School districts around the country have rolled out tutoring programs at a feverish pace with the help of federal relief funds, intent on helping struggling students get back on track academically after the disruption caused when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools.
It’s one thing to know what makes a successful tutoring program, and quite another to actually manage one.
So says the Center for Education Market Dynamics, a nonprofit that provides information to school district leaders about products and services and that recently released a collection of case studies on tutoring programs.
Lora Kaiser, the organization’s executive director, says the lessons shared in the report by district leaders are meant to provide insight at a time when the need — and funding — for high-dosage tutoring are both exceptionally high.
Educators know that high-dosage tutoring needs to happen under the right circumstances to be effective, she says, but not every district has those just-right conditions.
“How do you set up and design your communications, staff and school,” Kaiser explains, “in a way that generates not only the most impact but that you can continue to measure, learn from and iterate? That was the goal of the report.”
The organization picked a diverse set of nine districts to study. They range from the massive New York City Public Schools, with more than 1 million students, to the tiny Lenoir City Schools and its 2,500 students in Tennessee.
The districts also varied in the mode of tutoring used (in-person versus online), whether tutors came from inside or outside the district, and when tutoring took place.
The report’s authors say that successful tutoring program leaders were decisive, flexible and evolved their programs along the way.
“Growing and strengthening these programs was not just about adding more tutoring hours,” the report states, “but also about recognizing the need for new processes and tools as programs grow.”
Districts have already spent more than $700 million in federal relief money on tutoring, according to the report, and they’re looking for ways to keep those programs running after those emergency funds are gone.
“Tutoring is an effective intervention, period. We know the disparities in student outcomes have existed since before the pandemic,” Kaiser says. “The most important thing [districts] spoke about is having strong systems in place to measure the programs so they can make the case that these programs are worth sustaining.”
It Takes a Dedicated Team
To the greatest extent possible, school district leaders recommended designating a team of staff — or at the very least, a dedicated coordinator — to keep track of the tutoring program’s roll out and performance.
Baltimore City Public Schools says that its team is going to grow, whether that’s with new roles or multiple of the same roles, as programs are expanded to more students or schools.
“This work has many layers that require careful design and strategic planning,” Matt Barrow, the district’s tutoring coordinator, says in the report, “effective resource management, and consistent and frequent support provided directly to schools that require more than one individual to manage effectively.”
Andrew Fletcher, the New York City Public Schools partnerships director, says that it’s not a one-person job — districts will need people with enough bandwidth to be hands-on problem solvers.
“You need a good number of staff to deal with all the particulars – not to mention tutors who are well-trained, whose training continues, and folks to observe, coach, and make sure the fidelity is there so we get the outcomes,” he tells the report authors.
Orange County Public Schools had to think quickly when officials found themselves with a good problem: an overwhelming number of students signed up to be peer tutors. Some students returned after graduation to be hired-on as “college-aged” tutors.
Go Slow at the Beginning
It may sound counterintuitive to roll out tutoring programs slowly, but several district leaders say that’s part of what helped them find a plan that works for their schools.
Ector County in Texas chose a campus-by-campus launch that started with the highest-need schools, and each one came with its own support team for logistics and technology.
Shannon Tufts, a Lenoir City Schools district literacy instruction coach, says she had a three-month plan laid out for her district’s tutoring program at the start of fall 2021.
“Then two weeks in, we found that the routine wasn’t working,” she says in the report.
Tufts’ revamped plans for fall 2022 were to start with a one-month tutoring schedule, followed by check-ins with tutors and teachers to inform the next four weeks.
Tutoring Doesn’t Work Without Students
Denver Public Schools found that tutoring worked best for their students when it was integrated into the school day, a decision made at the start of the school year. Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, which provided on-demand virtual tutoring, increased student participation by increasing its dedicated in-school tutoring time and by having teachers identify students who needed it the most.
Chicago Public Schools leadership found out that the greatest barrier to effective tutoring was, perhaps unsurprisingly, absenteeism among students. Districts who are forging ahead with tutoring programs, its leaders say, should focus on improving overall school attendance at the same time.