Everyone’s talking about a national tutoring corps; here’s what we need to know to do it well
After nearly a year of COVID-19-related disruptions to our nation’s schools, early research confirms we’re grappling with widespread learning loss — and it’s probably worse than we think when accounting for the large numbers of students missing from the data. One recent report revealed that since the pandemic, students have learned just 87 percent of the reading and only 67 percent of the math that their grade-level peers learned during more typical years. But in schools that primarily serve students of color, the numbers are substantially lower — 77 percent in reading and 59 percent in math.
One of the great challenges for educators is figuring out how to reverse those losses even as the pandemic continues to widen the gap between students based on race, income and geography. The call for a national tutoring corps has grown loud over the last six months — with policymakers like former U.S. Education Secretaries Arne Duncan, Margaret Spellings, and John King, philanthropists, and researchers from prominent institutions like the University of Chicago, Brown University and Johns Hopkins calling for a federal investment. Estimates range between $5 and $15 billion; by contrast, federal student aid programs currently cost about $33 billion annually.
And the idea has the research to back such an investment. A recent meta-analysis showed that tutoring programs routinely lead to academic improvements, equivalent to students moving from the 50th to the 65th percentile. And given the unemployment rate among young adults — more than 11 percent in December 2020 — the corps would begin to address some of the economic woes exacerbated by the pandemic. The corps would infuse in the nation’s schools tutors who would provide personalized learning to struggling students, which could help reverse the learning losses caused by a prolonged period of remote instruction.
With a new Congress in place, and an administration focused on “building back better,” now is the time to make serious plans. Here are three policy considerations to get tutoring right:
#1: Don’t forget Algebra I. Most discussions about wide-scale tutoring programs focus almost exclusively on early literacy. And rightfully so. Volumes of research showing that students who read proficiently by the third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school. It’s vital that the national tutoring corps make early literacy a core component of its program and invest up to 80 percent of its resources in this critical area.
But policymakers often overlook Algebra I as a predictor of both graduation rates and post-secondary success. Students who pass Algebra 1 are also four times more likely to graduate than those who don’t pass. So there are two, four times leverage points to focus tutoring: early literacy and late math.
We believe the corps should focus its efforts on third grade literacy and ninth grade algebra, which would impact about 8.5 million students. If a tutor’s caseload is 30 students, and tutors work with not more than four students at a time (preferably max of three), and half of the students in each grade need tutoring, the corps will need 150,000 tutors. We recommend using about 30,000 of them for Algebra I.
#2: Prioritize ongoing training. Public service has been a critical piece of the American ethos for decades — as evidenced by wide-scale national programs like AmeriCorps.
But the education components of these programs focus on recruiting tutors and deploying them to schools, with little attention given to pre-service and in-service training. Like rookie teachers, tutors too rarely receive regular feedback from academic coaches or teachers, which robs them of the opportunity to change course when strategies aren’t working or to double-down when they’re on the right track. The U.S. educational system isn’t designed for that coaching process, yet we know it is critical to professional growth.
Members of a national tutoring corps, many recent two- or four-year college graduates, would need not only training but ongoing coaching on how to be effective educators. The corps would attract candidates who were math whizzes in high school and college, but that won’t necessarily make them great tutors. They’ll need help learning how to connect with students and understanding pedagogy, something that can only be accomplished by good pre-service training, and in-service ongoing feedback and coaching.
#3: Boost longstanding federal resources. While we’re waiting for the national tutoring corps, we shouldn’t overlook two ways to improve major federal policy levers that will get more tutors in more schools.
First, we should expand and strengthen AmeriCorps. Not all of its 75,000 grantees work in education; other service areas include disaster response, environmental stewardship, health-related programs, and others. The federal government should double or triple the number of slots and use student federal loan forgiveness as an incentive, which should be doubled or tripled from $6,000 to $12,000 or $18,000. AmeriCorps also needs to provide better technical assistance to grantees and give them more than a few months notice that they’ve been accepted for the program to facilitate planning and quality pre-service training.
Also, federal Title 1 funding should be expanded. Schools should be incentivized to use the additional funds to provide reading tutors for second- and third-graders, and Algebra I tutors for eighth- or ninth-graders.
Inequities within our education system aren’t new. COVID-19 has made them more visible and, we hope, impossible to continue to ignore. But there’s momentum now among educators and lawmakers to change that. We must seize this opportunity to help students who are struggling in early literacy and late math, two areas where we know we can make a difference. A national tutoring corps, when created carefully and thoughtfully, can go a long way toward narrowing persistent equity gaps and giving all students a fair chance to cross the finish line.
Alan Safran and AJ Gutierrez are co-founders of Saga Education, an evidence-based, personalized tutoring intervention designed to support students struggling with math. Kim Dadisman is a Senior Policy and Research Manager at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT. She has worked to improve learning outcomes for children for over 20 years.
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