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What If Every Struggling Student Had a Tutor?

Note: This week Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education at Brown University, joins us as guest-blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft.

I'm thrilled to take a break from my research this week to reflect on what we might do differently to substantially enhance the quality of teaching and learning in K-12 public schools.  In this series of "What if..." blog posts, I share my thoughts on some of the big questions I hope we all consider asking. 

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Before becoming an academic, I taught in a small 9th grade academy at Berkeley High School as I've described in my previous posts. As part of our efforts to help our students overcome their academic struggles, my colleagues and I organized a small after-school tutoring program staffed by volunteers from U.C. Berkeley and local community organizations. A few students and tutors formed strong bonds and worked well together, but the program was largely ineffectual as a whole. Volunteers were untrained and turned over frequently throughout the year, and there were never enough tutors to work one-on-one with each student.  Many tutors struggled to keep students focused on their academic work in this after-school setting.  We could have done a much better job coordinating the skills and assignments students were working on in class with tutors.   

The shortcomings of our program became even more obvious when I began moonlighting as a private tutor to supplement my salary as an intern teacher and help pay for my graduate coursework. The tutoring company that hired me conducted a thorough screening process and provided a range of support materials before sending me down the peninsula to work one-on-one with students in their homes. Back at Berkeley, we struggled to convince the students who most needed help to stay after school for tutoring.

Does tutoring work? Market demand certainly suggests that it does. Americans spend $15 billion annually on test-prep and private tutoring services.  But as my experience illustrates, school-based tutoring programs can fall well short of their full potential.

After-school tutoring programs are available in almost half of all U.S. public elementary schools.  Over the past decade under No Child Left Behind, millions of students have received tutoring services through Title I and Title IV funding for Supplemental Education Services (SES) and 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC). Large-scale evaluations of SES and 21st CCLC programs revealed that they were not consistently aligned with school curriculum, were characterized by low rates of participation, and rarely resulted in measurable improvements in student achievement. 

In recent years, several charter school networks and turnaround schools have taken an alternative approach to tutoring — integrating individualized tutoring programs into the school day.  These programs distinguish themselves from SES and 21st CCLC programs by: 1) conducting a rigorous screening process for college-educated tutors, 2) hiring tutoring "fellows" to work full time over the course of the academic year, 3) training tutors on best practices and providing on-going support, 4) pairing students and tutors together throughout the entire year to work one-on-one or in small groups, 5) coordinating efforts between teachers and tutors, and 6) operating tutoring like a regular class rather than an after-school program.  My own analysis of one of the early pioneers of this approach, Match Charter Public School, found that their Match Corps (MC) tutors raised student achievement in English language arts from a half-year to a full year's worth of learning. Evaluations of turnaround efforts in Houston (TX) and Lawrence (MA) indicate that students made the largest gains in the grades and subjects in which MC-like tutoring programs and "Acceleration Academies" were implemented. Most recently, a randomized control trial that combined MC tutoring in math with a cognitive behavioral therapy program increased math performance among disadvantaged youth from the South Side of Chicago by approximately two years' worth of learning on standardized tests and over half a letter grade.  New organizations such as SAGA Innovations, Blueprint Schools and Blue Engine are beginning to demonstrate how individualized tutoring and small-group instruction facilitated by teaching assistants can be taken to scale in large urban districts.

What would it require to expand rigorous tutoring programs such as these nationally? Let's say a tutor can work with a pair of students for eight periods a day, with a total of 16 students. There are about 50 million students in K-12 public schools in the U.S.  Tutoring all students would require over three million tutors. We could reduce this figure to under two million if we target the roughly 60% of students who score below Proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Focusing on the approximately 25% of students who score Below Basic on the NAEP would push the total number of tutors down to 780,000. We could further narrow the scope to specific grades, such as early elementary, or difficult school transition years such as 6th and 9th grade, which have been shown to negatively impact student achievement.  Tutoring all public school students scoring Below Basic on the NAEP in the United States in a single grade would require about 60,000 full-time tutors. 

On paper, 60,000 is not impossible. Over 240,000 teaching candidates graduate from traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs combined each year. Working as a full-time tutor would provide aspiring teachers valuable experience with students and could be formally integrated into pre-service training programs. AmeriCorps receives over a half million applications from which it selects 80,000 corps members, many of whom serve in schools as teachers' aids and after-school program coordinators. 

Paying 60,000 tutors a salary of $35K plus $10K in benefits, about what novice teachers make, would cost around $2.7 billion annually in salaries alone. If tutor salaries were aligned with those of teacher aides, about $24K plus $7K in benefits, it would cost $1.86 billion annually. This would be an enormous commitment on the part of the federal government at any salary, but in the ballpark with past expenditures on SES and 21st CCLC programs combined.  Online tutoring programs such as Khan Academy present possible opportunities to reduce costs through blended learning approaches.

A national effort to mobilize tutors would not be without precedent.  In 1997, President Clinton proposed to recruit 30,000 reading specialists and 1 million volunteer tutors as part of the America Reads Challenge Act. Although the $2.75 billion dollar bill was never passed, Clinton did succeed in leveraging existing programs such as AmeriCorps and federal work-study programs for college students to substantially expand tutoring in public schools.  The best evaluation of these efforts that I'm aware of found that students who worked with AmeriCorps tutors made upwards of a year's worth of gains in reading.

Considerable implementation challenges lay just beyond these recruitment and funding hurdles.  But if further evidence confirms the efficacy of individualized tutoring, isn't it worth asking what it would take to make tutoring available to the students who need it most, not just to those whose families can afford it? 

--Matthew Kraft

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