Want to fix public schools? Help teachers help students

October 10th, 2017

The Commercial Appeal | Charles McVean

The greatest waste of money in the history of education might have been the money spent trying to teach my generation about the broad cycles of history.

The tepid response of our business and professional communities to the interconnected problems of poverty, crime, and failed family units is a classic example of this lack of historical perspective. 

These deeply entrenched social problems are systemic, pervasive and growing, and, left untended, might very well mark the decline in the United States as a great nation.

Believing the above, I became increasingly convinced that big sweeping solutions were needed for these big sweeping problems.

At first, I thought a proliferation of small charter schools might be one of the most efficient and efficient solutions. That isn't big enough. We need big, game-chaning ideas to help big, distressed public schools.

A dozen years ago, we created Peer Power to do just that. Peer Power is a nonprofit organization that employs higher-performing students to tutor and mentor lower-performing ones.

The Peer Power Foundation works with Shelby County Schools and the University of Memphis to pay college tutors to assist in the high school classrooms during and after school hours.

Peer Power takes as its model the one-room schoolhouse. The only way one teacher could help students of varying ages, abilities and achievement levels was by using older, higher-performing students to help younger, less-advanced ones.

Asking today's teachers in our most distressed schools to deal with 30 or more students per class, many of whom are two-five grade levels behind and dealing with issues away from school, is unrealistic.

Peer Power helps by reducing the student-teacher ratio to providing classroom teachers with two or three assistants. They give each professional teacher more time for classroom management and individualized instruction.

To date, we have invested $13 million to train and employ 1,500 young people to tutor 15,000 students. Since we started in 2004, we have brought down our costs to roughly $500 per year for each student being tutored in the core subjects of English, algebra and science.

As you can read in the accompanying guest column by Dr. Vincent Hunter, principal of Whitehaven High, our flagship, the results speak for themselves. 

So do the participants, as you can read in the guest column by teacher Meah King and student Alex Lomax.

Test results and other measures show that Peer Power helps raise achievement levels, attendance and graduation rates.

Charles McVean, founder of McVean Trading & Investments, is founder and chairman of the Peer Power Foundation.

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Deidra M. Sanders

At age fifteen, I was introduced to Mr. Charles McVean and the Peer Power Foundation.  Peer Power provided my first job as well as endless opportunities throughout high school and college.  The Foundation set very high standards for me as a student, a tutor, and leader.  Peer Power taught me the value of not only excelling academically, but how to be a model citizen and consistently improve the whole person.  Through Peer Power, I learned the value of helping others and how to give back to the community in other ways.  Throughout my four years at Georgetown, I have made it my goal to give back to the community.  The high expectations set by Peer Power have aided me in achieving my goals in receiving a dual degree in International Politics and International Economics.  I will soon start a career in government sciences.  I know that I would not have made it this far without the direction given to me from Peer Power.