Leveraging pro-social behavior to tackle educational poverty: some takeaways and future perspectives

By Gaia Gaudenzi

There is evidence around the world (two examples here and here) telling us that COVID-19 and the decision to close schools during the lockdown had negative effects on pupils’ educational attainments and well-being. In most cases, students who are in “cognitive” educational poverty (meaning that they are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in math and reading) come from socio-economically and culturally disadvantaged backgrounds (For more information and data about educational poverty in Italy, please the Save The Children’s report here).

The program:
The Tutoring Online Program, designed by Prof. Eliana La Ferrara (Bocconi University) and Prof. Michela Carlana (Harvard University), was born during the 2020 lockdown precisely to mitigate the negative effect of distance learning on middle school students, particularly targeting the disadvantaged ones. The program consisted of assigning a tutor (a volunteer university student) to a student in need. The tutors provided weekly individual online tutoring to the middle school students they were assigned to. The formula has been piloted during the first lockdown in Italy in 2020, where 530 students received tutoring from April to May. The program had impressive results, especially considering its short duration. Participating students showed substantial and significant improvements along four dimensions: educational performance, aspirations, socio-emotional skills, and psychological well-being (a draft of the paper is available here).

Looking back:
I had the opportunity to be the Project Manager of the second edition of the program, during which tutoring has been offered to 810 middle school students from November 2020 until May 2021.

The big challenge of this second edition was the length of the program, which would make it harder for university students to commit to the level of effort observed during the short pilot. I suspected the altruistic behavior by tutors observed in the pilot phase was the result of temporary enthusiasm, driven both by a genuine desire to help those most in need during an unprecedented crisis and by the sudden increase in free time due to home confinement. In a situation where the emergency becomes the norm (and therefore the sense of urgency decays), it would have been very hard to find enough university students  willing to give away their time for free. I was wrong. In a matter of weeks, we received enough applications to start off.

Some reflections and takeaways:
I believe this program is an example of how pro-social behavior can be leveraged to improve public service delivery (I leave the discussion on whether this might be a viable way or not for another time). I also believe that the power of the universities’ brand (Bocconi and Harvard) played a role in the success of the recruitment campaign. However, I definitely believe that the latter is unlikely to be enough to prompt university students to embark on a 7-month program that requires a tutors’ constant effort and presence. It is probable that highly motivated people, with a genuine willingness to help, were more prone to self-select into the program. At the moment, there is no solid evidence that this was the case because there was no variation in the way tutors were recruited. This would have helped us to better understand why tutors decided to participate. Some qualitative and anecdotal evidence, coming from the personal interaction of the team1 with the tutors throughout the year, suggests that in the majority of the cases tutors experienced a boost in motivation when reminded they were doing something meaningful, even if, at that very moment, they were not getting any kind of gratitude in return. This was even more true for tutors who found it difficult to motivate their tutee to take part in the tutoring every week, as required by the program. I gladly admit that the interaction with tutors turned out to be a powerful source of inspiration also for me, managing this project 100% remotely. Their dedication in helping a student who was a stranger to them has been a continuous source of hope in these difficult and unprecedented times.

Moving forward:
The second edition of the program is officially at the end and many questions now arise about its future and the feasibility of a further scale-up. First of all, does an online tutoring program still have a role to play in a post-pandemic world, where lockdowns will (hopefully) be a distant memory and students will be sick and tired of following classes online, being traumatized by months of distance learning? My personal opinion is yes.

First of all, one might argue that the distribution of high-level tutors is very uneven across Italy, with most of them concentrated in large cities where there are more job opportunities. Thus, the supply of skilled tutors in peripheral areas could be particularly scarce. In this case, a Tutoring Online Program would allow also those living in more remote areas to have access to a larger pool of highly qualified tutors.

Second, even if there were a market for quality tutors available pretty much everywhere, some people might still find it difficult to get access to it because of their limited native network (i.e. immigrant families), lack of resources (cognitive and financial), or a mix of both. The Tutoring Online Program might be the best available option for students coming from families that cannot assist their children through their education, for instance because they have a limited amount of human capital accumulation or because they cannot afford (or are willing to pay for) a tutor.

Moreover, sometimes middle schools are not able to provide families and pupils with the appropriate information they need to take informed decisions about their future, namely the choice of which high school to attend, whether to attend university or not, and eventually which job might be right for them. Or, students might be victims of framing and prejudices within the school, and these might affect their performance and aspirations. A tutor also acts as a mentor, both by helping students understand what their interests and aspirations are and by filling the “information gap” on how to fulfil them.

For these reasons, as long as there are high-quality tutors available and willing to volunteer to help a student overcome the difficulties they encounter at school, and as long as it is possible to target the students who would benefit most from it, a Tutoring Online Program might be a relatively simple and inexpensive solution to help several students who struggle to keep up with school and are living in a context of educational poverty.

1The amazing team of Research Assistants that helped either with the monitoring of the intervention or with the implementation of the data collection throughout this year is composed of: Alessandro Palucci, Angelica Bozzi, Antonio Cappucci, Claudio Giambrone, Cristina Perricone, Diego Faurès, Diva Barisone, Emanuele Clerico, Francesca Colombi, Gabriele Todesca, Giulio Radaelli, Matteo Fossi, Michael Massaro, Rosangela D’Erchia, Rossella De Sabbata, Simone Maria Parazzoli.

If you have comments or questions about this blog post please leave a comment here! Alternatively, you can email me at gaia.gaudenzi@unibocconi.it.