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Friday Guest Column: Hey Buddy…Can You Spare A Teacher with a Master’s Degree?

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Dr. John Stuppy, President, TutorVista.com.

At the Arizona School Administrators’ fall conference, Dr. Jeff Van Handel, Superintendent of Camp Verde, Arizona, described how his district had lost students to charter and private schools, and was forced to deal with a dwindling budget, more high-need students, and a shortage of qualified teachers.

Compounding these challenges, Camp Verde’s teachers were faced with a wider disparity between the best and worst performing students, and the challenge of teaching to a wide range of skills. For example, some students were Limited English Proficient, while others were repeat discipline students who performed on average two grade levels behind their fellow students.

Dr. Van Handel needed qualified teachers in secondary math, science and English but had limited availability of teachers and an inadequate budget. Previous attempts to hire a single teacher with a Master’s degree in mathematics had been unsuccessful for over two years. Facing mounting pressure from parents and the community, Dr. Van Handel thought “outside the box” to come up with a cost-effective solution to the district’s education crisis.

“I needed to provide more services with fewer resources, and I needed to do it quickly,” Dr. Van Handel said. “You can’t continue to do things the same way and expect better results.” So he sought help from a surprising source -- teachers with postgraduate degrees, half a world away in India. Every student would have the opportunity to get one-on-one live instruction to supplement their education.

To reclaim students, Dr. Van Handel sent out postcards that promised a “tuition-free approach to learning” through the use of live, online tutoring in all subjects. Students who came back to Camp Verde public schools would receive free homework and writing help, a personalized learning program and both scheduled and on-demand tutoring sessions.

Students receive help from highly-qualified tutors, most of whom have master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s. Using course materials aligned to the school district’s curriculum, students work with the tutors in school and receive unlimited tutoring at home. Computer voice software allows both student and tutor talk to one another to discuss solution approaches, assess student needs and work through problems. Whiteboard software provides a virtual chalkboard both student and tutor can see and write on, which facilitates the interactive learning experience.

Dr. Van Handel found the program provided an effective way to teach struggling students, as well as more advanced students. Individual tutoring has been shown to be the most effective way to reach students, since it can be tailored to a student’s specific learning needs and abilities. Studies have demonstrated that online tutoring is as effective as face-to-face tutoring. The tutors help students day-to-day, while certified teachers in various disciplines monitor student progress and assign grades.

When word got out about this new program, Dr. Van Handel reclaimed many of the students who had left years before, increased the district’s ADA, and boosted credit recovery at the middle and high school levels. For a fraction of the cost of regular tutoring programs and other interventions, Dr. Van Handel has found an answer to the teacher shortage and is turning things around in his school district.

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1 Comment

Your approach makes sense for a lot of reasons.

1. It includes a personal component. I don't doubt that research supports the effectiveness of One-on-One online tutoring with a human involved, although the evidence does not support the effectiveness of online tutorial without the human touch.

2. There is no downside. Its an effort to bring more capacity and bring more kids back to school. Its not an effort to sript instruction or beat down or control or teacher proof instruction.

3. Common Sense. As in the case of the military, it is working with older kids who have had a taste of life on the streets without a diplomma.

4. Its a positive effort to reach out. I'd try to link your effort with the cell phone idea in NYC to use that media to draw dropouts back to school.

On one hand, its always seemed inevitable that the combination of NCLB and technology would produce more centralization and top down mandates, thus threatening basic educational values. On the other hand, when you consider how teachers are such pack rats, and how we're always searching for a new advantage, it is hard to believe that technophiles were so counterproductive in implementing digital technology. Think of the opportunities created by 21st century technologies if we abandoned the effort to use them to beat down and control teachers. The antidote is to think creatively, as you did, to create win-win situations.

And Dean regarding your predictions, they held up well. I have just one complaint. Back then, "centrist" Democrats may or may not have still been supporting NCLB, and "Centrist" think tanks still do. But among Democrats, its mostly been our Left wing and our activists who were the core of the law's support. We centrists wanted to go along and cooperate with NCLB, but by now we are almost unanimous in opposition.

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