By Christy M. Borders, Ed.D., Director, Illinois Tutoring Initiative, Illinois State University
Original publication by EdTech Chronicle
State leaders have their eyes on tutoring as a potential approach to counteract the academic effects of the pandemic as they continue to release their plans for spending their COVID-19 federal relief funds. And while tutoring has promising results for student learning, not all programs are created equal. As the director of the Illinois Tutoring Initiative (ITI), I’ve seen first-hand how high-impact, relationship-based tutoring in partnership with local colleges and universities is not only possible but is scalable, sustainable, and affects positive change for the communities served.
In 2021, in an effort to better support students, educators, and the broader community, the Illinois P-20 Council created a guide with evidence-based strategies to support learning renewal and student well-being, including high-impact tutoring. As a result, the State of Illinois invested $25 million in high-impact tutoring as one part of their COVID-19 recovery plan. The Illinois Tutoring Initiative involves strong partnerships across state agencies, higher education institutions, and K-12 priority school districts to support student learning in reading and math in grades 3-8, along with tutoring in high school math.
In April 2022, the team at Pearl was excited to hear about the launch of Accelerate, a new nonprofit organization on a mission to embed high-impact tutoring programs in public schools across the US.
With schools still struggling with widespread learning loss stemming from the pandemic, and districts still figuring out how to best apply their ARP ESSER funds to tackle it, Accelerate couldn’t have launched at a more critical time. Incubated and launched by the nonprofit organization America Achieves, and helmed by Kevin Huffman, the former Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Accelerate was launched with three principal goals in mind: 1) to fund and support innovation in schools, 2) to launch high quality research, and 3) to build a federal and state policy agenda to support this work.
To date, America Achieves has raised $65 million for Accelerate and aims to raise a total of $100 million by 2023. Initial funding was generously provided by Arnold Ventures, Kenneth C. Griffin, the chief executive officer of Citadel, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Overdeck Family Foundation.
Dr. Miguel Cardona, the current U.S. Secretary of Education serving under President Joe Biden, has praised the efficacy of high-impact tutoring and the launch of Accelerate, saying: “The evidence is clear: high-impact tutoring works, and I’ve urged our nation’s schools to provide every student who is struggling with extended access to an effective tutor (…) The effort announced today—Accelerate—is a rallying cry to schools, districts, states, and others (…) We must seize this moment to use federal relief funds to help students, including those most impacted by the pandemic, to close gaps in opportunity and achievement that grew even wider over the last two years. Together, we can ensure our elementary and secondary school students receive the support they need to learn and grow.”
Fund Your Use of the Pearl Tutoring Platform with Accelerate
Accelerate has issued a Call to Effective Action (CEA) to support educators, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and education organizations in their efforts to design and implement evidence-based, scalable models of high impact tutoring, and other interventions to support individualized learning.
Awards vary in size from $50,000 to $1,000,0000 with an emphasis on being ready to leverage the funds immediately. One of the most important things to understand about the Accelerate opportunity is that it does not pay for tutoring. The program was established to speed the deployment of evidence-based high impact tutoring, increase the impact through innovation, and take the friction out of reporting data about programs to researchers. There is also a huge emphasis placed on bringing quick solutions to traditionally underserved populations.
Interested participants must submit a Letter of Interest (LOI) by August 1, 2022. It is critically important to ensure that you qualify, can make an immediate impact on students’ lives, can build on-the-ground proof points for more effective and equitable tutoring and individualized learning, and can generate additional evidence of these proof points.
Click here for more information on submitting a Letter of Interest to Accelerate as a way to fund your use of the Pearl tutoring platform or get in touch with Pearl’s Chief Strategy Officer Nate Casey directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So how are we going to find all those tutors we need?
2021 saw the birth of the so-called Great Resignation as, around the nation, workers fled jobs by the droves. Many businesses laid-off workers because of a lack of customers. Some workers used the opportunity to finally switch careers and leave behind jobs they hated. Others quit because of frustrations with Covid protocols or other problems brought on by the pandemic. One sector slammed especially hard? Education.
