Discover more from The Achievement Plateau
Can Ozempic end the achievement plateau?
Fast results, but at what cost?
Last fall, a Twitter user tweeted a photo of Elon Musk looking toned and muscular. “What’s your secret?” the user asked. Musk was quick to respond: “Fasting. And Wegovy.”
Wegovy is a prescription weight-loss drug modeled after another drug, Ozempic, that was originally designed to help individuals with type 2 diabetes and that’s now become the glam-drug of Hollywood elite. According to some reports, these semaglutides, as they’re commonly called, are being dealt in wealthy circles like kids exchanging bags of Takis in the cafeteria. Jimmy Kimmel even teased fellow celebrities about it. Individuals that take these drugs lose weight — and fast. Unfortunately, they must also confront some side effects — diarrhea, hair loss, vomiting, constipation, dizziness, nausea — and they tend to gain the weight right back after they stop taking the drugs.
What does this have to do with ending the achievement plateau in public education? In many ways, our nation’s obesity epidemic mirrors our nation’s challenges in education. Nearly 40% of adults qualify as obese, and similarly high percentages of students fail to meet basic proficiency standards in reading and math. Obesity, like poor math and reading skills, is correlated with lots of negative health outcomes. Both tend to be concentrated in areas with deep poverty. And both seem, despite many years of large-scale interventions, intractable.
Ozempic’s meteoric rise in popularity as an obesity treatment mirrors the rise of a similar intervention for our public education epidemic: high-dosage tutoring is regularly touted as a breakthrough “drug” for helping underperforming students.
Like Ozempic, tutoring can be really effective. Supporters often point to this meta-analysis that shows tutoring has a strong impact — about .37 standard deviations. That’s equivalent to losing a significant amount of weight very quickly. What the meta-analysis doesn’t show, though, are the potential side effects.
Like Ozempic, high-dosage tutoring is also really expensive. It requires adults, typically teachers or trained paraprofessionals, working with students in small groups (1:1 or 1:3 at most). This EdWeek article cited a study of a Chicago-based tutoring program that cost $3800 per student. That’s more than 10% of Chicago’s per pupil spending. Tacking on such a hefty increase seems unsustainable given our country’s reluctance to properly fund education.
Like Ozempic, we also don’t know much about complications from prolonged use. High-dosage tutoring may help to undo some of the acute learning loss caused by the pandemic, and I question its ability to be a long-term solution to the consistently low academic achievement in most districts serving disadvantaged students.
Why? With Ozempic, once the intervention is removed, the effect diminishes or goes away completely — people regain the weight rather quickly. I’d expect similar results with high-dosage tutoring. Because it’s so costly, it’s often paid for with ARPA dollars. Those funds will run out eventually, and only wealthier districts will be able to afford to pay for tutoring. And the potential side effects of teacher burnout worry me. Last year, even with unlimited dollars to pay teachers to stay late and tutor students, most of the teachers at my school just wanted to go home when the school bell rang. (I did too)
Let me be clear: I’m not here to demonize weight loss drugs. Losing weight is really difficult, primarily because we live in a calorie-rich environment. Highly caloric foods are everywhere. This calorie-rich environment exploits our genetic predispositions to carry extra weight for survival (see: epigenetics). To combat obesity long-term, we need to either change the environment or adjust how the brain interacts with it.
As someone who was obese for the better part of my adolescence, I’ve spent a lot of mental, emotional, cognitive, and physical energy trying to lose weight in my life. It’s exhausting. I’ve listened to numerous podcasts and watched countless YouTube videos on Ozempic — it has been positively life-changing for some individuals. If there’s a medical intervention with limited/acceptable side effects, why shouldn’t people take it?
There’s a similar dynamic at play in public education. Students who grow up in academic deserts — areas bereft of libraries, early childhood education, highly-educated parents, and lagging community-supported extracurricular activities — start behind and often stay behind.
Consider how hard it is for those students who struggle in school. Even the youngest students know when they’re struggling with reading or math and others aren’t. Just like getting on a scale can elicit anger and sadness, seeing “below basic” on their progress reports can cause all kinds of difficult emotions. So we should be searching for miracle cures that have the capacity to change their lives.
I’m also not hear to demonize high-dosage tutoring. There are some organizations, like the Minnesota Reading Corps, that are doing life-changing work for students. My fear is that this latest intervention will further exacerbate the disparity between rich and poor districts. Even as we strive for equity, we still have a public education system largely built on local funding, meaning wealthier districts can easily afford the latest and greatest intervention while the rest of us are forced to count calories, hit our step goal, and feel guilty, embarrassed, and angry when we fall short.
Thanks for reading. Have a great week.