Tutoring continues to be suggested as one strong, research-based way to accelerate student learning during COVID-19. But one sticking point continues to be that no one is sure quite how to pay for tutoring, or where to find enough tutors to do it on a large scale.
But what if we use the nation’s aspiring teacher corps as one source?
That’s the thrust behind a bipartisan bill introduced Thursday by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. The $500 million proposal would give grants to school districts and teacher preparation programs to use aspiring teachers who are finishing up their teaching program to tutor students at high-needs schools.
The money would pay for recruiting, training, and matching tutors with mentors, providing them stipends, and the logistics of getting the programs up and running. Recent graduates and fully certified teachers who have been laid off due to budget crunches could also be tutors through the program.
It’s an interesting proposal that, at least on paper, would try to solve two problems in one stroke. First is meeting the growing interest in and demand for tutoring as a strategy to address the academic and social-emotional needs of K-12 students.
The second is finding an avenue for strengthening the hands-on experiences that education colleges give their candidates before they assume classrooms of their own—something that’s proved challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leah Wasburn-Moses, a professor of education psychology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, noted that it’s been especially difficult to find remote-learning placements; many districts have been so stretched they haven’t been receptive to hosting candidates.
“It’s seen as an extra thing, and they just cannot do an extra thing,” she said. “Everyone is stressed out and maxed out, and unfortunately the traditional way field placement is done doesn’t benefit districts as much as it should, or the benefit isn’t necessarily seen.”
What would high-quality tutoring look like anyway?
The proposal is generally aligned with the solid research base on tutoring. For one thing, prior research supports the idea that paraprofessionals and trained adults who aren’t teachers can be as effective as certified teachers. (Unpaid, volunteer tutors are not as effective.)
The proposal specifies that tutors should be paired with experienced teachers to mentor them, be aligned with the local curriculum, not exceed a ratio of one tutor to four students, and be embedded in the school day—not as an after-school add-on. Those tenets are all in line with the research on tutoring programs.
It also specifies that the tutoring must not “result in the tracking or negative labeling of students, or remediation.”
Wasburn-Moses, who is also the author of a book on student teaching, said she liked the general idea behind the proposal. Candidates still need practice instructing an entire class of students, but tutoring could be one piece in candidates’ field experiences, she said.
“It’s doing teacher education the right way to meet the needs of schools and give teacher candidates what they need, which is hands-on, boots-on-the-ground experiences with young people, supported by expert teachers,” she said. “That’s what works in teacher education. If we can provide incentives to do that when everyone is struggling right now, it’s really a no-brainer.”
An important caveat: Proposals to create new programs like this almost never move on their own. They’re usually attached to much bigger pieces of legislation. The natural fit for this bill would be the third coronavirus stimulus package, which is now gathering steam on Capitol Hill.
The Biden administration has already said it wants to reserve $130 billion of a $1.9 trillion package to boost learning, including summer school, extended learning, and tutoring. (The U.S. House of Representatives picks up that package Feb. 26.)
One stumbling block to passage could be that the association that represents education schools isn’t supportive of the proposal as it’s currently written.
The proposal would allow some recipients to work off some of the requirements of their TEACH grants through their tutoring efforts instead of serving as classroom teachers, noted Jane West, a policy consultant to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. (TEACH grants pay for teaching program tuition if candidates commit to working in high-needs schools for four years.)
That could weaken an already-shaky pipeline of teachers, she said, pointing to a continued decline in the number of people entering the profession.
West also worries that the proposal could be duplicative. The Biden administration’s $130 billion proposal would presumably already support these activities.
“If we’re going to spend $500 million, I’d want to see it invested in preparing and placing more teachers in high-needs schools, given that there are these other funding streams for tutors,” she said.
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