Teachers have been in exodus mode for months now. Burned out, tired of getting blamed for student knowledge gaps (since even before the pandemic) or just plain fed up from dealing with angry parents, K-12 teachers around the country have decided to opt-out and either retire or look for other work. Indeed, the Learning Policy Institute noted in January 2022 that “the current staffing crisis in public schools is taking center stage in communities throughout the country.”
Meanwhile, an Education Week survey clearly demonstrated that school districts are struggling to staff vital teaching posts, with 37% reporting “moderate” problems, 25% claiming “severe” shortages and 15% warning of “very severe” issues.
How did we get here and what’s the way ahead — if there even is one?
Shortage of Teachers: An Old Problem, Exacerbated
Interestingly, the teacher shortage isn’t a new issue; it’s simply been thrust into the spotlight as the gap widened due to Covid.
In a recent Pearls of Wisdom webinar with Pearl CRO Nate Casey, Patrick Steck, Senior Director of Policy for Deans for Impact, points out that: “Teacher shortages are not a new topic in our field of education. The US has long struggled to attract, train and reward enough teachers to actually serve our students adequately.”
But Steck also observed how “uniquely different” this round of shortages has been. “At the start of the school year, teachers reported levels of exhaustion that we might expect heading into the end of the school year.” Clearly, stress overload has been a prime driver behind teachers exiting en masse, and it’s impacting certain hard-struck communities worse than others.
“Teacher shortages,” Steck says, “are often vexing for specific subject areas like Math, SpEd, ELA, and English Language Arts, and geographies — particularly our rural communities across the country. We have a hard time recruiting a workforce that actually reflects the students it needs to serve.”
How much of a negative impact has the shortage caused so far? Such measurements are difficult to calculate with precision, yet one indisputable fact is that teacher shortages are exacerbating the learning loss problem, which has already reached epidemic proportions.
The Pandemic-Fueled Learning Loss Crisis
Learning loss and knowledge gap problems are detrimental to this generation’s students and their futures, but the impacts can get passed on to their own children, too. Many studies have been done on the correlation between academics and income potential. In particular, a study by the University of Miami succinctly concluded, “High school grade point average (GPA) is a strong predictor of future earnings.”
In contrast, students who don’t fare well in K-12 classes may not make it to college and may struggle with a lifetime of lower earnings. They’re thus at greater risk of raising children in impoverished conditions. Over time, the cycle repeats, creating intergenerational poverty. Indeed, the National Center for Children in Poverty highlights this issue, noting “Poverty rates for adults who were poor during childhood are much higher, especially for those individuals with high levels of exposure to poverty during childhood.”
Beyond the long term impact on individual families, the problems caused by learning loss and the knowledge gap extend even to the economy on the whole. Indeed, a look back in time highlights the future problems awaiting the nation if we cannot fix these issues immediately. For example, McKinsey & Company’s COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help emphasizes that in 2009, if the achievement gap within students of color communities had been properly addressed, then “today’s US GDP would have been $426 billion to $705 billion higher.”
Although it is not a sole factor, the nationwide teacher shortage is at the root of this complex tangle of problems. The shortage is not only obviously real, it’s creating tangible long problems for students, families, communities, states…and for the entire nation.
The question is, how can it be fixed? Without sufficient teachers standing in classrooms, what can be done today to get students on the road to recovery from the deleterious effects of Covid on their learning?
Tutors to the Rescue
As a leader in the field of tutoring software, we at Pearl believe that tutoring is the clear evidence-based winner when it comes to solutions for filling the teachers gap and addressing learning loss. In fact, America is currently experiencing a “Renaissance in tutoring” as evolving technologies make it easier than ever to introduce qualified tutors into homes and classrooms — without the need for their physical presence.
