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Kristen Amundson column: Tutoring can help kids catch up — but only if It’s done right

Kristen Amundson column: Tutoring can help kids catch up — but only if It’s done right

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As we approach the one-year anniversary of school closures, there are glimmers of hope that kids eventually will get back to in-person schooling. But what happens then?

One thing is clear: Students who already were behind this past March will be even farther behind. Evidence abounds. Fairfax County Public Schools saw an 83% increase in the number of middle and high school students receiving an F in two or more classes.

Statewide, the Virginia Department of Education reported in January that 36% of low-income kindergarteners and nearly half (49%) of kindergarten English learners in the state are at high risk of reading failure.

As researchers from The Hamilton Project noted, these learning gaps will not close by themselves: “Students who fall behind grade-level material tend to stay behind.” The cumulative impact of lost learning “can seriously undermine students’ chances of success in the workforce and beyond.”

We must plan now to help students catch up. “[T]he most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time,” says Dr. Robert Slavin from Johns Hopkins University, the nation’s leading expert on tutoring.

Among policymakers, there’s a sudden flurry of interest in tutoring as a part of COVID-19 relief. Gov. Ralph Northam could, as do states including Alabama, Delaware and Mississippi, draw on the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief program, part of the CARES Act, to support afterschool tutoring.

But my worry is that with the influx of federal funding, there will be pressure to quickly fund a lot of subpar tutoring programs, with little oversight. And that is a movie we have seen before.

Remember the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act? One of its provisions was that schools in their third year of failing to make adequate yearly progress had to offer out-of-school-time tutoring in reading and math to low-income students. These Supplemental Educational Services (SES) were funded with the district’s existing Title I money.

But NCLB set minimal parameters on how states should select or evaluate tutoring programs. As a result, a sort of Wild West mentality arose. Billions of dollars were allocated (federal SES funding increased by 45% over four years). In Virginia, the number of SES providers grew by 128% in just three years.

What happened to the students who enrolled? Not much. As Slavin says about the impact of SES tutoring, “Zero was the outcome whichever way you looked at the evidence, with one awful exception: The lowest achievers, and special education students, actually performed significantly less well … if they were in SES than if they qualified but did not sign up.” He calls SES “a disaster.”

So we need to be very careful in structuring how new tutoring dollars are allocated. Luckily, there’s research to tell us what works. Here are three key elements.

First, a small student-to-tutor ratio: In math and literacy, both one-on-one and small group (two to three students) tutoring is effective. Interestingly, for English language learners, small group sessions work better than individual tutoring.

Second, frequent contact: Best practice research indicates that two to three weekly tutoring sessions are needed, with daily tutoring if possible. Sessions should last between 30 and 45 minutes for younger students and up to an hour for older students.

Finally, trained tutors: College-educated students, even if they are not yet certified teachers, can achieve results comparable to classroom teachers. (This is not to downplay the critical role of teachers. Remember, tutors work with far fewer students than teachers do. And they often are working on teacher-designed learning activities.)

So what about using volunteers (similar to the Education Reserve Corps proposal outlined this week by state Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City)? The research shows that paying tutors makes a difference in student outcomes. Paid tutors are more likely to regularly show up. That allows tutors to develop stronger relationships with students — and that in turn leads to more learning.

We need to help kids catch up. But in this case, doing the wrong thing might in fact be worse than doing nothing. So let’s develop a tutoring plan based on research to help close gaps for all Virginia’s kids.

Kristen Amundson is a former chair of the Fairfax County School Board and a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at:

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