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Five questions school districts should ask when evaluating tutoring vendors.
March 23, 2023
School districts around the country continue to work on their approaches to summer tutoring programs. Most are mindful that the deadline for obligating monies from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) is fast approaching in 2024. Investing in tutoring just seems to make sense to accelerate learning where achievement gaps still exist.
We know tutoring is crucial as a recent McKinsey survey of district decision-makers shows that their priorities for spending ESSER dollars have shifted—from earlier meeting immediate pandemic-related needs to now prioritizing staff shortages, students’ mental health, and unfinished learning. There are many ways to address these needs, but providing human tutors to alleviate shortages, burnout, and academic gaps is not luxury anymore—it's imperative.
What is high-impact tutoring?
In reviewing the best tutoring models, the high-impact approach caught our attention. Researchers at the Annenberg Institute—through their tutoring research program, the National Student Support Accelerator—define high-impact tutoring as personalized instruction that complements classroom teaching, resulting in substantial learning gains for students. It possesses the following features:
- High-dose (or frequent) teaching interventions—either one-to-one or in small groups—that are responsive to individual strengths and learning needs of students
- Strong and positive relationships between tutors and students through significant, consistent, and regular amounts of time
- Alignment with school/district curriculum and learning objectives
- Continual formative assessments of students’ knowledge and skills for tutors to tailor sessions and adjust approach as needed
- Training and oversight of tutors to ensure quality student connections
High-impact tutoring could potentially result in these beneficial outcomes for students:
- Improvements in attendance, behavior, and grades
- Increased motivation for learning
- Completion of education/lower drop-out rates
- Learning equity—especially for underserved students—to excel and advance in classroom instruction, preparing them for college and/or career
Five key questions to evaluate tutor vendors.
Superintendents, curriculum/instruction faculty, and other stakeholders should ask these questions when evaluating a high-impact approach for their schools:
Does the vendor offer tutoring as part of the school day?
While it is important to preserve core teaching time so students do not miss out on carefully sequenced lessons, research shows that tutoring embedded into the school day provides overall equitable access and consistency to supplemental learning interventions. It also helps districts/schools with planning and coordination efforts while encouraging student participation and attendance. To make the most of this high-impact, individualized support, I believe that quality tutors should be part of the overall academic team that supports students’ learning.
Incorporating tutors may require some re-imagination about school day schedules. One way to practically use tutors during the school day is through a “push-in” model, where tutors work in the classroom during bell-to-bell instruction. For example, they can support classroom teachers and content routine by directly working with students one-on-one or in small groups during math and literacy blocks or in focused activity stations. Tutors can also “pull-out” of the classroom, working with students in after-school enrichment programs, during Media Center hours, etc. The sky’s the limit when it comes to building tutoring inventions right into current school schedules.
- Does the vendor offer in-person tutors?
In response to The Nation’s Report Card released in October 2022, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona indicated that the scarcity of in-person learning in the classroom at the height of the pandemic is connected to this alarming decrease in scores. He said, “In-person learning is where we need to focus.”
Especially after the uneven remote learning of the past two years, many districts (and students) want in-person interventions that are not reliant on internet speeds or parents being present to oversee instruction.
Through hiring culturally competent, in-person tutors and providing excellent training, vendors can encourage their employees to build strong, positive, and mutually respectful relationships as a way to boost students’ confidence and sense of belonging while empowering them to grow in creative problem-solving and persistence. These important life skills are a huge part of long-term success at university, in the workplace, and for living in community with others.
- Does the tutoring vendor help save money by using resources you already have?
The best results from tutoring occur when sessions complement what teachers are doing (and using) in the classroom. A tutoring and research-based best practice as defined by the Annenberg Institute is extending the classroom by using curriculum and materials that students already are familiar with. So introducing students to different material and activities may actually impede the goal of learning acceleration.
As a former classroom teacher and building administrator, I can tell you that every year, so many ancillary materials that were part of my core curriculum went unused—I simply didn’t have time to incorporate them into my lessons. Providing tutors with these unused materials is such a simple way to complement classroom instruction and ensures that standards of focus remain aligned with state and district learning objectives. On top of that, it’s a cost savings for districts; they can save ESSER money by making available these unused materials for tutors to incorporate into their sessions.
Another cost savings is for districts to use already scheduled student assessments and existing progress platforms. Tracking student learning is important for entrance and exit tickets into tutoring programs, but why test students with yet another vendor-created assessment to determine who participates in a tutoring program or how to place students in small groups? Using assessment results that are already a part of the school calendar is an efficient and cost-effective way to measure progress and move students through a tutoring program. In addition, using a district’s existing reporting platform to upload student progress just makes sense. Tutors can either receive access to a district’s platform, or tutors can send weekly progress updates to a key point person or classroom teacher to include in existing reporting structures.
- Is the vendor able to deliver the number of vetted and trained tutors needed in a timely manner?
In this tight labor market—especially in education—recruiting quality tutors can be quite challenging. Tutors should mirror the background and diversity of the students they serve, so recruiting and hiring qualified and culturally competent tutors who represent a district’s multi-ethnic, multi-language populations is important.
It’s key to select a vendor that has the capacity to recruit tutors using the latest recruitment tools and a mix of recruiting strategies—from networking with various diversity organizations to the use of digital recruiting tools that go beyond job posting sites such as social recruiting, search engine optimization, market data and analytics, and an AI-enabled technology stack.
In addition to recruiting tutors, a vendor needs to thoroughly and efficiently vet tutors. This includes verifying permits and licensure (if applicable), checking the National Sex Offender Registry, overseeing state-required fingerprinting, and implementing any other screening requirements as mandated by a state or district.
Finally, vendors need to provide ongoing support and accountability to the tutors they employ. This preparation should consist of an onboarding curriculum, specialized tutoring methodology training and support, safety issues, and ongoing professional development through a team of tutor managers with education and tutoring experience.
- Do good tutors need to be university instructors?
Research shows that it doesn’t make a significant difference on student learning if tutors are certified educators or are non-educators. What makes a difference is how trained and supported tutors are. Matt Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and part of the National Student Support Accelerator, said in reflection of a study highlighted in The 74: “I think we over-focus on who’s the tutor and under-focus on what are the program structures in which tutors are working.”
Most districts want to fill their own teacher vacancies from a robust collective of qualified educators, so if they insist on using teachers as tutors, they’re eating into their own talent pool. Additionally, most tutoring vendors will charge more for recruiting and hiring certified teachers as tutors. Rather than solely hiring teachers, vendors who recruit well-trained and supported college students, retirees, military veterans, degreed professionals, community members, and others can tap into a larger pool of very qualified and talented tutors who can also make a difference in students’ learning.
Now is the time to implement a high-impact tutoring program.
Districts must allocate ESSER funding before October 2024—or they’ll lose it. That means that now is the time for districts to support hard-working teachers, shrink inequitable access to academic resources, and provide the just-in-time help students need. One way to do so is to integrate high-impact tutoring into summer programs and the classroom as part of a broader academic support system that research shows positively influences student learning. My goal at Kelly Education is to help district leaders think through how they can most effectively use their ESSER dollars to support student learning through an excellent tutoring program and quality tutors.
Reach out to start a conversation about how Kelly Education can partner to positively impact students, their families, teachers, and our communities.
Stephanie Wall, Ed.D./SHRM-CP is the director of the Tutoring Solutions Center of Excellence at Kelly Education. Prior to joining Kelly Education, she served for 14 years as a bilingual classroom teacher, building administrator, and district administrator.
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