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Top Five Tips for Driving Impact Through Effective Tutoring

Faced with learning loss after the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 school districts across the country have turned to high-dosage tutoring. Learn from district leaders about the transformative nature of tutoring and what it takes to implement a successful K-12 tutoring program.

The Center for Education Market Dynamics • June 09, 2023

How Districts Made Tutoring Programs Successful––And What They Wish They’d Known When They Started

Faced with learning loss after the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 school districts across the country have been turning to high-dosage tutoring in unprecedented numbers, and for good reason: Research shows its impact can be transformative. But what does it really take to implement a tutoring program successfully and, ultimately, to move the needle for underserved students? Center for Education Market Dynamics (CEMD) compiled the top pieces of advice from district leaders who have already done it. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Focus on Attendance

Students need to be in school to make academic progress. Across the board, district leaders repeated variations of this lesson learned. Kelli Easterly, Executive Director of STEM for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), told us that the single most significant inhibitor of student success in CPS’ tutoring program was inconsistent attendance at school—not just for the tutoring period, but for regular classroom instruction.

Meanwhile, Baltimore City Public Schools’ (City Schools) Coordinator of Academic Tutoring, Matt Barrow, shared that monitoring student attendance data across all levels of their tutoring program has been a key piece of their overall strategy. “Having a system that gives us visibility into which schools, networks, and programs are effective at consistently getting students into their tutoring sessions and which ones are not has supercharged our ability as a district to use this data…for monitoring implementation and pinpointing where additional support is needed,” Barrow emphasized. “This data is what allows us to engage in real continuous improvement of our tutoring implementation, and as a result we are on track to increase overall tutoring session attendance across all programs by 20 percentage points compared to last year.”

2. Plan Ahead for Program Logistics

Coordinating with vendors and schools. Communicating with students and families. Managing the budget. These are just a few of the logistical hurdles that districts will have to overcome as they implement high-dosage tutoring programs––and planning ahead for them is critical. In particular, investing in a team of staff to “deal with the particulars” is key, said Andrew Fletcher, Director of Strategic Partnerships for New York City Public Schools (NYCPS), who has been instrumental in NYCPS’ early literacy tutoring initiative, the City University of New York (CUNY) Reading Corps. “There’s such a need for that hands-on case management…not to mention tutors who are well-trained, whose training continues, and folks to observe, coach, and make sure the fidelity is there,” Fletcher shared.

Barrow echoed these sentiments, noting that “this work has many layers that require careful design and strategic planning, effective resource management, and consistent and frequent support provided directly to schools that require more than one individual to manage effectively.” He also recommended that program leaders learn their district’s procurement and invoicing process in advance in order to avoid invoicing delays that might be disruptive to schools or vendors. “It took a good chunk of time to learn how that part of our organization works and what we… needed to plan for when coordinating with our vendor partners,” Barrow said.

3. Harness Technology

Technology can play a vital role in a program’s success, both for tracking student data and managing day-to-day operations. District leaders from Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) told us that using technology to systematize onboarding for its peer tutoring initiative made the process up to ten times faster. Initially it took a week to 10 days for students to receive tutoring after registering, but thanks to the district’s use of formulas in Google Sheets, Microsoft Power Automate, and other free resources to accelerate the process, students can now get started the next day.

In Guilford County, North Carolina, which is lauded nationwide for its successful tutoring initiative, district leaders recognize the importance of using technology to monitor program outcomes. “Our tutor database is a spreadsheet with seven hundred individuals,” Guilford County Schools Director of Tutoring, Kara Hamilton, said, noting that this makes it difficult to access, track, and analyze important data about the program. To make program data more easily accessible, the district is now transitioning to a database which has all of the data they capture in one place.

Streamlining the technology used by students and families is also key, emphasized district leaders from Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS) in Georgia, who recalled challenges with the security measures they set up in the early days of their online tutoring program. The requirement that students log into the Tutor.com platform with unique usernames and passwords created barriers to access for some students, and the district was inundated with calls about forgotten passwords and log-in questions. When CCPS moved to a single sign-on model, there was an instant, dramatic increase in student usage.

4. Engage the Community

A common theme amongst district leaders is the importance of community engagement in any successful tutoring program. Involving students, families, teachers, administrators, and countless others is essential both during the initial program design process and throughout implementation.

In Clayton County, district leaders talked about the benefits of community engagement to boost student participation in the program. Throughout the 2022-2023 school year, the district plans to enlist school leaders and teachers in an overt effort to ensure that students who most need tutoring engage with it, likely by expanding dedicated time for tutoring during school hours.

For OCPS district leaders, soliciting student and family feedback has been a cornerstone of their improvement strategy. After learning that reminder emails were often missed or overlooked, for example, the Minority Achievement Office, which runs the district’s tutoring program, quickly implemented a text message reminder system with messages going out on the morning of tutoring.

Similarly, district leaders from Lenoir City Schools in Tennessee reflected on their journey to improve tutor-teacher communication and relationships after getting feedback from teachers. Specifically, they realized that the messaging around their intensive tutoring program made some teachers feel that tutors were getting outsized credit for student growth, shared Shawn Walker, the district’s Student Success Coordinator. The district then worked to change this dynamic by making sure to convey to teachers: “You’re a part of this story, too – we could not do this without you.”

5. Anticipate Challenges

Unfortunately, district leaders don’t have a crystal ball they can use to predict every setback their tutoring program might face. But they do have the next closest thing: wisdom from district leaders who have already learned by doing. So, what potential challenges should districts keep in mind as they design and implement high-dosage tutoring programs?

District leaders from Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) in Texas, recommend considering the potential drawbacks of virtual tutoring for younger students and being ready to pivot if needed. While ECISD’s tutoring initiative resulted in significant student growth overall, outcomes for grades K-1 led the district to discontinue virtual tutoring for those students. The district is now exploring an in-person tutoring format for these students, while virtual tutoring continues for older students who showed growth in this setting.

Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) district leaders shared that, at the outset of their high-dosage tutoring program, middle and high school students struggled to engage in tutoring when they were missing elective classes, lunch, and physical education––“time when they’re typically social creatures,” said Angelin Thompson, the district’s Director of Extended Academic Learning. DPS learned that tutoring for this age group likely works better in a dedicated period that doesn’t replace something fun.

For districts planning to implement peer tutoring programs, Orange County district leaders underscored the importance of giving student tutors “the space and grace to still be students.” To that end, OCPS district leaders recommend that programs using student tutors have coverage systems in place, such as on-call teachers and additional peer tutors, so tutoring is not disrupted when students have other commitments.

Finally, district leaders should plan for what is arguably the best challenge of all: their program’s success. In Guilford County, their tutoring program grew so rapidly that processes that worked initially were no longer efficient, and the district needed new tools and procedures. They were not fully prepared for “how quickly this became an organization within an organization,” Kara Hamilton said.

Want a deeper look into the decision points and lessons learned about district tutoring programs? 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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