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Baltimore schools should expand tutoring to compensate for COVID disruptions, Abell Foundation says

About 18,000 elementary students in Baltimore who have fallen behind academically during the pandemic should get intensive tutoring this year to catch them up using a combination of federal and philanthropic funds, a new report from the Abell Foundation says.

With $1.9 trillion headed to school systems around the country, the city will have millions of dollars to help students unable to learn in-person for a year. A portion of that money should be directed to helping elementary students learn to read, the report said.

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Online learning has been a struggle for many students without reliable internet and laptops, and in some cases, quiet spaces to learn. “A lot of them have really just been out of school for a year,” said Bob Slavin, an author of the report and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.

“I think they need something really quick and effective so that they don’t lose the thread” that keeps them motivated to learn, he said. If students return to school and it is “business as usual and they are failing from day one” their chances of succeeding academically in school will fade, Slavin added. He called the level of decline during the pandemic “shocking.”

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Testing by Baltimore City schools last year shows that of 25,000 students about 13,300 in kindergarten through fifth grade scored well below proficient and another 4,600 scored slightly higher but still not proficient.

Even with one of the most extensive tutoring programs in an urban school system, Slavin said, the city schools are serving only about 4,600 students currently with its nonprofit partners.

The Abell report calls for one-on-one and small group tutoring to be ramped up dramatically in the next several months for students as they begin to return to school. The city now has seven reading programs operating at several schools each, including one the school system launched recently that uses college students from Morgan State University and Loyola University Maryland for tutoring in 28 schools.

Some of those programs have begun to operate online and are getting results, said Janise Lane, executive director of teaching and learning for Baltimore’s public schools system.

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Lane agrees with the report’s conclusion that a master plan is needed for the city, and she says there is likely to be significant federal funds earmarked for that purpose. The school system, she said, is refining its efforts to match a student’s needs with the kind of tutoring that would work best.

The city also needs to expand to cover middle and high school students, and to include math — the subject on which students have lost the most ground during the pandemic.

The Abell report recommends the city expand the use of its existing partners, and start new programs, particularly those that have been proven through research to work. It suggests asking for city government to support the program as a cost effective alternative to improving student performance, and ask college students for their help.

More than 530 tutors will be needed if the tutoring is expanded to all 13,000 students who need it, according to the report.

“The city school system is in a good position,” said Stephanie Safran, a Baltimore based education researcher and strategist. “The city schools have attracted and fostered a lot of meaningful partners over the last 10 years.”

But in trying to scale up tutoring programs, Safran said, the school system should take a more aggressive role and build capacity to diagnose students, monitor their growth during the tutoring and then take action to adjust it if needed.

Slavin, who has worked for three decades on research on reading through his nonprofit Success For All, has been working on recommendations to President Joe Biden’s administration to expand tutoring services nationwide through programs like Americorps and the National Tutoring Corps.

Previous federally funded tutoring programs have drawn criticism for their cost and poor results. A 2011 Abell Foundation report was critical of a No Child Left Behind-era tutoring program for its loose oversight, low-quality providers and little evidence the tutoring improved student performance.

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