- Intensive, small-group tutoring is one of the best strategies for getting kids to catch up, but few schools are doing it at the scale or quality needed to do their jobs.
- A major research experiment at the University of Chicago aims to finally remove some of the longstanding barriers that have prevented effective teaching from becoming a widespread reality.
- The research will be implemented in real time, potentially helping thousands of students in part due to COVID school closures within the next five years.
Joy Mitchell fell into tutoring largely by accident, but in retrospect it all makes sense. The 27-year-old grew up in Chicago in a family of teachers. After college, where he majored in business administration, some of his roles included mentoring teenagers.
When she saw an Instagram ad recruiting tutors for Saga, a tutoring nonprofit that focuses on low-income students struggling with math, she decided to apply. She thought she could dip her “toes into the teaching pool.”
Over the past year, working in schools in Washington, DC, Michelle has seen students transformed by tutoring and especially by SAGA’s approach – integrating small groups of students and tutors into the life of the classroom. She works on making “math a conversation” by getting to know who her students are.
“I would walk them through it, ask them questions out loud, ask them to explain their thought process,” Mitchell said. In between, she would give them “brain breaks”. “I’ve definitely learned that students learn from what they like. That extra investment really goes a long way.
In much of the country, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 erased decades of educational progress. Research shows that intensive, small group tutoring during the school day is one of the most effective strategies for getting kids to catch up.
But relatively few districts are doing it, at least not at the scale or quality experts say it needs to do their jobs. Tutors like Mitchell are in short supply, but that’s just part of the challenge.
A new $18 million research initiative seeks to finally address some of the longstanding barriers that have prevented effective teaching from becoming a widespread reality. In news shared exclusively with USA TODAY, the University of Chicago Education Lab announced that it will lead the research project in partnership with MDRC, experimenting with different models as well as implementing real-time tutoring and solutions will expand access to
“We face a once-in-a-century public health crisis and a once-in-a-century education crisis,” said Monica Bhatt, senior research director at the Education Lab. “It’s an opportunity to do things a little differently.”
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Why Aren’t More Schools Offering Tuition?
Bhatt said that an education strategy that has been around for centuries, this form of tuition can provide ideal learning conditions. Tutors are integrated into the school day to complement classroom instruction, with tailored and targeted support in small groups.
it’s rare that researchers have such Consensus, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis organization. But they agree that tutoring is only part of the solution. “This is something we know works,” she said.
As of this spring, nearly a quarter of the more than 5,000 districts surveyed by Georgetown University education research think tank FutureEd had set aside money for tuition. States including Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Tennessee have doubled down on the strategy, developing their own tuition corps.
But in many cases, tutoring initiatives struggle to reach all the students who need help. And they have often grown out of demand for private tutoring among families with the means.
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“When you’re faced with a situation where you’re sending your central office staff into classrooms to actually teach kids, the last thing on your mind is starting a new teaching program,” Lake said.
As in high-dose tutoring it is expensive and requires a lot of humans at a time when school staff of all kinds are in short supply. Districts often lack the time to figure out how to do this in a sustainable way.
Then there are the less obvious things: recruiting, training and managing staff; development of a high quality curriculum; The logistics of scheduling and working tutoring during the school day while meeting many other requirements.
“Districts and building leaders have a lot on their plate, especially now more than ever,” said Kevin Huffman, founding CEO of Accelerate, a newly formed national initiative aimed at increasing high-dose tuition in schools. Accelerate is a partner and funder of the Education Lab’s research projects. “Anything that complex from a management and implementation perspective is going to be really difficult. We have to look for ways to get the same results with less burden,” Huffman said.
‘Biggest social experiment ever completed’
The Education Lab aims to address those vast and pressing challenges, ideally within the next five years. Schools are full of federal relief dollars, much of it still unspent, though the money expires in 2024. Failure by the districts to spend the money has attracted increasing scrutiny from members of Congress.
With the help of philanthropic partners including America Achieves, Arnold Ventures and the founding CEO of Citadel, the funds will be used to support research as well as benefit and supplement on-the-ground tuition.
Three school systems have already signed up to participate in the study: Chicago Public Schools, which has a longstanding partnership with the University of Chicago Education Lab; Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia, which includes Atlanta; and the New Mexico Department of Education. By next year, the researchers hope to have up to a half-dozen working in more geographically diverse districts or states.
One of the key questions of the project: What is the most cost-effective way to deliver tutoring at scale that doesn’t sacrifice quality?
To put things in context, Chicago Public Schools will use nearly $25 million in relief funding to train a districtwide corps of approximately 850 tutors. But at the end of the day, using the current model, the district would serve only a fraction of the more than 322,000 student body, Bhatt said.
The project hopes to experiment with higher student-teacher ratios and greater reliance on technology, which could reduce costs. For example, some students may not need more intensive teaching, which can free up resources for students who could benefit from it.
This achievement gap was already widening:COVID added fuel to the fire.
Finding a more cost-effective way of paying tuition is critical, given the fiscal crunch districts face once relief funds dry up.
“We cannot wait three or five years to know the answer,” Bhatt said. Researchers will work in the field with school and district leaders, simultaneously fine-tuning and tweaking.
“Too often, in education, we are making too many guesses about what works,” Bhatt said.
With these findings, Bhatt and others hope to gain clarity about what type of tutoring model—a mix of high-dose tutoring and, say, a more technology-based version—will work best for what types of students. works well?
“Until we get to that level of specificity, we won’t be able to make as much progress as we could,” Bhatt said.
The ultimate goal is to include more than 50,000 students in the study. Most of the existing studies on high-dose tutoring have focused on a few thousand children.
“If we can accomplish this,” Bhatt said, “it will be the greatest social experiment ever.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.