Finding the Right Tutors
Finding qualified, suitable tutors comes with its own unique set of challenges. “Communities are really struggling to find enough tutors to meet student needs,” Patrick Steck notes in the webinar, while highlighting that districts are even mobilizing teacher candidates as tutors to help fill the gap.
Meanwhile, passively advertising tutoring jobs on the usual job portals like Indeed is bound to net plenty of applications, but sometimes it pays to be more proactive. Reaching out to the areas where potential tutoring pools exist can be fruitful. As Steck further states, savvy districts are “seeking support from retired teachers, in-service teachers, college students, community volunteers, and in some cases even high schoolers to support their younger peers.”
Integrating Online Tutoring
It may take time to find and train the right tutors, but the search can be easily expanded with one simple change — expanding the parameters to include online tutors. While in-person tutors are perfect for many situations, online options are great alternatives, especially with a bit of foreplanning. The key is to work out the logistics in advance. “Some…logistical challenges exist across the virtual tutoring field,” said Tutored by Teachers’ co-founder Shaan Akbar in an interview with Education Week.
Too often, school administrators and staff scramble to cover for teacher shortages by implementing virtual tutoring without sufficient preparation. They sometimes fail to take into consideration the practical implications of incorporating such lessons into the school day (for example, they must physically usher students into areas where they can make their online tutoring appointments). But when done right, the online tutoring can be a lifesaver for everyone involved.
Online tutors have far more flexibility, as well, which is critical for ensuring consistency. As EdSource writes, “Consistent tutoring with the same tutor can go far. In addition to helping students develop and make progress on their learning goals, tutors can serve as caring, reliable and inspirational role models to students who historically have not had the same access to personalized and stable resources and supports as those able to afford them.”
The Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes Among Adolescents study conducted at Chicago Public Schools discovered that, “By providing personalized instruction and coordinating closely with teachers, students, and families, tutors were able to complement in-classroom learning and help students progress two to three times faster than their peers.” Their findings discredited “conventional wisdom” by proving that it is not “too difficult or costly to substantially improve the academic skills of children who are behind once they reach high school.”
Professional Development for Tutors
Regardless of whether tutors and students are meeting physically or via online platforms, schools must commit to supporting tutors so they, in turn, can properly assist students. This tutor support should involve ongoing training and professional development similar to what teachers are offered.
As Education Week advises, “Include tutors in teacher professional learning. Whenever possible, have tutors attend curriculum-specific professional learning and training alongside teachers. This will build a shared investment in the materials and better prepare tutors with the knowledge and skills they need to accelerate instruction.”
Feedback is another vital element of a successful tutoring program. Ideally, teachers and students should have the ability to provide feedback directly to administrators through surveys or other means. Insightful, candid feedback regarding tutor performance helps schools gauge the success of individual tutors or groups, so that issues can be properly addressed in a timely manner.
In conjunction with that, there should be mechanisms in place to use that received feedback and incorporate it into constructive feedback provided to the tutors, so they can adjust and improve as needed.
The national teacher shortage is real, but so are the solutions — finding and training qualified, motivated tutors ready to engage students with high impact sessions…via virtual platforms (like tutoring platform Pearl), when needed. Implementing flexible online tutoring can quickly alleviate problems related to onboarding the right tutors and helps maintain consistency and motivation. Advanced platforms like Pearl were made to facilitate these types of lessons, so schools can deliver on-target tutoring where and when it is needed the most!
Pearl’s CRO Nate Casey recently conducted a broad-ranging interview with Patrick Steck, Senior Director of Policy for Deans for Impact, an organization committed to improving student learning outcomes by stewarding the transformation of educator preparation. Patrick also served as a legislative assistant in the Texas legislature and is currently on the front lines ensuring future educators learn what’s needed to become great teachers.
Below are time stamped highlights and key takeaways from our February 28, 2022 webinar about hiring and training rockstar tutors. You can also find the video of the full webinar embedded at the bottom of this article. And don’t forget to sign up to receive notifications of future Pearls of Wisdom webinars!
