Learning loss is one of the most alarming impacts of the pandemic as COVID-19 upended — and continues to disrupt — day-to-day life in communities around the world. Initially, the pandemic led schools to shutter their doors and attempt improvised distance learning. Using curricula designed for in-person classrooms, educators with little to no online teaching experience struggled to adapt to the new stay-at-home model.
Students logged in late or not at all. They grew distracted or tuned out of the lessons being presented. Some 1.1 million students were “lost” from the nation’s public schools, according to education nonprofit The 74. That student dropout crisis has since extended beyond K-12, with dismally low college enrollment figures showing nearly 1 million fewer students signing up for classes, per Inside Higher Ed.
The unprecedented knowledge gap left in Covid’s wake is now combining with the worst national teacher shortage in recent history to form a perfect storm. These critical teacher shortages are adding fuel to a fire that continues to char our children’s educational futures. But there is one ray of hope that has managed to break through: the government-sponsored American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (APR ESSER) Fund.
Among the resources being offered by APR ESSER are a myriad of tutoring-related initiatives aimed at helping school districts partner with tutors who can not only help mitigate the learning loss, but perhaps overcome it altogether.
What is APR ESSER?
The American Rescue Plan was signed into law in March 2021, dedicating $1.9 trillion to addressing various Covid-related problems. Out of that jaw-dropping sum, an impressive $122 billion was earmarked for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. Some estimates are as high as $190 billion in total going to schools across the country.
As noted on the ARP ESSER Fact Sheet, states were directed to disburse at least 90% of funds to Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to “[h]elp meet a wide range of needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic, including reopening schools safely, sustaining their safe operation, and addressing students’ social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs resulting from the pandemic.”
From their respective allocations, LEAs must use at least 20% of the funds granted to “address learning loss through the implementation of evidence-based interventions and ensure that those interventions respond to students’ social, emotional, and academic needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.”
These underrepresented subgroups are defined on the fact sheet as:
- Each major racial and ethnic group
- Children from low-income families
- Children with disabilities
- English learners
- Migrant students
- Students experiencing homelessness
- Children and youth in foster care
But how are schools using their ARP ESSER funds to “address learning loss?” What are the “evidence-based interventions” being implemented, and how do administrators ensure those interventions are sufficiently responding to the myriad and complex needs of so many different student groups?
As mentioned, tutoring has proven itself to be the best solution for these issues. That is why so many schools are using ARP ESSER funds to ramp up their tutoring programs on such large scales. They’re literally altering the landscape of the tutoring profession.
How is APR ESSER tied to tutoring?
In the past, when the nation’s educational system faced troubles, the federal government tried to solve things by throwing money at the problem. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a fair example. Even though there were “pros” to the initiative, the list of “cons” overwhelmed the positive results. As posted by the NGO Vittana, “the structure of NCLB was more about money than student learning.” In fact, there were even instances of districts declining federal funds to avoid “bureaucratic nightmares” or being “liable for the outcomes.”
Obviously the Department of Education wants schools to be comfortable accepting ARP ESSER funding, and it wants administrators to feel secure knowing what is expected when they do. That is one of the main reasons why access to ARP ESSER funds come with the strict criteria it does — so that schools don’t run afoul of the same mistakes again. Hence the need for utilizing “evidence-backed” strategies like tutoring.
In the race to address learning loss in the face of twin predicaments — a pandemic followed by a national teacher shortage — tutoring has emerged as the clear winner, with plenty of supporting research behind it.
How to implement effective, high impact tutoring with ARP ESSER funds?
One educational center leading the charge for tutoring research is the National Student Support Accelerator (NSSA), run by The Annenberg Institute based at Brown University. NSSA declared its mission to “accelerate the growth of high impact tutoring opportunities for K-12 students in need.” Indeed, the Accelerator’s core values of “student-centered acceleration,” “equity-based,” and “evidence-backed” align perfectly with the demands of the ESSER.
