A Time of Innovation - and Adversity
In one sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed quite a few positive, innovative forces in education, particularly with regard to EdTech and asynchronous learning models. As you have likely experienced, however, these benefits have not accrued to all students evenly. In many cases, innovation has been greatly outweighed by the sheer adversity students have experienced from the trauma associated with the pandemic and the negative impact of school shutdowns.
The challenges students face are real: rising rates of social-emotional need, loss of learning, lack of executive functioning skills to thrive in an online environment - all of these factors have and are exerting negative pressure on students, families, and schools. Learning loss, or unfinished learning, is particularly vexing because learning is at the core of all education programs. The data spikes are telling: More students are struggling with unfinished learning than ever before, and unfinished learning has the potential to have a compounding effect on the learning gap that already exists, particularly for students of color.
The good news is that tutoring has been demonstrated to be effective in accelerating learning when it’s done the right way. High-dosage tutoring tightly connected to the district’s instructional strategy is the most powerful way for students to accelerate their learning.
District-managed tutoring is a powerful tool to accelerate learning
Tutoring is too often an afterthought when it comes to a district’s plan for student improvement. Too many people dismiss tutoring as simply “extra help”, “homework help”, or something that has to be provided outside of the “official” school setting by private companies, and they ultimately fail to recognize tutoring’s game-changing potential as a key piece of a district’s overall strategic framework. The reality is that tutoring is one of the most effective educational interventions ever studied, and there is no better time to leverage an integrated tutoring plan than now when addressing unfinished learning is such an urgent need as schools continue to return to fully in-person instructional models.
District-managed tutoring is just what it sounds like: a tutoring program that is managed by the district, not farmed out to an external organization or volunteers, and is fully aligned to the district’s instructional model and curriculum. There are a few key, research-driven, design and implementation principles that a district-managed tutoring program should employ. Here are the highlights:
- Tutoring for everyone, not just those students identified as being in need of remediation.
- Individualized, high-frequency programs, aligned to district curriculum, with a consistent tutor, such as a teacher or other trained professional.
- Part of students’ school day, not an add-on program.
- Adoption and implementation should be voluntary and consist of a great deal of local control.
- Districts drive the programming based on their unique needs.
- Assessment and improvement of the district-managed tutoring program is continuous - therefore feedback and outcomes should contribute to revisions of the tutoring program as needed.
With these principles in mind, it is recommended that districts increase tutoring for students to the tune of an average of at least 30 minutes per day, 100 hours per academic year in grades K-12. What gets scheduled gets done, so remember to schedule in-school time for your tutoring program.
Now, armed with the big picture of what tutoring really is and should be, let’s focus on why the first, targeted areas for your district-managed tutoring program should be early childhood literacy and numeracy.
Why Early Literacy?
Medical professionals agree: Young brains crave interpersonal interaction and children should be inculcated with a love of reading as early as possible. Reading on grade level by third grade has become a huge focus of early childhood education because we know that early literacy skills set the stage for the rest of a learner’s school career, and indeed for significant life outcomes, as well. Thus, if you are looking to implement a district-managed tutoring program that will create the largest return on your initial investment, it may make good sense to start with early literacy as a focus.
The research has also identified high school math as an area where high-dosage tutoring can have a significant impact. You may not want to try and build your program at both ends of the K-12 spectrum to start, however. So, along with early literacy, early numeracy - or all the foundational mathematical concepts learned in early childhood education, contributing to a wide range of mathematical skills employed over the course of one’s lifetime - is also a great place to start. By focusing on foundational skills in math - math literacy, if you will - you’ll be setting students up for success in high school and beyond. When controlling for other factors, such as raw intelligence, family background, and more, “the mastery of early math concepts upon school entry was the strongest predictor of future academic success.” Capitalize on this research by making numeracy a prime focus of your district-managed tutoring program.
Improve Outcomes, Close Gaps, Fight Learning Loss
The research paints a compelling picture. Tutoring programs in general result in a large effect size on student learning, and are more effective when led by trained staff members, such as classroom teachers or paraprofessionals, as opposed to volunteers. Again, early childhood is the sweet spot, with both reading and math tutoring seeing the largest effect sizes in the primary grades. Because you are building a sustained, individualized approach starting in the early childhood years, you’ll be able to improve learning outcomes, close gaps between learners (and prevent others from forming or widening in the first place), and take concrete, targeted steps toward defeating the insidious enemy of the past year: the massive loss of learning that has taken place during the pandemic.
Start with a Targeted Approach; Build Over Time
The pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity for tutoring to take the next step in its evolution: comprehensive and tightly connected to the district. But it’s likely that you won’t be able to build the whole system at once, and that’s why you should consider implementing tutoring in a few key, high-dosage areas such as early literacy and numeracy. By starting in these areas, you’ll not only meet the needs of your youngest learners, helping them learn and grow, but you’ll also build a tutoring program that can grow with them as they progress through your system. You’ll also work to close gaps for all students, especially your most vulnerable populations and subgroups.