Tutoring comes in many forms — almost all are good, panel says — EdSource | Team Cansler

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Tutoring can be in person or online, after school or during class, tailored to specific homework, or cover broad concepts. But whatever the form, tutoring will be the single most important factor in helping students catch up academically after the pandemic, a panel of experts said at an EdSource roundtable on Wednesday.

“It’s the only way we know of to really accelerate student learning,” said Susanna Loeb, education economist and director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. “We don’t have any other option here that has really worked. And so I think it’s up to us to figure out how to get that into schools.”

School districts across California are using their Covid relief funds to hire tutors to help students regain ground lost to distance learning. But a limited hiring pool, as well as the eventual end of Covid funds, has led some districts to look for alternative ways to match students with individualized instruction that will help them thrive academically.

Panelists commended the recently launched College Corps, a state initiative that will place more than 1,500 college students in school districts to tutor for scholarship funds. They also offered several other ideas to strengthen the tutoring workforce.

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

To encourage student participation, the district and Paper held encouragement rallies at schools, asked teachers to promote them, and connected them to Canvas, the district’s learning platform.

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

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

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

Lakisha Young, co-founder and executive director of Oakland REACH, a nonprofit focused on outreach among Black and Hispanic students in Oakland, said her organization has been successful in finding tutors in the community. Oakland REACH employees will recruit parents and other relatives who take their children to school in the morning and train them to be teachers of reading. The district hires them as part-time teaching staff, often at schools in their own neighborhoods.

The benefits, Young said, are that tutors are more likely to connect with the students they work with, they already have a deep bond with the school, and the program could put them on the path to becoming full-time teachers. Another bonus is that tutors can relieve teachers who are burned out — especially Black and Hispanic teachers — and potentially reduce teacher shortages.

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 ingredient is that paraprofessional profile,” Young said, referring to the tutors. “If the mothers and aunts and the people who look like our children from the communities can get children to read, then we can do it on a large scale. And we need to do this on a large scale. We don’t really have an option.”

Sal Kahn, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, has years of experience providing free online tutoring. Millions of students, from fourth through 12th grade, 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 personal instruction as students craved socialisation.

He recently launched a Khan Academy spin-off called Schoolhouse.world, which offers free virtual classroom assistance from a live tutor. The 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 an admissions criterion, he said. That could encourage more young people to take up tutoring – bringing them closer to the teaching profession and ensuring more students get the extra support they need academically.

“If you’re a highly respected tutor, and if we can confirm that, that means you can communicate, you can empathize… and you clearly know the subject,” Khan said. “That should be the route to access college or internships or maybe even paid tutoring opportunities. … And you can imagine that this creates a huge incentive for these children to volunteer and do a good job.”

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

“We track the academic progress of (students). We also poll them with questions like, “Does my tutor help my math skills improve, does my tutor improve my math confidence,” said Alyce Prentice, area director, Green Dot Public Schools California. “Last year, 95% of students agreed or strongly agreed with these statements, which is really, really impressive.”

While all tutoring is helpful, students who need help the most are more likely to benefit from tutoring offered during the school day, in a format that doesn’t require them to register, Loeb said. She acknowledged that hiring can be challenging, 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.

“A lot of counties are doing really good things right now,” she said. “I think there are many possibilities. I know it’s not that easy, but I truly believe that in the long run it’s our only option to give students the one-on-one attention they need. Not just because of the academics, but also because of the social-emotional benefits.”

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