When Mike Preiner got a Ph.D. in applied physics at Stanford, about the last place he thought he’d end up is at an elementary school exhorting kids to practice their fractions.

“I’m just bad at math,” one fifth grader said to him recently at an after-school tutoring session at Seattle’s Northgate Elementary — where three-fourths of the students did not make the grade on last fall’s standardized math tests.

“Your score has gone up more than half a grade level,” Preiner protested, pointing at the girl’s computer screen. “You are not bad at math.”

What’s happening at Northgate is what Preiner, who has no formal background in teaching, calls an “ambitious, or crazy” attempt at tackling one of the most pernicious problems in education: the math achievement gap.

It has become the holy grail of K-12 schooling. How can we keep kids from falling behind, which effectively blunts their chances of going on to college at a shockingly early age?

“It’s the key to everything — to wealth inequality, to better futures for the poor and middle class,” says Preiner, 42, who was the first in his family to go to college.

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It’s even more urgent right now, as a record 70% of the public school students in Washington did not meet the standard on the state’s math tests last fall. That was up sharply from before the pandemic, suggesting this longstanding problem just got worse.

When the pandemic hit, Preiner had by chance just sold a stake in a tech firm he co-founded that was designed to help make farming more efficient. Living in Seattle, he was casting about for positive ways to use his skills as a data scientist, and he hit on this.

He spent the better part of a year researching the math deficit and then founded what he calls The Math Agency. It proposes to use something called high-dosage tutoring to audaciously end the math gap before kids get to middle school.

“Is it possible to completely close elementary school achievement gaps?” he asked in a recent post on Medium, where he has been chronicling the effort.

“I completely view this as an experiment,” he told me. “It’s great to say this stuff works in an academic paper. But you’ve got to prove it. You have to actually do it.”

So far this year, about a hundred kids have been meeting with tutors at Northgate and three other Seattle schools. Most of the tutors are University of Washington education or math students. What’s different about the program from conventional tutoring is that Preiner is relentlessly tracking everything using digital tools, down to the number of minutes each student practices.

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“If you can average 40 minutes of practice this week, we’ll have a party!” he tells 13 Northgate kids, showing them a graph of their minutes practiced every week of the year to date, as recorded on their laptop computers.

Before each session, tutors go over a “troubleshooting” list, which shows for example that one student is having difficulty with multiplying two-digit numbers, another made multiple mistakes on word problems, and so on.

Bottom line: At Northgate, the roughly 30 kids are gaining, on average, 1.8 grade levels in math for the year, according to Preiner’s data. Previously the average growth rate was 0.7 grade levels — meaning they were falling further behind each year.

If you do the math, and he has, it means a third grader who is two years behind could effectively be caught up by the time she leaves elementary school.

Preiner, who answered most of my questions with “we don’t know yet,” says there are a ton of caveats to these early results. It’s a small number of students. It’s only been a year. Any gains might fade. Maybe the biggest caveat: The kids need to keep coming.

But it’s already “pretty clear we’ve been able to drastically increase the growth rate in math for some of the most disadvantaged students in Seattle,” he said.

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This isn’t the first high-dosage tutoring program to show dramatic gains. Most famously, Saga Education, a program in Chicago, also produced one- to two-year math gains in high school students.

The Saga program is so intensive that it costs roughly $4,000 per student per year. Preiner believes he can do it for $500 to $1,000 per student, using a larger tutor-to-student ratio and fewer hours per week (the Northgate kids who have been recording 1.8 grade-level jumps incredibly are only getting one hour per week of direct tutoring).

Regardless if it’s small upstart programs like this one or a national “Marshall Plan” for tutoring, this column is another public cry by me: We desperately need more of this in our schools.

There’s hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid still floating around. More one-on-one, face-to-face attention for kids would be a fantastic place to put it. After all the disruption schools have been through, call it the opposite of social distancing.

As for Preiner, he’s in four schools and looking for more. I asked him for his ultimate goal.

“It’s to end these achievement gaps we’ve been talking about our entire lifetimes,” he said. “I’m more of a data guy than a policy person. But on any number of issues we’re facing in our society, that would be the single most powerful lever we could pull.”