The $1.9 trillion federal COVID relief package includes nearly $130 billion for K-12 education, amounting to an average of $2,500 per student nationwide — and much more for districts with a high proportion of low-income families. While districts will have broad latitude to use the money how they see fit (which could include everything from protective gear for educators to classroom supplies), 20% of the funds must be earmarked to address learning losses due to the pandemic and the “COVID slide.”
Even before the pandemic shut schools, Minnesota had the shameful distinction of having one of the worst opportunity and achievement gaps — between white children and children of color, and between children from well-off families and families with lower incomes — in the nation. No doubt, our extraordinary inequities will be made even worse due to school closures and remote learning over the past year. While debates have raged about how best to help kids catch up, one consistent theme has emerged from think tanks, researchers, and education policy advocates over the past year: tutoring is one of the most promising, evidenced-based strategies to help struggling students.
For example, a July 2020 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the impacts of tutoring are generally large and positive, even for programs that use lightly trained volunteers. Similarly, a 2017 study in the Review of Education Research examined interventions that aimed to improve educational achievement for elementary and middle school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Of all the interventions examined — including feedback and progress monitoring, cooperative learning, computer-assisted teaching, and mentoring of students — tutoring was the most effective.
Tutoring, of course, is no replacement for effective in-school instruction, but tutors can offer crucial supplemental learning to help catch students up, and there are auxiliary benefits as well: Programs that pay tutors or use AmeriCorps members could offer employment to the myriad out-of-work young adults seeking an opportunity to make an impact while waiting for the job market to heat up. Minnesota’s growing ranks of retirees, many of whom are seeking opportunities to give back, also offer fertile ground for volunteer recruitment.
Minnesota is fortunate to be home to three of the four programs identified by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University as “Examples of effective tutoring models,” including Minnesota Reading Corps, Minnesota Math Corps, and Reading Partners (which is a current grantee of our foundation). These programs include multiday training, provide tutors with detailed curriculum and materials, and measure success through research-based assessments to ensure academic gains.
Another idea would be to recruit aspiring educators from teacher preparation programs at Minnesota’s colleges and universities and give them much-needed hands-on experience with students. The past year of distance and hybrid learning meant that many teacher trainees missed out on field-based opportunities to work with students and hone their craft.
It is important to note that tutoring is not a silver-bullet solution to academic opportunity and achievement gaps, and not all tutoring programs are effective. As with most efforts at improving education, bringing any intervention to scale will be fraught with challenges. That being said, there are a number of key priorities and considerations related to tutoring that can maximize the impact of invested resources.
First, the state and school districts should consider investing in and help to scale up programs that already have solid evidence of effectiveness. Given how far behind many students are, it makes sense to invest in organizations and initiatives that have demonstrable track records of success.
Second, resources should go to tutoring programs that provide pre-service training and ongoing coaching for tutors. Many successful tutoring programs include structured materials and curriculum to ensure consistency in results. Additionally, although research finds that teachers tend to be the most effective tutors, studies have found that with even minimal coaching, any college-educated volunteer can be just as effective when tutoring one-to-one or in small groups.
Finally, while research shows that the most effective tutoring programs are high-dose (at least twice per week) and relationship-based (consistent tutor-student relationships over the course of a year), the program’s structure can vary, taking place during normal school hours, or as a part community-based initiatives, which may also provide readily available opportunities for wrap-around services for the student’s family.
We know that simply returning students to the same school design and learning approaches as pre-pandemic will only serve to exacerbate existing academic achievement and opportunity gaps. Minnesota leaders must ensure that these federal resources are not squandered: Decisions about how to invest this money could determine whether or not the pandemic sets back an entire generation of children. As one critical intervention, high-quality tutoring is as close to a “sure bet” as there is.
Daniel Sellers is executive director of the Ciresi Walburn Foundation for Children.
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