EdSource panel: Tutoring can come in many forms — almost all of them good

Tutoring can be in person or online, after school or during class, tailored to specific homework assignments or cover broad concepts. But no matter what form it takes, tutoring will be the most important factor in helping students catch up academically after the pandemic, a panel of experts told an EdSource roundtable on Wednesday.

“This is the only way we know really to accelerate student learning,” said Susanna Loeb, education economist and director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. “We don’t have another option here that really has been shown to work. And as a result, I think it’s up to us to figure out how to get this into the schools.”

School districts throughout California are using their COVID relief funds to hire tutors to help students regain ground lost during remote learning. But a limited hiring pool, as well as the eventual end of COVID money, has left some districts scrambling for alternative ways to match students with individualized instruction that helps them succeed academically.

Watch the full panel discussion on YouTube:

Panelists praised the recently launched College Corps, a state-run initiative that will place more than 1,500 college students in school districts to work as tutors in exchange for scholarship money. They also offered several other ideas to bolster the tutor workforce.

Irvine Unified has contracted with a company called Paper, which offers online on-demand tutoring 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students can log on to meet with a live tutor whenever they need help. Although some students log on late at night, most log on during the school day, said Shaney Valencia, the district’s educational technology coordinator.

To get students to participate, the district and Paper have held pep rallies at schools, asked teachers to promote it and linked it to Canvas, the district’s learning platform.

“We try to hit it from all the angles,” she said.

Madyson Lee, a senior at Portola High School in Irvine Unified, said she’s found the service invaluable.

“To have this amazing resource for free at any time that I need it and to be able to have the comfort in the back of my mind that I can fall back on this resource has been a huge help to me,” she said, adding that she’s often sought help from Paper tutors at 2 a.m. “I’ll share the feedback that I got from my Paper tutor and my friends will share the feedback that they got. And there’s this consensus that Paper is useful and that this has a lot of potential to go far.”

Lakisha Young, co-founder and chief executive of the Oakland REACH, a nonprofit focused on achievement among Black and Latino students in Oakland, said that her organization has been successful in finding tutors within the community. Oakland REACH workers will recruit parents and other relatives dropping their children off at school in the morning, and train them to be reading tutors. The district hires them as part-time classroom employees, often at schools in their own neighborhoods.

The advantages, Young said, are that the tutors are more likely to connect to the students they’re working with, they have deep ties to the school already, and the program could put them on a path to becoming full-time credentialed teachers.

Another bonus is that tutors can relieve teachers who are burning out — especially Black and Latino teachers — potentially reducing the teacher shortage.

The Oakland REACH and Oakland Unified recently won a grant to hire and train parents and others in the community to work as tutors in the schools with the lowest reading scores.

“The secret sauce is that paraprofessional profile,” Young said, referring to tutors. “If the mamas and the aunts and the folks that look like our kids from the communities can get kids to read, then we can do this at scale. And we have to do this at scale. We don’t really have an option.”

Sal Khan, founder and chief executive of Khan Academy, has years of experience offering free online tutoring. Millions of students, from fourth to 12th grades, have turned to the site’s asynchronous lessons on everything from algebra to AP art history. But during Covid, he saw the need for more personalized instruction as students craved socialization.

He recently launched a spinoff of Khan Academy called Schoolhouse.world, which offers free virtual assistance with classwork from a live tutor. Tutors in his program are trained volunteers, most of them students themselves.

To encourage more students to enroll as tutors, colleges should consider adding tutoring skills as criteria for admission, he said. That could lure more young people to tutoring — giving them exposure to the teaching profession and ensuring that more students get the extra help they need academically.

“If you’re a highly reputed tutor, and if we can validate that, that means you can communicate, you can empathize … and you clearly know the subject domain,” Khan said. “That should be the way to get access to college or internships or maybe even paid tutoring opportunities. … And you could imagine that creates a huge incentive for these kids to volunteer and volunteer at high quality.”

Green Dot Public Schools, a charter network with 18 middle and high schools in Los Angeles, has seen success in hiring tutors to work with small groups of students three to four days a week. The students are typically several years behind. The tutors — some of whom are former Green Dot students — work closely with teachers, covering the same curriculum teachers are covering in the classroom.

“We track (students’) academic progress. We also survey them with questions like, does my tutor help improve my math skills, does my tutor improve my confidence in math,” said Alyce Prentice, area superintendent of Green Dot Public Schools California. “We had 95% of students last year agree or strongly agree with those statements, which is really, really powerful.”

While all tutoring is helpful, students who need the most help are more likely to benefit from tutoring offered during the school day, in a format where they don’t have to opt in, said Loeb.

She acknowledged that hiring may be a challenge, but districts should find creative ways to get students the help they need. Partnering with local colleges or community-based tutoring organizations is a good option, she said.

“Many districts are doing really good things right now,” she said. “I think there are a lot of options. I know it’s not that easy to do, but I really do think it’s our only option in the long run to get students the individualized attention that they need. Not only because of the academics, but for the social-emotional benefits as well.”

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