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!
Impacts of the nationwide teacher shortage
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.
From national service programs such as AmeriCorps grants to Federal Work Study programs, federal funds through ESEA and IDEA, and other relief funds such as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, there seems to be no shortage of available cash coming in. But simply throwing money at the problem isn’t enough. Districts must find and train the right tutors who can augment schools during the teacher shortage and beyond.
But how do districts find such tutors in the first place?
How the tutoring landscape is evolving
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.
Building a roster of amazing tutors
Districts around the country are eager to put their federal funding to work hiring tutors who can get started as soon as possible. But where should program leaders be looking for great tutors?
Given the sheer amount of tutors needed (and the already existing demands on the most qualified tutors), Steck suggests considering traditional as well as overlooked alternative sources.
Where to look for qualified, trainable tutors:
- In-service teacher pools
- Retired teachers serving as paraprofessionals
- Teacher aide undergraduates or graduates at university schools of education
- Undergraduates majoring in subjects related, but not identical, to the ones needed
- Qualified community volunteers
- Organizations that employ tutors
- Other sources, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and faith-based organizations
Mitigating risks of hiring tutors too quickly
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!”
Best practices for vetting and monitoring tutors
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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