawn campus. No academic lightweight, the 15-year-old began the school year 11th in her class — all the more reason for her exasperation. There was something about those equations she couldn’t quite get, which made her question not just her math skills, but her overall intelligence and prospects for the future.

Enter Denise Parham-Gantt: algebra tutor, Trinity-whisperer. Equipped with training she’d received from Saga Education, the nonprofit where she worked as an algebra tutor, Parham-Gantt coaxed Rodgers out of her funk.

“Push your pencil and paper aside,” Parham-Gantt would tell her calmly, patiently. “Close your eyes. Breathe in; breathe out. Release the stress from your body and mind.”

A couple of minutes later, the pair would return to the problem, which suddenly didn’t seem so hard after all. 

“In a way, (Parham-Gantt) reminded me of a therapist,” said Rodgers, who graduated valedictorian and is now a 20-year-old sophomore attending the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. “She gave me the coping mechanisms to calm myself down and keep going. That’s something I used in the rest of my classes throughout high school and have continued to use in college.”

That’s the essence of Saga Education, which was born out of a tutoring relationship similar to Rodgers and Parham-Gantt’s. Founded in 2014, Saga matches students at historically underserved schools with algebra tutors who provide personalized, one-on-one instruction as its own class during the school day. The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Lab has documented Saga’s impact on academic performance, noting that its students progress two to three times faster in math than their peers.

Now Saga is making available the core concepts and strategies it uses to train tutors. On May 4, they launched Saga Coach, an online portal containing four hours of non-subject-specific training in the fundamentals of tutoring. It’s open to anyone from large organizations to individual tutors who want to build their skills.

And guess who helped create it? Denise Parham-Gantt, now Saga’s manager of virtual learning and instructional technology.

“The goal of Saga Coach is to give a framework and a foundation for what tutors should know,” she said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you just go to a school and help kids with their homework.’ But we're not just putting people in front of students. We're actually giving them the tools to be effective tutors.”

Seeing the impact

Saga Education was born from a relationship very much like the one Parham-Gantt had with Rodgers: co-founders Alan Safran and Antonio Gutierrez were once mentor and student.

The pair started with the premise that high-dosage tutoring could help struggling ninth-graders, particularly those from low-income communities, leap over the high hurdle of Algebra 1. Data shows that students who pass the course are four times more likely to graduate high school. Safran and Gutierrez decided to deploy Saga tutors at campuses like UC-Woodlawn so tutors could help students with Algebra 1 during the school day.

Parham-Gantt was part of Saga’s first cohort of tutors in 2015. A self-professed nerd who loved school, she had finished a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, when she figured out she liked being an engineering student more than an engineer. She answered Saga’s call for tutors while also enrolling in a master’s degree program at DePaul’ University for career-changers interested in teaching math. 

She was hooked. 

“I was able to see in a very real way the impact that tutoring has, the impact of being a supportive adult in their lives,” she said. “I had a diverse range of students. They each had their own struggles, but they were all capable of doing awesome things. They just didn’t always recognize their potential.”

As Parham-Gantt moved up the ranks — from tutor to UC-Woodlawn site director, then from virtual learning director to her current position — Saga’s methodology was quickly becoming a national model for the benefits of high-dosage tutoring. The Urban Education Lab began a series of large-scale trials to evaluate Saga’s methodology.

Researchers found that:

  • Students tutored by Saga learned up to 2.5 years more math in one academic year.
  • Student attendance rose as much as 18 days per academic year.
  • Schools with Saga tutors saw math course failure rates drop as much as 63%.
  • Course failures in other subjects at those schools dropped as much as 23%.
  • The persistent gap in academic performance by socioeconomic status, known as the “opportunity gap,” closed nearly 50% in one academic year.
The UChicago Education Lab studies have have found that ninth- and 10th-grade students who received tutoring from Saga scored higher on exams, earned better grades and passed other subjects at higher rates than those who didn’t. 

The data quantified what Parham-Gantt believed from Day One — that she was making a difference in her students’ lives.

“One of the most impactful things that happened that first year that I tutored was just coming in every day, working with the group of students, building relationships,” she said. “Of course, we had our challenges, but I always felt that I was benefiting them.”

A move toward equity

High-quality tutoring is more of an art than a science. Success hinges on the connection between tutor and student, their ability to bond over topics that may have nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Take Parham-Gantt, for example. Sure, the engineering whiz knew a thing or two about balancing an equation. But so much of her relationship with Rodgers had nothing to do with math.

“She had the knowledge and she had the skills, but she wasn't very confident,” Parham-Gantt said. “There was a lot of self-doubt that prevented her from always doing her best, even though she was more than capable.”

She soon figured out that Rodgers didn’t need instructional support as much as positive reinforcement, which then gave her the self-efficacy to solve those stubborn algebra problems on her own.

Plus it’s not always easy for teenagers to show vulnerability. Getting to that point means the tutor and the student must forge a partnership based on trust and mutual respect.

“Sometimes it can be hard to ask for help when you don't understand something or it takes you a bit longer than the others,” said Rodgers. “But I never felt uncomfortable telling her that I needed help with math problems or really anything going on in my life. She just had an aura that made me feel comfortable.”

That’s why relationship-building factors heavily into the Saga Coach curriculum, which provides units on the how-to’s of tutoring and the importance of academic rigor. The portal provides 4 hours of material — asynchronous so learners can set their own pace — and is broken down into modules. It’s the kind of training that school districts, after school programs and social impact groups often lack the time and resources to offer. Support from organizations, like Comcast, helped make this resource a reality and Saga wants to make it available universally. This is especially important at a time like now where many school districts and organizations are thinking of deploying tutoring as a way to support students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parham-Gantt said like everything Saga creates, it was built with students in mind.

“By making training available to all tutors, we’re ensuring that more students get the high-quality tutoring they deserve, regardless of where they live or what school district they're in,” she said. “It’s a big-picture move towards educational equity that’s our mission at Saga.”

Margaret Moffett is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, North Carolina. She also is an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of North Carolina. Previously, Margaret spent 27 years as a daily newspaper reporter and editor. 

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