The Next Normal

Principled provocations in education

What kind of national tutoring corps would work?

What kind of national tutoring corps would work?

By Carole Basile - Thursday, February 25, 2021

One that is a step toward a sustainable and diversified education workforce and not just a very expensive band aid.

Even as learners around the country begin to head back to school in person, policymakers and educators are wrapping their minds around the gigantic problem of COVID-induced learning loss.

Note: I’ve recently heard persuasive arguments for using the term “instructional loss” rather than “learning loss” to emphasize the fact that we’re not talking about the problem of students not retaining what they have learned but rather the problem of students not having received learning opportunities in the first place.

A lot of discussion is happening now about how a national tutoring corps could address the issue. In A Blueprint for Scaling Tutoring Across Public Schools, a working paper published last month, Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken of Brown University explore  “how tutoring could be scaled nationally to address COVID-19 learning loss become a permanent feature of the U.S. public education system.”

It’s that last part — permanent feature — that’s deceptively simple (and, I believe, essential). A lot of research exists on the effectiveness of what is called high-dosage tutoring. But there are not many use cases that show us how to administer that “dosage” in a manner that equitably delivers quality at scale.

Scale, quality and equity are the fundamental operational and ethical challenges we face if we want to build a national tutoring corps.

Scale and quality

Given the scope and urgency of the learning-loss challenge, it’s easy to imagine an effort that throws too many people (probably high school graduates, college students and recent college graduates) too soon into schools with too little preparation and support.

We already do that to too many novice full-time teachers, and we already throw poorly prepared people into teaching roles through emergency certification and other desperate measures designed to address teacher headcount but not quality. The last thing we want to do is hastily spin up a national tutoring corps that replicates, at great velocity and scale, the quality and retention challenges we already face in the education workforce.

To avoid that, we need to prepare not just the people doing the tutoring but also the schools their work should be designed to support and complement. Colleges of education that operate quality teacher-prep programs and that already partner with many school districts are in a position to help on both fronts.

We can develop toolkits of instructional resources for a national tutoring corps. These resources should develop specific pedagogical skills and practices that allow tutors to support professional teachers in schools, in non-profits, and at home. In our case, we are already creating and disseminating resources for community educators that could be adopted and/or adapted for use in preparing tutors.

To assure that tutors are prepared, colleges of education should design and perhaps conduct assessments that measure whether prospective tutors have mastered specific skills and practices. Good colleges of education know how to do this. Any federal plan to launch a national tutoring corps should consider the question of assessing tutoring competency when developing its budget lines.

Crucially, we are also creating resources for schools to help them figure out the best ways to deploy community educators. We are working with school districts to incorporate community educators who can complement professionals to support personalized and deeper learning. I’m convinced that a variation of this theme would be an integral part of any successful national tutoring corps. Tutors need to be placed in environments that are ready to receive them and will support them. Whether tutors are physically entering schools, working with kids outside of school hours in person or remotely, their work should be tied to the schools and communities of the children they are tutoring.

Equity

A clear risk of spinning up a national tutoring corps too quickly is that it will exacerbate rather than address educational inequity.

In a 2016 working paper, the Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. notes that “Throughout recorded history, the children of the elites were taught in a manner that would now be referred to as tutoring.” Indeed, today children in affluent communities routinely receive tutoring to help them with school work and to prepare for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT.  It is safe to say that the benefits of tutoring, like so much in education, are not equitably distributed.

How can we build a national tutoring corps quickly, make it big and ensure equity?

Technology and remote instruction will have to be part of the equation if we are going to fairly match tutoring quality to tutoring need. After all, communities in which children suffer poor learning experiences because of a dearth of quality teaching are not likely to have a surfeit of qualified tutors.

We’ll need to bring tutors and learners together. We’ll need to leverage what we’ve learned over the past year, quickly and under duress, about effective remote pedagogy to make sure that a national tutoring corps reaches all communities. And yes, this raises all kinds of questions about who receives in-person instruction and who receives remote instruction. We need to ensure quality across learning modes. We’ll need to operate on all fronts. We’ll need to find as many people as possible in all communities who can be prepared to tutor in person, and we’ll also need to find people who can work effectively remotely.

A double bottom line

Perhaps most importantly, a sustainable national tutoring corps will have to benefit both learners and tutors.

It should go without saying that a national tutoring corps should be measured by how well it contributes to learners’ academic success and socio-emotional development.

Additionally, if we’re asking hundreds of thousands of people to tutor, to undergo meaningful training and assessment, we better have a good answer to the question of what’s in it for them. Beyond the very real intrinsic value of service, character formation and leadership development, we need a value proposition for tutors.

Stipends and wages may not be enough. Or rather, fee for service will likely be part of a mix of incentives and compensation types. Compensation could also take the form of college credit. Preparation modules for tutors can be broken into micro-credentials that can stack toward different forms of value: money, college credit or college tuition vouchers or scholarships. We could even explore a structure like the GI Bill for community educators and tutors. Perhaps we could sweeten the pot for those who find their calling through a national tutoring corps and decide to pursue careers in education.

It’s easy to see how doing something as big as a national tutoring corps this fast (i.e., now) can fail or merely replicate challenges that already hobble our education system. It could be a very expensive band-aid.

But it is also possible to see how getting enough of it right, at scale and quickly, can open the doors not only to a palliative solution to instructional loss caused by the pandemic but to systemic improvements in how we marshal the talents of people we call educators to serve the academic and socio-emotional needs of learners. To do so, we need to think of tutors not as emergency learning technicians arriving amidst blaring sirens to administer life-saving algebra lessons to young minds ambushed by instructional loss, but as community educators who should always have a sustainable and effective role in the next education workforce.