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Leadership Is Key, Autonomy Matters: Lessons in Why Tutoring Programs Work

Cohen: Study from Louisiana, Texas and New York finds not all tutoring is equal, relationships motivate students, federal funding is needed.

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Jackson Elementary School in Louisiana’s East Feliciana Parish District sits on a quiet street just outside the town of Jackson, population 4,130. It's a 30-mile drive north from Baton Rouge, past open fields, small homes and the Dixon Correctional Institution. Principal Megan Phillips describes East Feliciana as “one of the poorest districts in maybe the poorest state in the country.”

Such is the region’s struggle to staff classrooms that half of Jackson’s teachers are unlicensed. Yet, in spring 2023, as schools nationwide struggled to stem a persistent decline in test scores in the wake of the pandemic, 81% of Jackson students participating in an ambitious new online tutoring program showed significant growth on their early literacy assessment after just 10 weeks.

I spent the past year visiting Jackson and eight other schools across three states and the District of Columbia to understand how and why their successful tutoring programs work and the challenges they’ve had to navigate. Our FutureEd study also included dozens of conversations with educators, school district leaders, providers, researchers and others who have turned to tutoring to combat learning loss after COVID.

Here are lessons I learned:

Not all tutoring is equal. While some less-intensive programs, such as on-demand tutoring that students use at their discretion, may be easier to implement, they typically don’t yield strong results. On the other hand, high-dosage tutoring — four or fewer students working on material linked to classroom instruction with the same tutor for at least 30 minutes during the school day, three times a week for at least several months — makes a meaningful difference. The successful programs we studied shared these features, even as they achieved strong results using different types of tutors — including virtual professionals and college students and AmeriCorps volunteers working in person — in urban, rural, elementary and secondary schools.

Done right, tutoring has many allies. Tutoring represents a rare point of convergence spanning national policy priorities, research evidence and what educators on the ground need and want. Unlike the education reforms embedded in other federal education directives or policymakers' pet priorities, high-quality, high-dosage tutoring has been warmly embraced by most school staff in the programs we studied. One reason is that teachers are able to measure tutoring’s impact on their students’ performance. Another is that they feel supported rather than burdened by tutors, in part because tutoring content tracks closely to their classroom instruction.

Leadership is key. The successful tutoring initiatives we studied all had leaders with dedicated roles. Whether it was Carina Escajeda, the high-impact tutoring manager in the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas; Kate Boyle, the fellowship director at Great Oaks Charter School in New York City; or Lauren May and Shauna Walters, the teacher-trainers for Teach for America’s Ignite tutoring model in Jackson Elementary School, there were staffers who made the tutoring trains run on time. Tutoring leads who also performed another role in school were paid extra.

Autonomy for principals and teachers matters. While the tutoring leads kept things running, the school leaders and educators we studied had some degree of autonomy in implementing the programs in their buildings — whether that meant choosing among district-approved vendors, selecting curricular materials for tutors to use, or adjusting the school day to incorporate tutoring in ways they thought best. Providing local educators with ownership increases their buy-in and often results in tutoring programs tailored to precisely what a given district or school needs to boost student achievement.

Relationships with tutors motivate students. I found that many kinds of tutors — college students, recent college graduates or professionals hired through an external vendor — built strong relationships with students, even when they worked with them virtually. Those relationships, students told us, were often as valuable as the academic support tutors provided — an important insight at a time when many young people are struggling emotionally.

Federal funding sources like AmeriCorps are a path to sustainability. Since the beginning of the pandemic, as many as 80% of U.S. school districts have implemented tutoring programs, according to the federal School Pulse Panel. The challenge now is to fine-tune implementation, bring the benefits of high-impact tutoring to even more students in each district and find ways to sustain it after schools’ federal COVID relief funding expires later this year.

Funding for states and school districts in Titles I, II, III and IV of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act could be tapped for tutoring once the pandemic-recovery money ends. If districts can connect tutoring with Response to Intervention, a program designed for early identification of struggling students or those with disabilities, districts could fund tutoring through Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But two other federal resources — the work-study program for college students and AmeriCorps — could bring thousands of undergraduates and young adults into the nation’s schools as tutors. In just one existing program, TFA Ignite, more than 1,500 undergraduates from more than 300 colleges and universities are tutoring over 3,500 students; in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., the Go Foundation is placing several hundred recent college graduates as AmeriCorps fellows in full-time tutoring positions in charter and traditional public schools.

Congressional Republicans are threatening to defund the work-study and AmeriCorps programs, but expanding them instead and reducing red tape would bring many service-oriented young people into schools as tutors and introduce them to teaching at a moment when the nation is facing sustained shortages in the classroom — a scenario I saw play out in schools I studied.

Local education leaders wondering whether to stick with their tutoring investments as funding becomes more uncertain should ask whether other initiatives on behalf of students enjoy the same widespread support, yield the same academic results and allow for equally valuable student-adult relationships. It’s a high bar.

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