The Revolutionary Idea Behind a Class of One

Posted by Seth Linden

How do students learn effectively in a classroom where the student-to-teacher ratio is 30:1?

After reading Michael Salmonowicz’s Tutor For Every Child, it becomes clear that bringing a personal relationship to every student would dramatically improve our education system. On an institutional level, one-on-one learning would close achievement gaps, graduate more students from high school, and prepare more kids for college and beyond.

Instead of a class of 30, 20, or even 10, we need to bring a “Class of One” to our neediest students. By doing so, we can close the racial and economic achievement gaps, graduate more students from high school, and prepare more students for college and beyond.

We know that students learn at different paces, in different styles, with different levels of awareness, ability, and aptitude. Yet why do we assume that we can still teach them the same way? Personalized tutoring brings a Class of One to every student.

As a former teacher and educator in the Bay Area, I challenge us—our private foundations, our public corporations, our federal and local governments—to put more funding into more personalized education.  We funnel millions of dollars into new technologies, smaller class sizes, better teacher pay, all of which are useful, yet all of which are two or three degrees away from creating more individualized, customized learning experiences. We would be better off spending that money on personalized, one-on-one tutoring.

How scalable, might you ask, is this with 6 million K-12 students in California? First of all, not every student needs state-subsidized tutoring, as many parents can and do pay top dollar for one-on-one instruction. Let's say that 50 percent of parents can afford the roughly $100 per hour that most competitive tutoring companies or individuals charge. That leaves 3 million students who cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket. If we then focus on the lowest-performing 10 percent, that leaves 300,000 students whose personalized education could and should be paid for by outside resources.

At $35 per hour, including program and administrative costs, the Tutorpedia Foundation can provide one year of one-on-one tutoring to an under-served student—at a cost of about $1,000 per year. Scaling that to 300,000 students would cost the state about $300 million. I certainly understand this is a lot of money, but considering that Arne Duncan's Race To The Top fund provides more than $4 billion to innovative initiatives in education—and California could receive $700 million—the money is there, it's just a matter of priorities.

Let's put it in further perspective: The Gates Foundation just committed $30 million to expand KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools and the Ford Foundation just gave $100 million to transform secondary education in urban schools across the country. By involving teachers in the tutoring (or giving them some planning or breathing time during their busy days), and incorporating a volunteer model, this idea has real and lasting staying power.

What are the alternatives? Achievement gaps will continue to persist, high school drop-out rates will increase, and more students will enter the workforce without a college degree.

The answer to fixing our broken education system does not have to be complicated. Yes, we need better pay, better training, and better professional development for teachers. Yes, we need more computers and adaptive technology for our students. But what we need most of all is personal attention. We need to build trust and confidence in our students. We need to build lasting, influential relationships.

We all grew up with the three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now we need to focus on making education more real, relevant, and rigorous. All of these have to do with building personal relationships—relationships that are best formed in a Class of One.


A version of this essay previously appeared at True/Slant.

Seth Linden runs Tutorpedia, a tutoring company that serves K-12 students in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Prior to that, he taught and tutored in both public and private schools.