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A cure for COVID-19 learning loss: tutoring | COMMENTARY

Some kids may get left behind because of virtual learning, but some say tutoring could help them keep up.
Some kids may get left behind because of virtual learning, but some say tutoring could help them keep up. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Every day there are new reports of how students, particularly those who are poor and of color, are suffering learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Experts project that the “COVID slide,” as it’s called, will cause students to fall behind by at least four months in reading and math during the school year.

That’s a dire forecast, but, if anything, it understates the catastrophic dangers ahead. The learning loss and the fate of millions of students will almost certainly be worse than that.

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What the reports don’t take into account is that the losses for many students are likely to be irremediable. Even when schools fully reopen, remediation resources seem destined to be too little too late. This is particularly true for students in grades K-3 who miss out on learning the foundational skills for reading.

Research proves this. The surest bet in education is that most students who fall behind early in learning to read will never catch up. Based on the research, four months loss in learning in the early grades leads to a lost year or two in laying the foundations for literacy. Basic reading skills are the indispensable gateway to all learning and life chances.

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Yet, there is a cure for this learning loss. Academic fatalities, on a larger scale than ever before in our nation’s history, can be avoided.

First, we must recognize the national emergency that confronts us. Even after there is a vaccine for COVID-19, we will still be left with a lost generation of students. Second, we must mobilize at the local, state and federal levels to meet the emergency head-on as we would in the event of war or another crisis. And third, the mobilization must supply our schools with the most proven treatment for learning loss: tutoring.

One good thing that has come out of the current school crisis is recognition that one-on-one or small group tutoring is by far the most successful and cost-effective cure for learning loss. The scholar who has shone the clearest light on this is Dr. Robert Slavin, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education. Well before the pandemic, his studies showed that tutoring surpassed any other policies or programs in closing learning gaps, most notably in reading.

Now, an outpouring of studies and experts say the same thing, and propose massive increases in tutoring. A July Brookings Institution paper summarized the evidence showing its powerful effects. Mr. Slavin has described national tutoring initiatives in the U.K. and Netherlands to combat COVID-19 learning loss.

Our country must mobilize as well. We urgently need a national plan for tutoring students who are victims of the pandemic. Before COVID-19, tutoring was neglected because of cost. But emerging research reveals that tutoring can be done effectively not just by certified teachers but by much less expensive, well-trained college graduates (who are not certified teachers) and volunteers.

All that stands in the way is political will and better management of resources than shown in recent small-scale tutoring initiatives in Maryland. Following the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, state legislation in 2019 earmarked funding for tutoring, primarily in reading, in grades K-3. But local district reports indicate that most of the funding was not spent on research-based tutoring programs. (A notable exception is Baltimore City which developed, prior to the pandemic, its own in-house program that can serve as a model for the nation.)

The Maryland State Department of Education must rise to the challenge. When the General Assembly reconvenes and considers the Maryland Blueprint and other school funding in the wake of COVID-19, legislators must give the highest priority to funding for tutoring and holding the Department of Education accountable for implementation. The emergency is so critical that consideration should be given to creation of a high-profile office of emergency instructional services within the department.

Federal funding should cover much of the costs. Gov. Larry Hogan set aside $100 million in current CARES Act aid for tutoring. But that money must be spent by the end of this calendar year, so little tutoring will actually occur.

The public and political officials may be surprised that there is a known cure for learning loss. But there’s compelling evidence that an emergency mobilization of an army of tutors can save the educational lives of a generation of young Americans, especially those who are poor and of color. Our nation and state will be severely weakened and shamed if we don’t act decisively now.

Kalman R. Hettleman (khettleman@gmail.com) a former member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore City school board, is an education policy analyst and advocate.

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