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Tutoring should head education reform agenda

The nation has severe education reform fatigue. The crisis in K-12 schools is about the only subject under the sun that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump haven't fought over.

The public and policymakers are worn out and disillusioned by decades of reforms — national, state and local — that have had modest impact at best. Most tragically, low-income and minority students remain at rock-bottom academic levels.

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There's no quick cure, of course, for this malaise. But there is a relatively simple opportunity for a momentous breakthrough. As captured in the headline on a recent commentary by a Bloomberg View columnist: "Want to fix education? Just give a kid a tutor."

While not a cure-all, the case for placing tutoring at the top of the K-12 reform agenda is persuasive and practical. Tutoring — from one-on-one to about three or four students per tutor — is arguably more research-proven than any other intervention for low-performing students. And a variety of successful models provide a unique foundation for large-scale expansion and impact.

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Tutoring is largely immune from the great plague of school reform: the difficulty in replicating promising programs because of their complicated and moving parts. Tutoring is straightforward, and the pool of tutors — teachers inside and outside of school systems, including retired teachers — is wide and deep. Private tutoring for private school students is a flourishing industry.

But if it's so do-able, why hasn't it been done more in public schools? First and foremost: money. While it requires an initial investment, intensive tutoring for struggling readers can save lots of money in the mid- to long-run, however. Students who fall behind early almost never catch up. So tutoring can prevent or mitigate behavior problems and drop-outs, while also preventing many students from being dumped into expensive (and ineffective) special education classes.

And once implemented, we can begin gathering data on which models and practices work most cost-effectively to hone the program based on the best tutor-student ratio, meeting frequency, research-based instructional programs, training and alignment with the school curriculum. We may find that non-teachers, including para-professionals and volunteers, are effective tutors that could cost school systems less.

Still, in the short run, tutors will be costly and, at large scale, beyond the current funding of beleaguered school systems like Baltimore City's. Yet lack of ample funds is a poor excuse for inaction. Lack of management leadership is also a major impediment: A well-funded federal initiative to promote tutoring a few years ago flopped because best practices and accountability were ignored.

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City schools illustrate the potential for large-scale, well-managed tutoring. There are "small group" instructional activities in most schools. Yet they are piecemeal, and the teacher-to-student ratio is far too large for success. On the other hand, some exemplary pilot programs are incubating. The Abell Foundation has led the way with support for several programs that show encouraging results. And city schools have invested in expansion of two nationally-based models.

Still, a coherent plan to move tutoring to scale is missing. The paramount priority should be tutoring that is an integral part of an early identification and intervention framework for all struggling learners in the elementary grades. Creating such a structure is on the radar of new city schools CEO Sonja Santelises, but to mount a large-scale effort, she is going to need more capacity than is now at hand.

I have proposed a non-profit corporation — jointly governed by the school system and private partners — that could spearhead a comprehensive single-focus tutoring initiative. It could be an ideal partnership venture with the local foundation community.

The basic tasks of the corporation would be: surveys of national best practices and current tutoring programs in city schools; an incremental plan for system-wide implementation, including "response to intervention" and pilot projects; training and ongoing research and development.

Funding can increase slowly through a laser-like focus on tutoring as the highest budget priority. In a couple of years, more state funds should become available. A consultant report for the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, charged to study state funding, puts tutoring, in effect, at the top of the list of evidence-based interventions for struggling learners.

Its research should be a requisite tutorial for policymakers and educators.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former member of the Baltimore school board. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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