What will America’s schools be like when they reopen in fall, 2020? There are many things we don’t know, and conditions will vary considerably from state to state and school to school. To begin with, we need to strengthen our schools, to be sure they have the teachers and administrators and supplies they need to do their essential work. However, schools will need more than just a return to the status quo. One thing we can absolutely predict is that millions of children will have fallen far behind in their educational progression. In particular, many elementary students in the early stages of learning reading and mathematics will need effective and rapid assistance tailored to their needs to get back on track. Dedicated teachers and other educators will do everything in their power to bring students back up to speed, but without additional assistance, it will be very difficult to overcome the losses so many children have experienced. States and school districts will be struggling economically, so no matter how clearly they understand what needs to be done, they will need help. Yet at the same time, there will be large numbers of capable people eager to help struggling children who will be on the sidelines, without jobs that enable them to make the difference they want to make.
If you have been following my blogs for the past month or so (here, here, here, and here), you will be aware that I have been writing quite a bit about the idea of recruiting, training, and deploying large numbers of tutors to work in schools that have been closed for many months due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our research and reviews of research have found that several one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring approaches that use teaching assistants (usually people with college degrees but not teaching certificates) have demonstrated effect sizes of +0.40 or more, roughly equivalent to five additional months of learning over a school year. No other type of educational service comes close to these impacts. My argument has been that in the recession we will be facing when school opens in the fall, it would be good for the economy as well as essential for students to have government fund thousands of tutors to work with students who have fallen far behind grade level in reading or mathematics.
This idea may be taking hold. For example, the State of Tennessee recently announced a plan to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to recruit and train people to serve as tutors, as a response to the school closures (here and here). On May 15, the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, which includes substantial additional funding for K-12 education. This includes “initiatives to reduce education gaps.” This could certainly include tutoring. I heard that there was talk in the Senate about funding that could also support tutoring. None of these federal initiatives are certain, but at this point, what is important is that solutions of this kind are in discussion.
In addition, other observers are also proposing large-scale tutoring as a solution for the educational damage done by school closures (and as a means of providing essential employment to thousands of recent college graduates otherwise unable to enter the job market). Jill Barshay wrote about this in a recent article in the Hechinger Report. Matthew Kraft and Michael Goldstein wrote on the topic in a recent Brookings blog. Susan Dynarski wrote an op-ed on the proposal in the New York Times.
One concern I have heard expressed about the tutoring plan is that with all the uncertainties about the progression of Covid-19 and plans to re-open schools, it is not clear whether schools will re-open on time or not, and whenever they do open, they may use double sessions or other means to reduce the number of children being taught at a given time, to allow for social distancing within schools. If neither cures nor vaccines are available by the fall, late or partial school openings are indeed possible. We and other tutoring providers are developing and piloting distance tutoring models, and are willing to share them with other tutoring providers, should this be necessary. And if schools do not open in September at all, then the need for intensive solutions such as tutoring are that much greater, whenever schools open.
If large-scale tutoring is to be used as part of recovery plans for schools, then preparations need to be begun as soon as possible, to coordinate the efforts of various providers, and then begin to recruit and train tutors, trainers, and others whose efforts will be needed to make this all work. It would be wonderful if some number of tutors could be ready to go, starting with the elementary grades, soon after students arrive in school, and then expand services to add capacity to serve additional children in need over the 2020-2021 school year.
In the late 1930s, the extraordinary potential of penicillin to treat wounds and diseases was known by scientists and government officials in Britain, and they knew that war was coming and that penicillin could save millions of lives. However, no one knew how to mass produce enough penicillin to matter. The British contracted with an American company to work rapidly on the problem, and by the start of World War II, there was enough penicillin for a start, and massive manufacturing capacity to make more. In a way, we are in a similar situation with tutoring. We know what has to be done to provide millions of American children with the most effective service known to put them back on track, and it is clearly going to be necessary to do so. Yet we have a lot of work to do to make this happen in time.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused great devastation in our economy, our society, and our schools. There are many things we must do to repair these losses. In each arena, we have to use the best methods we have to cost-effectively solve problems caused by the crisis. In our field of education, there are many things that must be done, but tutoring, to ensure that students can catch up to grade level, should be part of this great effort.
Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.
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