As Casey points out during the interview, there is a huge demand for educators nationwide, with “over 50 million K-12 students and a need for over 3.5 million teachers.” Unfortunately, there aren’t enough teachers to go around, with the Learning Policy Institute calling the teacher shortage a “crisis” that’s “stretching schools to the breaking point.”
An October 2021 survey by Education Week confirmed the severity of the teacher shortage crisis, highlighting dire feedback coming in from districts around the country, noting:
37% reported “moderate” shortages
25% reported “severe” shortages
15% reported “very severe” shortages
Steck says he isn’t surprised. “At the start of the school year, teachers reported levels of exhaustion that we might expect heading into the end of the school year.” One of the main reasons for that exhaustion has, of course, been the widespread and ceaseless disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. While the pandemic isn’t the only factor behind the dearth of teachers, it has obviously been a major one, with Covid driving up early teacher retirements by a whopping 26% in 2021.
However, the federal government is fighting back, funding a range of timely programs to bring tutors in to fill the gaps. “The pandemic unleashed tremendous energy, resources, and plans around tutoring as a means to facilitate learning recovery,” Steck says on a positive note.
As Casey points out, America is experiencing a “Renaissance in tutoring.” From in-person to online services, tutoring is the evidence-based winner when it comes to addressing student learning loss effectively. And, as mentioned above, tutoring is also a viable solution for tackling the crippling national teacher shortage at the same time. For these reasons and more, tutors are hot commodities these days.
But not all tutors are created equal and not every tutor is suitable for every district or student population. That is why both quality and variety are essential. Luckily, as Steck points out, there is a treasure trove of potentially excellent tutors out there who simply need the right training to evolve and help students succeed.
Effective tutoring training should be:
Grounded in the best scientific understanding of how students learn, using evidence-based practices tutors can deploy
Arranged to ensure tutors can create equitable inclusive learning environments through relationships they build with students
Aligned to a well-sequenced curriculum, particularly for tutors who might not be in-service teachers and are earlier in their development
Sequenced so tutors can engage in ongoing professional development opportunities so they can improve their skills.
Clearly schools have a lot of work to do to ensure the correct training and opportunities are provided. As education author Ron Berger noted in Edutopia, “Districts face a hard reality. Many children lost a great deal of academic growth last year. Districts need to know which students need extra support, including tutoring in and outside the classroom. But educators need to assess students’ abilities in a way that motivates them to grow.”
Once districts know what their students need and what they want tutors to know before starting, then it’s time to source those tutors. Alas, that’s not as easy as it sounds, because while teachers are in exodus mode, tutors are finding themselves in increasingly higher demand across the board.
When the government offers funding, school leaders feel they must act fast to allocate those dollars in a certain amount of time. But while trying to move quickly, they shouldn’t cut corners or they could end up squandering the resources made available by hiring the wrong tutors.
Unfortunately, there’s an absence of any coordinated national effort, putting billions of relief dollars at risk of not being properly managed to produce effective results. It wouldn’t be the first time. Schools have been left in such conundrums before, of being offered funds but not knowing exactly how to properly utilize them. No district wants to repeat the mistakes of the past, such as with some of the poorly managed implementations of No Child Left Behind.
Schools do want to hire quickly to meet deadlines, but need a feasible plan of action to do it right. They must ensure they’re using evidence-based strategies, as exemplified by the Annenberg Institute’s National Student Support Accelerator based at Brown University. The focus, as Steck discusses, should be on finding high-quality tutors from the previously-mentioned talent pools. However, when possible, he also recommends to “incentivize the use of teacher candidates as tutors,” because “creating opportunities for teacher candidates to tutor really is a win-win!”
After selecting the best sources for recruiting tutors, it’s time to vet the candidate pool. This involves knowing one’s district, its students, the unique challenges being faced, and the best ways to address those problems. Again, not every tutor fits readily into every situation, and so it is crucial to find candidates who are a strong match and who can align with both the needs and culture of the affected communities. In other words, it’s important to find tutors with the flexibility to adapt practices to student needs as well as to the requirements and conditions dictated by the school.
