Recruitment & Retention

Schools Are in Desperate Need of Tutors. But Qualified Ones Are Hard to Find

By Elizabeth Heubeck — October 12, 2021 5 min read
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The pandemic took an unprecedented toll on K-12 learning. From the onset of COVID-19 through the end of the 2020-21 academic year, students experienced up to nine months’ worth of unfinished learning, with historically disadvantaged students hit hardest.

Tutoring is considered one of the most effective strategies to fill these learning gaps, especially when implemented using evidence-based practices. But to date, many school districts are not prepared to ramp up their tutoring resources for students. And among those that are, there’s a lot of variation in the approach.

“Some districts are still focused on students’ physical safety,” said Allison Socol, assistant director of P12 Policy at national nonprofit Education Trust. “How these things get implemented really matters. Tutoring in and of itself isn’t some magical solution. It has to be done well.”

Districts that do decide to ramp up tutoring programs can lean on federal funds made available by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP). The stimulus bill mandates that a minimum of 5 percent of the total amount received by K-12 districts be used to implement “evidence-based interventions to address unfinished learning.”

Increasing number of districts eye ‘targeted intensive tutoring’

Targeted intensive tutoring (TIT) is one such intervention hailed by experts as highly effective. In the ideal version of this method, the same tutor works with one or two students over an extended period of time on building specific academic skills aligned with the school’s curriculum and targeted to each student’s academic needs.

“Just under half of superintendents say they’re planning to implement targeted intensive tutoring with their recovery funds,” said Socol, referring to results of a September 2021 nationwide survey conducted by AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Making it work won’t be easy. Research shows that this tutoring method is most effective when the tutors are certified teachers who work with the same student in a one-on-one setting every day during the school day for an entire school year on curriculum-aligned skill building for which they receive training before and during their tenure. But the reality of meeting all those expectations is likely very difficult for most districts.

Consider the Dallas Independent School District. A new Texas law now requires supplemental instruction (tutoring) for any student in grades 3 through 12 who fails to pass the state’s standardized test, STAAR, or STAAR high school end-of-course assessments. Because of that new law, the district’s tutoring requirements have skyrocketed.

Before the pandemic, four local organizations served the tutoring needs of an estimated 1,000 students in the Texas district, said Derek Little, deputy chief of teaching and learning for the school system. “Now we’re facing numbers in the 50,000 to 60,000 range,” he said. “That’s five times more than what we were planning even six months ago.”

Getting the word out about tutoring positions

To oversee the dramatic and sudden increase in demand for tutors, the district launched an Office of Tutoring Services, which has six staff members. In September, Dallas ISD held a virtual job fair resulting in the hiring of an estimated 50 tutors, about one-third of the total number it hopes to hire this year.

The district is getting the word out about the part-time tutoring positions in various ways. In addition to hosting career fairs, it’s advertising via the district website’s career center, districtwide social media, and a local workforce job board. It’s also relying on word of mouth and partnerships with area universities and high schools to find candidates. But Little says the majority of tutors will be hired by the district’s contracted partners, thereby giving the district less control over who is hired and how they are trained.

Nevertheless, Susan Cordova, deputy superintendent of leading and learning for Dallas ISD, said the district is trying to adhere as tightly as possible to research around high dosage tutoring (another term for TIT). Tutors will be required to commit to the same time slot every week for at least a semester in an effort to build better student–tutor relationships, which Cordova acknowledges are important for success.

But there’s one factor associated with TIT “best practices” that districts are likely to find particularly challenging: hiring certified teachers as tutors. Despite data showing that students have the best outcomes when tutored by certified teachers, many districts this school year will consider hiring non-certified teachers because the supply of certified tutors is way behind the demand.

Stamford Public Schools is among several districts in Connecticut posting ads for tutors on EdWeek Top School Jobs. Of the site’s 318 total advertised tutor positions, Connecticut districts posted 52 of them. And although Stamford’s posting says it prefers college graduates, who will earn $30 an hour up to 20 hours per week, the district is open to hiring college graduates without a teaching certificate at a salary of $20 an hour.

‘Sometimes they just need that cheerleader’

Students in some districts will be working with tutors whose professional qualifications are far lower.

Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has partnered with the nonprofit Step Up Tutoring, which connects volunteer tutors as young as 16 to work one-on-one online with children from under-resourced communities, free of charge. To date, Step Up has paired over 800 students from the district with more than 2,500 tutors.

“The students’ need is exponential,” said Marcela Madden, spokesperson for Step Up, whose main focus on tutoring students is homework help. The nonprofit’s tutors may not be certified, or meeting with students in-person, or reinforcing curriculum-aligned skills—all factors that research shows to result in the best outcomes. But, Madden emphasizes, they nonetheless are filling a void.

“These kids have been more adversely affected by COVID,” she said. “Their parents continued to work, or were on the front lines. Sometimes they just need that cheerleader.”

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