Tutoring, as defined by NSSA, “is a form of teaching, one-on-one or in a small group, towards a specific goal.” But, more specifically, NSSA advocates for high impact tutoring, which it claims “leads to substantial learning gains for students by supplementing (but not replacing) students’ classroom experiences. High impact tutoring responds to individual needs and complements students’ existing curriculum.”
How do districts integrate high impact tutoring effectively? The National Student Support Accelerator lists five key features of effective tutoring which can serve as steps for districts to take when implementing programs. These steps are:
- Embed tutoring into school days (or immediately before or after)
- Schedule at least three 30-60 minute, high-impact sessions per week with 1-4 students per group
- Maintain tutor consistency and ensure tutors receive oversight and coaching
- Inform sessions via use of student progress data, when available (note, Pearl’s tutoring software is able to collect data points to help programs improve and show impact)
- Align materials with research and state standards
District Administration’s article “Do this, not that: Using ESSER funds for tutoring” suggests similar goals. In terms of implementing high-dosage tutoring programs, the five things they recommend for districts to prioritize are:
- Giving students more tutoring time
- Building strong tutor-student relations
- Monitoring individual student progress
- Aligning tutoring sessions with the classroom curriculum
- Quality engagement during sessions
School leaders should take note of both sets of guidelines as they go about putting their ESSER funds to good use. In its High Impact Tutoring Toolkit, NSSA offers advice to LEAs to ensure their programs are established “with fidelity and equitably across student populations.” LEAs are encouraged to create teams of key players who can set vision and strategy, monitor progress, and ensure district needs are being met.
These teams are also responsible for finding and partnering with appropriate tutors who can match those high impact tutoring needs. In many cases, schools should consider online tutoring providers. After all, tutors don’t always have the flexibility to come out in-person three times a week for only a half hour at a time. When searching for quality tutors, it’s important to keep their interests in mind and not just the schools’.
But the online format gives extra flexibility to students, too. Sometimes tutoring sessions must be done before or after school, making an online lesson more manageable, especially when parents’ schedules don’t allow them to alter the pick up and drop off times of their children. The key to effective tutoring is to make it accessible and convenient.
Naturally, online tutors still need to align their work to complement the school’s curriculum. When tutors use only their own materials, it can increase student frustration and potentially lead to confusion. Thus, teachers should share with tutors which instructional materials they’re using, along with details on where the class is currently at and which areas tutored students are behind in.
How is the tutoring industry changing because of APR ESSER?
In Pearl’s recent Pearls of Wisdom webinar interview with Patrick Steck of Deans for Impact, Steck discussed best practices for schools who are receiving APR ESSER funding to hire and train “rockstar tutors.” Given the large number of tutors needed in many districts, Steck suggests looking for qualified, trainable tutors in areas such as:
- In-service teacher pools
- Retired teachers
- Teacher aide undergraduates or graduate students
- Undergraduates majoring in subjects other than the ones needed
- Community volunteers
- Organizations that employ tutors
But finding tutors is only the first step. The trick is ensuring they are properly trained and monitored for performance. ARP ESSER funds can help in these areas. The extra funds allow for closer partnerships by providing schools the means and incentives to offer tutors professional development, better feedback for improvement, and better tools such as high-tech, online tutoring platforms (like Pearl).
As Mr. Steck noted in the webinar, tutor training and performance monitoring are vital elements to success. He advises providing on-the-job training (or OJT) similar to in-service teacher coaching, along with timely feedback related to their instruction. The persons providing this feedback to tutors should speak with students and parents to garner their personal insights. Feedback providers may also refer to surveys, which can help schools gain deeper understanding into how well tutoring programs are working in relation to predetermined goals.
Finally, tutoring feedback should be informed by data which can be drawn from using a system to track student growth over the course of sessions. Pearl works with educational institutions and tutoring companies who’ve received ARP ESSER funding to incorporate scalable tutoring software technology into their programs which can help capture such data. Pearl also offers educational institutions direct assistance to help them take advantage of ARP ESSER funds.
These are just a few of the many changes in the world of tutoring, which can continue to evolve and align with district goals when APR ESSER funds are implemented in an informed and timely manner.