Deans for Impact also promotes the idea of hiring tutors who possess a firm understanding of how the brain works, and a scientific understanding of how students learn. Simply being an expert in a needed subject doesn’t make a person suitable for tutoring children. The tutors must have a firm grasp of applicable pedagogy, as well as an awareness of the differences between teaching in-person and teaching online.
After tutors are onboarded, Steck suggests monitoring and promoting tutor effectiveness to ensure positive student outcomes.
Some methods to monitor a tutor’s performance include:
Providing on-the-job training, similar to in-service teacher coaching
Offering tutors timely, actionable feedback related to their instruction
Establishing a system to track student growth for the length of the tutoring session
Speaking to students and parents to gain their insights and feedback about what’s working and what could be improved upon
Using surveys to obtain feedback from school leaders and teachers who can assess the tutors’ ability to support students and contribute to school culture
Applying incentives in a way that is meaningful to the tutor (not always monetary)
The knowledge gap has set some American students back by months, with underprivileged and underserved communities impacted harder than average. It’s up to educational leaders to implement the proper tutoring solutions…and to get things done right for students this time. We owe it to them, their futures, and their future families, who may be affected by the progress — of lack of progress — our efforts lead to in their lives.
That is why Steck emphasized during our recent interview that his hopes are for tutoring to be “routinely available at no cost to students who need the additional support, especially those in communities historically underserved.” With luck and hard work, we’ll be able to continue the transformation of the tutoring industry so that, in ten years’ time or less, tutoring might “serve as a means for expanding and strengthening the pipeline of future teachers.” If successful, the nation might never face another teacher shortage again!
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Across the country, education leaders are scrambling to address the pandemic’s detrimental impacts on student learning. One of the biggest questions school districts are trying to answer is how to find the most effective tutoring strategies to combat learning loss.
Dr. Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, and her colleagues propose high-impact tutoring as the most promising, evidence-based solution. A second concern is whether online tutoring is proven to be as effective as in-person tutoring sessions.
In our January 2022 Pearls of Wisdom webinar (embedded below), Dr. Loeb shared her thoughts on these vital questions with Pearl CRO Nate Casey. We’ve summarized the webinar discussion into a three-part blog series to highlight Dr. Loeb’s key points. In Part I, we discussed the benefits of high-impact tutoring. In Part II, we reviewed Dr. Loeb’s work with the National Student Support Accelerator at the Annenberg Institute. And now, in the third and final part of our webinar recap, we’ll be discussing the best tutoring strategies and comparing the effectiveness of online vs. in-person tutoring.
Finding Effective Tutoring Strategies
In the webinar, Dr. Loeb revealed that she’s been “working with districts across the country to test the effectiveness of different approaches to tutoring (…) and to better understand the challenges of implementing high-impact tutoring to overcome those challenges.”
Among the initial findings from the Annenberg Institute’s research was that “the desire to increase scale comes with a push to decrease quality.” That problem, in turn, quickly cascades into other issues such as assigning too many students per tutor, offering too few tutoring sessions per week, and providing insufficient coaching for tutors.
By contrast, “high-impact tutoring focuses on quality,” by decreasing the number of students, increasing the frequency of tutoring sessions, and supporting tutors with training. Dr. Loeb noted, though, that “building tutoring into the school day can be tricky. Schools need to be creative to do this well.”
The most effective tutoring times, her group found, were during homeroom or intervention periods, electives, or before and after school. However, having in-person tutors on hand during these times isn’t always easy, which is why the advantages of online tutoring options are being further explored.
It is important to note that the problems with K-12 remote learning during the first year of the pandemic were not because online instruction is less effective; the issues were related to curricula not being designed for online lessons, teachers who lacked experience teaching online, and the use of platforms that weren’t designed for teaching in the first place. Online learning also suffered during the first part of the pandemic because of poor internet access and too few modern devices in the hands of underserved students. These issues don’t necessarily apply to online tutoring, especially if the right tutoring platform is utilized.
