Great Tutors Could Be a Source of Great Teachers

blog_4-19-18_tutoring_500x329In a recent blog, I wrote about findings of three recent reviews of research on tutoring, contained within broader reviews of research on effective programs for struggling elementary readers, struggling secondary readers, and math. The blog reported the astonishing finding that in each of the reviews, outcomes for students tutored by paraprofessionals (teaching assistants) were as good, and usually somewhat better, than outcomes for students tutored by teachers.

It is important to note that the paraprofessionals tutoring students usually had BAs, one indicator of high quality. But since paras are generally paid about half as much as teachers, using them enables schools to serve twice as many struggling students at about the same cost as hiring teacher tutors. And because there are teacher shortages in many areas, such as inner cities and rural locations, sufficient teachers may not be available in some places at any cost.

In my earlier blog, I explained all this, but now I’d like to expand on one aspect of the earlier blog I only briefly mentioned.

If any district or state decided to invest substantially in high-quality paraprofessional tutors and train them in proven one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring strategies, it would almost certainly increase the achievement of struggling learners and reduce retentions and special education placements. But it could also provide a means of attracting capable recent university graduates into teaching.

Imagine that districts or states recruited students graduating from local universities to serve in a “tutor corps.” Those accepted would be trained and mentored to become outstanding tutors. From within that group, tutors who show the greatest promise would be invited to participate in a fast-track teacher certification program. This would add coursework to the paraprofessionals’ schedules, while they continue tutoring during other times. In time, the paraprofessionals would be given opportunities to do brief classroom internships, and then student teaching. Finally, they would receive their certification, and would be assigned to a school in the district or state.

There are several features worth noting about this proposal. First, the paraprofessionals would be paid throughout their teacher training, because at all points they would be providing valuable services to children. This would make it easier for recent university graduates to take courses leading to certification, which could expand the number of promising recent graduates who might entertain the possibility of becoming teachers. Paying teacher education candidates (as tutors) throughout their time in training could open the profession to a broader range of talented candidates, including diverse candidates who could not afford traditional teacher education.

Second, the whole process of recruiting well-qualified paraprofessionals, training and mentoring them as tutors, selecting the best of them to become certified, and providing coursework and student teaching experiences for them, would be managed by school districts or states, not by universities. School districts and states have a strong motivation to select the best teachers, see that they get excellent training and mentoring, and proceed to certification only when they are ready. Coursework might be provided by university professors contracted by the district or qualified individuals within the district or state. Again, because the district or state has a strong interest in having these experiences be optimal for their future teachers, they would be likely to take an active role in ensuring that coursework and coaching are first rate.

One important advantage of this system would be that it would give school, district, and state leaders opportunities to see future teachers operate in real schools over extended periods of time, first as tutors, then as interns, then as student teachers. At the end of the process, the school district or state should be willing to guarantee that all who succeed in this demanding sequence will be offered a job. They should be able to do this with confidence, because school and district staff would have seen the candidate work with real children in real schools.

The costs of this system might be minimal. During tutoring, internships, and student teaching, teacher candidates are providing invaluable services to struggling students. The only additional cost would entail providing coursework to meet state or district requirements. But this cost could be modest, and in exchange for paying for or providing the courses, the district or state would gain the right to select instructors of very high quality and insist on their effectiveness in practice. These are the schools’ own future teachers, and they should not be satisfied with less than stellar teacher education.

The system I’m proposing could operate alongside of traditional programs provided by universities. School districts or states might in fact create partnerships in which all teacher education candidates would serve as tutors as part of their teacher education, in which case university-led and district-led teacher education may essentially merge into one.

This system is more obviously attuned to the needs of elementary schools than secondary schools, because historically tutors have been rarely used in the secondary grades. Yet recent evidence from studies in England (http://www.bestevidence.org/reading/mhs/mhs_read.htm) has shown positive effects of tutoring in reading in the middle grades, and it seems likely that one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring would be beneficial in all major subjects and, as in elementary school, may keep students who are far behind grade level in a given subject out of special education and able to keep up with their classmates. If paraprofessional tutors can work in the secondary grades, this would form the basis for a teacher certification plan like the one I have described.

Designing teacher certification programs around the needs of recent BAs sounds like Teach for America, and in many ways it is. But this system would, I’d argue, be more likely to attract large numbers of talented young people who would be more likely than TFA grads to stay in teaching for many years.

The main reason schools, districts, and states should invest in tutoring by paraprofessionals is to serve the large number of struggling learners who exist in every district. But in the course of doing this, districts could also take control of their own destinies and select and train the teachers they need. The result would be better teachers for all students, and a teaching profession that knows how to use proven programs to ensure the success of all.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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3 thoughts on “Great Tutors Could Be a Source of Great Teachers

  1. Makes great sense – but in addition what about the easiest virtually free solution: a reading buddy program on steroids, e.g., training 5th graders how to teach younger peers reading with a good multisensory orton gillngham program, in addition to normal Reading Buddy activities, and throw in some motivation training a la Dweck which they teach to the younger peers? The older peers will also benefit greatly. Perhaps the paraprofessionals can also train and/or supervise this army of students. This student army could also be a check on the schools as to who they perceive needs extra decoding help. Reading fluency should be the highest priority of all elementary schools.

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  2. When I was a superintendent of schools i used to hang on every suggestion Bob Slavin made because he was always purposeful and focused on improvement. I know I learned a lot about improving student achievement from his guidance, even though he was not aware he was providing it directly to me. His suggestions above actually supplements and gives direction (which is always needed) to the alternative certification programs we used. I wish we had used this very concept then as it is much more practical and focused on student/teacher/tutor improvement.

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  3. Dr. Slavin, as the representative of hundreds of parents, students and teachers in Maryland, I applaud your suggestion that paraprofessionals be part of the solution for the delivery of effective reading instruction to at risk populations. Perhaps providing supports for paras to become full time teachers the way you suggest could increase the number of experienced reading teachers and establish a meaningful practicum at the same time.

    But there remains the problem of instruction and instructional practices — it matters what type of reading preparation teachers and/or paras receive and it matters how a school implements its core instruction and levels of support for students.

    All students should be provided with good, systematic, explicit core instruction and a comprehensive, school-wide model of literacy support designed to prevent reading failure as early as PK. Here’s what other states are doing to get to this problem:

    1. Reform pre-service and in-service reading prep — currently teachers report that their colleges of education didn’t prepare them to identify and instruct struggling readers. This instruction must include a deeper understanding and practice of foundational reading.

    2. Ensure that core instruction in the general education classroom includes the pre-reading and early literacy skills of phonological and phonemic awareness and that the skills are taught directly, explicitly and to automaticity.

    3. Ensure that tiered or multi-level reading and writing support is provided and based on the science of reading. Schools that use guided reading, leveled literacy and other programs that don’t assess and address the basic literacy skills needed for fluent reading and comprehension are not going to help a student read well and be on grade level. Every school district in Maryland uses guided reading and it’s not working.

    Every day parents contact us and report that their children are not learning to read — teachers contact us and report that they didn’t learn to teach reading in their preparation programs (and these are not outliers as some in higher education claim). School districts want teachers who can teach all students to read and that includes struggling learners and students with dyslexia.

    The results of inattention to teacher preparation coursework and certification means that children aren’t learning to read in public schools. For those concerned about the instruction their child receives in Maryland public schools, please learn more: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498005.pdf and join the SpellTalk Listserve here: https://mailman.listserve.com/listmanager/listinfo/spelltalk.

    Thank you,
    Laura Schultz
    DDMD, State Leader
    http://www.decodingdyslexiamd.org

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