08/19/2011 12:59 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2011

Replacing Chalk-and-Talk with One-on-One for Better Results in Mexico

"Do not erase!"

I looked up guiltily at Juan Pedro. He had given me this rebuke 2 or 3 times already as I attempted to solve a math problem designed to challenge a fifth grader. "You are constructing the mathematical concepts as you look for the answer," he said. "Every error you make is important."

After two years discovering the challenges and triumphs of teaching at a high-needs middle school in East Harlem, New York, I had come to Mexico City to support Juan Pedro Rosete and his colleagues at the non-profit organization Convivencia Educativa (CEAC). Led by Dr. Gabriel Cámara, CEAC developed a simple yet elegant method called relaciones tutoras, or tutoring relationships, to promote student achievement at the lowest performing primary and secondary schools in Mexico.

I was told that even if I was assigned to work with the communications team that I had to become part of the organization's network of tutees and tutors. "The best way to learn about the method is to live it," said Rosete, an adviser for the program's activities in the State of Mexico and my first tutor. Thus, I was back in the 5th grade learning fractions.

In the United States, tutoring is synonymous with supplementing what a child learns in the classroom with sessions outside of school. But the idea that CEAC and its affiliated federal government program -- the Integral Strategy to Improve Academic Achievement (or EIMLE, for its Spanish abbreviation) -- hope to bring to scale here in Mexico imagines one-on-one tutoring as the primary way to educate students at the 9,000 public schools around the country where over 50% of the students scored for three consecutive years far below proficient on the standardized national tests.

In the schools that have adopted tutoring relationships, teachers hardly ever stand at a blackboard delivering content. Instead, someone with deep knowledge of a process tutors a student who wants to learn that process. When you work with a tutor, you can't hide in the back of the room, and you are always met at your level.

And where does the army of tutors needed to teach students at 9,000 schools come from? From inside the classrooms themselves. Program advisers and coaches tutor schoolteachers -- the majority of whom routinely fail standardized exams that evaluate teacher quality -- in the subtleties of a text (for language arts) or a problem (for mathematics) that is aligned with a national standard. The goal is not to train teachers in "math" or even "fractions" as general concepts, but to arm them with the tools they need to successfully reason through a specific exercise and clearly explain how they arrived at their answer.

Teachers use the same methods they experienced as tutees to tutor a few students in their class, one at a time. Once a few students solve the problem, they submit a written account of their process and make an oral presentation to demonstrate mastery. Then these students are considered qualified to tutor their classmates in the same problem; which they do, until everyone in the class has the ability to tutor that exercise.

The number of potential "teachers" in the room grows exponentially as student and teacher-tutors add problems and texts to their repertoires and as the pool of tutors is expanded to include parents and administrators. Adults tutor children, children tutor adults -- so long as the tutor knows something that the tutee wants to know.

As I worked through my problem, I felt like Britney, a student I'd taught in my literacy class in New York, the model of a perfectionist who would rip an entire sheet from her composition notebook when she wrote a sentence she didn't like. "Britney, you may need your mistakes later," I would tell her. "That's how real writers write."

I could tell Rosete sensed my impatience. He responded with quiet calm: "Why did you choose to divide the fractions?" he asked. A good tutor never gives out answers, he told me later. A good tutor asks questions and provides examples so that the learner can create the knowledge for him or herself.

Rosete would know. He taught for a few years in communities where administrators and the teachers' union just do not place teachers -- a smattering of five to ten families living four hours (walking, or via burro) from the nearest paved road in homes with no phones or electricity. He remembers one moment when the challenge seemed too daunting (my translation):

"After walking for about two hours on foot, we took a break to drink some water. There was a little spring and two big mango trees bearing green fruits. We had been walking for two hours and I could barely see the road. I asked, 'How much further?' and I really felt like going back."
He took a deep breath, and continued. "But I couldn't turn back. How could I? The kids were waiting for me. There was no way."

With this story in mind, I got back to work on my fractions.