Turning around the student achievement gap by incentivizing success

Peer Power Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, is taking a new approach to boosting student achievement by paying successful students to tutor their classmates and incentivizing academic improvement. Now in eight area schools, the program pulls the principles of free market economics into the classroom while also building fun, student-driven learning environments.

Stop by East High School on a weekday afternoon, and you'll see the expected empty hallways and quiet classrooms. But find your way to the library, and a room full of motivated students are still learning--with enthusiasm.

The students are participating in the Peer Power tutoring program, an innovative approach to peer learning that fosters ownership and personal responsibility in academics. The program is completely voluntary and offers incentives to fuel achievement, rather than relying on mandatory additional education for underperforming students. Tutors and teacher leaders are also focused on addressing social issues, which are often implicitly tied to poor academic performance.

Boosting academic performance in Memphis' public schools is a lofty goal, and Peer Power is seeing results. The program was founded in 2005 by local businessman, philanthropist and East High graduate Charlie McVean. After a visit to his alma mater, McVean became alarmed at the performance of Memphis schools. He wondered if the answer didn't lie in a free-enterprise approach. From higher test scores to rising graduation rates, the now eight schools participating in Peer Power are watching the program impact the futures of tutors and "scholars" (as the student learners are called).

Briana Desi, a senior at East High School, joined Peer Power as a struggling freshman with admittedly low self-esteem. "I was bullied in middle school, and from the first day of high school Mrs. King came and sought me out. She discerned who I was and saw my potential. Because of her encouragement, I've succeeded."

After excelling in the program, Briana became a tutor herself--a cycle of leadership often seen in Peer Power. Now she beams while listing her accomplishments: she raised her ACT score by seven points, is graduating as salutatorian of her class and has received a full ride to Tennessee State University. "I didn't think I would have relationships with these kinds of great people," she says of her impressive Peer Power colleagues.

The Mrs. King she refers to is Meah King, English teacher and Peer Power faculty "champion" at East High School. When the program launched at East High School nearly 10 years ago, it was student led. Mrs. King was invited by students to attend an after-school session and was immediately interested in the work. "I was mesmerized by the out-of-the-box, nontraditional approach to tutoring. And the students were learning, and enjoying it!" she says.

Each chapter of Peer Power is independently managed by its school's principals and teachers, but the work is privately funded by the Peer Power Foundation. Tutors are paid as much as $10.50 an hour for their work, and financial incentives exist for scholars, too. Cash payouts, field trips, athletic tickets and other rewards are earned by raising grades and test scores, but also by showing commitment and consistency in the program.

Incentives and competition are key, the tutors say. "Everyone likes money," says East High School senior Jalon Netters. "But we also appreciate being recognized and rewarded for helping."

By recruiting and training high-performing high school students to work with struggling students, Peer Power creates a comfortable, social environment for scholars to learn. This also allows tutors to be creative and flexible in their teaching methods. "We listen to our peers before we listen to adults," Briana points out. "We re-explain material and make sure things are clear and give them different ways to understand their work. There's always more than one way to solve a problem."

The social element, in addition to the incentives, keeps the scholars coming back day to day. "The tutor makes sure each scholar is there on time and completes the work given. We ensure that the students aren't just learning, but digesting," says Jeremy McNeal, a senior at East who is bound for University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

"But we also have fun," he quickly adds. "Other tutoring programs choose just the best students academically. We get students who are active and very social. We know how to appraise people and make them happy. We're a family and can motivate the scholars. We get it."

Tutors work in small teams or one-on-one with scholars for one hour after school during the week, using a curriculum provided by teachers but with methods they innovate themselves. Through games and unique, often competitive activities, they reinforce learning in all subject areas.

"We provide interactive things to do to reinforce classroom learning. Maybe the teacher wasn't clear, or maybe the student wasn't listening, but we're going to learn it either way," says junior Darick Tucker. "And while I'm helping them, I'm helping myself at the same time by going over the material again."

Darick recalls a particular friend who had been doing poorly in a pre-calculus math class. After spending some time in Peer Power tutoring and studying at home, he made an A on a quiz. "And then he said he was coming back next week (to tutoring). It gives you a good feeling, when you see a scholar really improve."

While the tutors are collecting a paycheck for their work, many admitted that helping their classmates was incredibly rewarding. Peer Power is often their first experience with giving back, and and the desire to help their community sticks.

"The students are being enriched socially and civically," says Mrs. King. "They develop an awareness of the world around them--they have a voice and can make an impact on society."

She has also watched the students develop "soft skills" that she sees as vital to success outside of high school. "Tutors and scholars learn to be on time, and be respectful and mindful of their peers. They learn interview etiquette and how to present themselves professionally."

Around 150 high school tutors in Memphis and North Mississippi help more than 1,000 student scholars in the program weekly, and past high school tutors are continuing their work into college, mentoring the younger tutors. And the positive results are obvious--Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System data from 2012-2013 showed that students involved in Peer Power are academically surpassing their fellow students in English and math.

Overall, Mrs. King says, they are teaching students to take ownership of their future and make good choices. "We have lots of discussions about choices and enjoying the consequences of good decisions. We're eliminating excuses and telling them there's no reason you can't be successful."

Read more articles by Anna Mullins.

Anna is a local writer, editor and non-profit administrator. She serves as Managing Editor for High Ground and as the Director of Communications and Marketing for the New Memphis Institute. Share feedback and story ideas with her here.
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