For High-Impact Tutoring to Work Online, Convenience Is Key
Accessibility is a crucial ingredient to making high-impact tutoring work. It also happens to be a key feature of online learning. Indeed, accessibility is one of the leading reasons why college students look for online degree programs. Per Inside Higher Ed, the Department of Education cited that “51.8 percent of students took at least one online course in 2019-20.” Among other benefits, there are no commutes involved, which saves time and energy.
“Tutoring is an excellent way to increase equity in schools,” stated Dr. Loeb. “However, it can only do this if the students who need it the most get it. That is why it is important to offer tutoring as part of the school day for students who need it the most.”
When attending tutoring sessions becomes a hassle, students and parents lose interest because access isn’t convenient. Convenience, therefore, is key — but scheduling in-person tutoring isn’t always convenient. That’s where flexible online sessions come into play. Online tutoring removes such barriers to access. So why aren’t more schools doing it?
“Most research on high-impact tutoring looks at in-person programs,” Dr. Loeb told us, noting EdResearch’s “Design Principles Series.” She added, however, that “we’ve seen a lot of virtual school work and virtual tutoring as a result of the pandemic and the initial evidence is very positive. Virtual tutoring can be very effective.”
Dr. Loeb noted that tutoring during the day “can be virtual even if students are in school. Students would be in classrooms on computers, perhaps with a teacher monitoring the class while the tutors come in virtually.” She raised the idea that in-person sessions might be “ideal” when they “allow [tutors and students] to get to know each other better.” But even the most ideal scenario can’t be effective when all parties don’t show up. Strong tutoring relationships help address students’ academic needs, but this requires attendance and enthusiasm from all sides.
The Importance of Tutoring Software
Reviewing benefits of online tutoring platforms and software like Pearl, Dr. Loeb pointed out that they “offer the possibility — through audio and video recordings of sessions, for example — of studying the interactions between students and tutors to see what is working and what isn’t.” This capability can greatly help tutors adjust their methods so their work is more effective with each student.
“Technology-based programs could learn about students’ needs and make those tutors great on the academics while the students benefit from a much more diverse group of educators,” she said. “I’m excited for the learning that we can have from the tutoring that is going on at scale. I am excited about models that use new technologies so that the relationships can be even better and so that the tutor can focus on student needs.”
On How to Attract and Retain Tutors
Schools must not only ensure that tutoring sessions are convenient for students, but for tutors, as well.
“Districts across the country are having trouble finding teachers, substitute teachers, and, relevant for us, tutors,” Dr. Loeb said. “They need to think about how they can attract and retain the tutors they need.”
Perhaps the best way to entice qualified tutors is to offer remote work opportunities. This seems especially true given the fact that so many workers have fled the labor force during the “Great Resignation” and are looking for online work they can do from home.
“A rural school looking for high school math tutors may be better off with virtual tutors,” Dr. Loeb said. “I wouldn’t rule out online tutoring, especially given the new evidence that it can be effective.” She went on to note that “it may be difficult for schools to find tutors with the skills they want — maybe they want tutors who speak a language other than English or tutors with strong high school math skills. In this case, they may attract tutors with these skills if they use online tutoring, but not if they use in-person tutoring.”
She also highlighted the difference between teacher and tutor education and training. “One of the great things about tutoring is that many people can be excellent tutors. Many people with less teaching experience or no teaching experience can also be exceptional tutors, especially if they get some initial training and have some coaching and oversight while teaching.”
It seems certain there are many potential tutors out there just waiting for the right opportunities to come along where they can teach online. The challenge is integrating them into the school day and providing them with the most up-to-date resources so they can establish positive academic relationships with the students they tutor. This includes the right software (like Pearl!) to facilitate such positive learning experiences.