Tutoring is tops for academic recovery. Can schools make it work?

Finding enough tutors is the biggest challenge schools face in helping students bounce back.

A big rebound in student confidence was a surprise benefit of tutoring in a Tennessee district aiming to fuel academic recovery from learning loss. The keys to Rutherford County Schools’ program were recruiting its own certified teachers to provide small-group tutoring at students’ home schools and using a high-quality curriculum, says Elizabeth Davis, the district’s learning loss supervisor.

“Teachers overwhelmingly saw students grow not just in their skill abilities, but in their belief in themselves,” Davis says.

The district launched the three-year after-school tutoring initiative in January with ESSER funds and a matching grant from TN ALL Corps, a statewide academic recovery initiative. About 5% of Rutherford’s first- through eighth-graders participated this school year. The district also provided transportation and a snack for the 90-minute sessions.

Tutoring troubles

Ultimately, Rutherford County leaders expect 15% of the district’s first- through eighth-graders to participate in tutoring within the next three years. But in many other parts of the country, district administrators are facing several hurdles as they try to provide large-scale, high-dosage tutoring.

Finding enough tutors is the biggest challenge, says Robert Balfanz, director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Everyone Graduates Center, which, along with AmeriCorps and the U.S. Department of Education, is spearheading the federal effort to help schools recruit more educators.

The leaders of the National Partnership for Student Success initiative are working to connect school district leaders to nonprofits, businesses, and colleges and universities that could provide tens of thousands of tutors, mentors, and coaches. “Principals and other district leaders have been left to figure this out themselves, and right now they have lots of other responsibilities as they bob and weave through the pandemic,” Balfanz says. “No administrator has time to evaluate multiple tutoring providers.”

Tutoring essentials

Research backs the following best tutoring practices:

  • Frequency: Three times per week, 30 minutes per session
  • Scheduling: Offered during the school day. After-school can also be effective.
  • Consistency: Students do better when they work with the same tutor over time.
  • Coordination: Tutoring content must match a student’s learning in the classroom.

Source: Robert Balfanz, Everyone Graduates Center

The federal effort hinges on five areas of academic recovery: high-dosage tutoring, academic and SEL coaching, post-secondary advising, mentoring and out-of-school support for students.”Each of those requires more people,” Balfanz says. “We’re elevating the call to service.”

The Partnership intends to recruit a portion of the nation’s approximately 700,000 college work-study students to join the effort. It is also working with large companies with a national reach, such as Starbucks and Target, that could incentivize employees to tutor K-12 students. Also, volunteers from YMCAs, Big Brother-Big Sister and 4H are already in schools and can be trained in evidence-based tutoring strategies, Balfanz says.

Tutoring programs of the past, such as those implemented during the No Child Left Behind Era, have been less successful because the content wasn’t always aligned with what kids were learning in schools. “It’s not as simple as just asking what skills students missed during the pandemic,” Balfanz says. “Tutoring has to be done in coordination with the skills kids need to be using in the classroom that week.”

Getting teachers on board

In Rutherford County, recruiting teachers to provide after-school tutoring was not a challenge. Teachers were actually looking for an opportunity to help their students bounce back, Davis says. Also, the district offered teachers $50 an hour, a higher rate than many surrounding districts, she adds.

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When Davis put out a call for tutors this summer for the coming school year, she had half the educators she needed within just 24 hours. “Teachers want to give kids as much as they can,” Davis says. “And we want to invest in them and grow them in their capacity, and I think they’re feeling that.”

To design the tutoring curriculum, administrators and instructional coaches analyzed student data and other screeners to determine each child’s academic needs. Rutherford County is focusing its program on students whom educators believe would have reached proficiency if not for the disruptions of the pandemic.

“It does take some communication with parents, who frequently say they think their child is doing well and doesn’t need tutoring,” Davis says. “We have to talk them through the data to show their child is doing OK but can do even better with tutoring.”


Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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