Research Economics

A Bocconi and Harvard Program Improved Middle School Students Performance and Wellbeing in Lockdown

, by Fabio Todesco
Eliana La Ferrara and Michela Carlana raised disadvantaged pupils' wellbeing and socioemotional skills through an online tutoring program that could be replicated on a larger scale

Eliana La Ferrara (Bocconi's LEAP, Laboratory for Effective Anti-poverty Policies) and Michela Carlana (Harvard Kennedy School) succeeded in improving the academic performance, well-being, and socio-emotional skills of disadvantaged Italian high-school students during the COVID-19 lockdown through a simple, low-cost online homework tutoring program (TOP – Tutoring Online Program) organized with the collaboration of a team of pedagogical experts from Milan's Università Bicocca. Now, they are planning to scale-up the program, which involved 520 students from 78 middle schools all around Italy and 520 tutors, in the next school year and possibly in different, non-Italian settings. The results are soon to become a scholarly paper.

"The COVID pandemic emphasized educational inequalities across the world", Prof. La Ferrara says, "but the educational gap based on family background is a persistent feature of school systems at any time and we found an effective way to address it".

Three hours of online tutoring per week proved to be enough to produce strong and significant effects on middle school students' performance (+4.7%), well-being (+26%) and socio-emotional skills (+21.1%). An intensive, six-hours-a-week program doubled the improvement in academic performance.

In a psychologically hard time like the lockdown, participant students not only improved their marks, but also displayed significantly higher happiness and fewer signs of depression. They were less likely to plan to leave the studies after middle-school and more likely to think they have control on their own lives.

Italian schools closed due to the COVID emergency on 5 March, 2020 and moved to distance learning, never to reopen again. International surveys show that the move to online learning disproportionately penalized disadvantaged students. Before school closure in Italy, for example, 12.8% of the students in the TOP sample used to resort to help from people who were not parents or siblings (for example, other family members or after school programs) for their homework; after the closure, the share dropped to 2.9%. Those doing homework on their own passed from 55.3% to 62.1%.

Professors La Ferrara and Carlana, starting on 20 March, addressed the Rectors of three large Milanese universities (Bocconi, Bicocca and Statale) to recruit university students as tutors. Thanks to the collaboration of the Deans and Rectors of these universities, the response of the volunteer tutors has been exceptional. These tutors were trained and supervised by a team of specialists led by Giulia Pastori and Andrea Mangiatordi (Bicocca University). Carlana and La Ferrara also addressed the principals of all Italian middle-schools offering the free individual tutoring service in Math, Italian and English and asking them to identify the students most in need because of family background, language barriers or learning disorders. The program has been running for around two months, from 10 April to the end of the school year.

The demand for tutoring surpassed the project capacity and the scholars had to randomly accept only half of the applications, turning down the rest. The group of students who did not receive a tutor served as a comparison group for evaluating the impact of the program.

"Participants needed an Internet connection, but our results don't change according to the device used by the pupils", Prof. Carlana says. "The effect is equally strong when middle-school students don't have a computer or a tablet and can only use a smartphone".

"The experiment worked as a proof of concept", Prof. La Ferrara concludes. "We have shown that you only need a limited amount of resources to contain the educational gap. Our experience could turn out to be very useful in case of new or persistent lockdowns".

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