The Annenberg Institute’s blueprint provides a research-based foundation
If there’s a single headline for the year for educators, it’s this: Unfinished learning resulting from the pandemic is real, and it could take years to measure the impact and help students fully catch up. An analysis from December by Mckinsey estimates that the average student is about three months behind expectations of learning in math and a month and a half of progress in reading - with students of color faring even worse.
While measuring the impact is a crucial component of assessing the scope of the problem, educational researchers are also forging ahead with much-needed solutions. In January 2021, Matthew A. Kraft and Grace T. Falken of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University published a groundbreaking white paper entitled “A Blueprint for Scaling Tutoring Across Public Schools.” This self-described thought experiment lays out a forward-thinking plan to bring effective high-dosage tutoring to K-12 districts across the United States.
Their vision seeks to harness the energy of this moment to create true systemic change to K-12 education by incorporating effective tutoring across all grades. Their approach brings tutoring — already the best research-based solution for improving learning outcomes — into schools as a core part of the school day and empowered districts to implement and manage programs in the way that works best to meet the needs of the community.
Here’s a look at the key findings and proposals of this study.
Effective Tutoring Is a Core Part of Instruction, Not an Add-on
To begin, the authors fully acknowledge the difficulties of scaling a tutoring program, pointing out that while No Child Left Behind funded tutoring programs in Title I schools, these were largely unsuccessful because they were structured as off-campus, after-school programs that placed the burden on families to shuttle students to their tutors. Kraft and Falken make the case for a fully-integrated tutoring program that dovetails with current curriculum and instruction.
The authors cite existing studies that show the effectiveness of tutoring programs that are part of the school day. They advocate for extending the school day by 30 minutes to create time for on-site tutoring programs that reach all students, but they also acknowledge that an integrated program that occurs at various times during the school day may be a better fit for some districts.
By incorporating tutoring for all students as an integral part of the school day, the plan ensures that arts and physical education programs aren’t reduced to accommodate tutoring. It also creates opportunities for districts to align tutoring materials and standards with existing curricula for a coordinated one-two punch of academic support from classroom teachers and tutors.
Districts Should Have Control Over Design and Implementation
The Annenberg Institute’s work confirms what K-12 instructional leaders already know: effective tutoring is connected to district instruction and aligned to learning standards. The proposed plan to implement large-scale tutoring programs centers districts in the process and calls for a ground-up approach rather than a top-down fiat. One-size-fits-all simply doesn’t work.
While Kraft and Falken propose robust federal funding and the creation of an oversight board to support local efforts, they are clear that district coordinators should spearhead tutoring programs and be solely responsible for hiring tutors, making changes to master schedules, choosing high-quality curriculum and materials, and maintaining training and ongoing feedback for tutors. This will allow districts to tailor tutoring programs to their needs and gain crucial buy-in from the community to support a permanent change, rather than a fly-by-night program that is dropped on a district from above and disappears after a year or two.
Cross-Age Tutors Offer Flexibility for Core Literacy and Numeracy Support
The most intriguing aspect of the Annenberg blueprint is its vision for cross-age tutoring. The authors lay out a plan for high school students to tutor K-5 children, local college students to tutor middle schoolers, and AmeriCorps volunteers to tutor high school students. Their nuts-and-bolts breakdown of how this could work in various communities — as well as the projected costs to take the program national — is well worth the read.
Regardless of how districts choose to source tutors, however, the authors recommend a focus on core literacy and numeracy, citing several studies that show major learning gains in these areas due to effective tutoring.
An Opportunity for Lasting Structural Change
Finally, the Annenberg paper is clear that we are at a never-to-be-repeated moment at which lasting structural change is possible. The pandemic has created true learning challenges and has led to significant social and emotional learning lapses for students across the country. But school closures and the pivot to online learning has also created an opening for change. By upending expectations of what school looks like, we are presented with an opportunity. Right now, parents, educators, and other stakeholders are open to the possibility — clamoring, even — for change in a way that is truly rare. As the authors put it, the time is ripe for “a fundamental shift in our collective understanding and norms about what schools do.”
So how will we harness this momentum and seize this once-in-a-lifetime chance to change our systems for the better? For Kraft and Falken, the answer lies in building a comprehensive tutoring program that’s fully coordinated with district curriculum. Students would get the support of individualized instruction to stay engaged and combat learning loss, while tutors and teachers would work together to deliver curriculum and meet district goals.
Can it be done? Yes — and now is the time. Even if the national program that the Annenberg paper outlines doesn’t come to pass, their research-based ideas provide a foundation for ambitious, audacious districts to use to build their own tutoring programs. We know what works when it comes to effective high-dosage tutoring. All that’s left to do is get started — and district leaders are the ones best positioned to effect real change for their students.