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Navigating the Tutoring Selection Process for Maximum Impact

How do districts determine whether to use internal or external tutoring partners? Read about key insights, strategies, and important factors to consider.

The Center for Education Market Dynamics • June 12, 2023

When it comes to selecting a tutoring provider, K-12 school districts often find themselves inundated with one logistical decision after the next: Should they hire tutors internally, or work with an external vendor to coordinate hiring and program management? And, if they do decide on an external program structure, how do they pick between dozens of potential partners? What delivery method should they select? What kind of contract should they consider?

Understanding these options can empower district leaders to make the best decisions for their students with their district’s unique context, population, and needs in mind. Here are some key factors to consider:

Internal vs. External Programs and Providers

One of the first questions districts have to ask themselves is whether to launch an internal tutoring program (one that does not contract with an external vendor for tutoring services), to partner with an external provider, or to take a hybrid approach, handling some components of the tutoring program internally and others externally.

Over the past several months of interviewing districts about their tutoring implementation, we’ve seen a range of successful structures and strategies. While some districts, like Lenoir City Schools in Tennessee, were able to opt for an internal program, drawing on existing infrastructure to run their tutoring initiative, others, like Ector County Independent School District in Texas, chose an external model because of staffing shortages and an influx of new inexperienced teachers. Meanwhile, Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) decided to use a combined strategy for a multi-tiered approach to tutoring. The district’s K-2 transitional supplemental instruction program (TSI) is internal; the district trains and hires its own tutors. For K-12 tutoring, City Schools partnered with 14 external vendors, enabling the district to get the program off the ground quickly and meet the evidence-based criteria needed to qualify for ESSER funding.

Like these districts, considering factors like your district’s capacity, size, and the intended scale of implementation will be critical as you decide how to manage the many layers that go into a successful tutoring program, from tutor coordination and technical support to case management. Need more guidance on how to select an internal, external, or hybrid tutoring structure? Use this decision tree to help you think through your options.

Considerations for External Partnerships

If you’ve already decided on an external structure for your tutoring program, there are myriad decision points as your district selects vendors. Keeping student learning in mind, districts should assess how well the specializations and delivery methods of different vendors align with the needs of their students and schools. Furthermore, if your tutoring initiative is intended to target multiple subjects and student populations, consider partnering with more than one vendor. For example, in Ector County, schools could choose to work with any of three external providers–FEV TutorsAirTutors, and Amplify–each of which serves different students, subjects, and grades. Similarly, City Schools’ partnership with 14 external vendors enables the district to target its tutoring based on students’ needs, serving thousands of K-12 students across a range of subjects.

Deciding whether online, in-person, or hybrid tutoring will best serve their students can also help districts narrow down vendors based on which of these delivery method(s) they offer. Because attendance is such an important predictor of student success in tutoring, districts should consider which delivery method is most likely to enable consistent student attendance and engagement in their district. Student age is also a key factor, with more than one district leader we interviewed acknowledging the challenges of doing virtual tutoring with younger students.

Keeping these considerations in mind, some districts we talked to decided their students would be best served by a multi-pronged approach to tutoring delivery. For example, Guilford County Schools opted to combine virtual and in-person methods to meet different goals. Its on-demand, Virtual Helpline for all K-12 students in the district utilizes a platform provided by external partner Saga Education, and is delivered by GCS teachers. The district’s high-impact tutoring is offered in-person during the school day and is administered internally, targeting specific students based on academic performance.

Want more information on the factors your district should consider when selecting from external tutoring partners? Check out this article, which breaks down a framework of two subcategories of tutoring solutions, including models, specific types, descriptions, and examples of each.

Outcomes Based Contracting

Tutoring programs aren’t cheap, and outcomes-based contracting (OBC) has emerged as a strategy some districts use to strengthen relationships with providers and ensure they deliver at quality standards needed to accelerate student learning. Through such an agreement, a vendor receives a base payment for delivering services, with the rest of the payment being contingent on meeting agreed-upon student outcomes.

Denver Public Schools (DPS) and Ector County are two examples of school districts that implemented this strategy successfully:

  • In Ector County, contracts with providers are structured such that they receive a base pay if students achieve their “projected growth” (i.e. a year of growth) on the NWEA MAP test; a 5% bonus for students outstripping that goal by 5%; and a 10% bonus if students achieve one-and-a-half years of growth or more.
  • In Denver, who partners with both Cignition and University Instructors, contracts are structured such that there is a base pay to cover cost, but DPS pays a higher rate if at least 75% of enrolled students achieve 1.5 years of growth during the year, and higher rate still for 2+ years of growth.

Want to learn more about the decision points and lessons learned from K-12 district leaders? Be sure to check out Leading for Action: An Insight Report on K-12 Tutoring Programs, an insight report by CEMD, highlighting districts across the nation that have established successful K-12 tutoring programs.

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