In a bold play to support young learners, let’s look to what has always worked

This post was originally shared in an email on November 13, 2020. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

Thank you to everyone who shared my op-ed a few weeks ago. As we process the results of the election and confront the challenges we face, the importance of authentic and respectful discourse in community feels more relevant than ever.

The principals and superintendents I have talked to these past few weeks are sitting at the intersection of total exhaustion from nine months of very hard leadership, deep concern about the near future as cases rise, heartache for the students and families that are clearly struggling right now, and clear-eyed awareness that this moment holds the promise of letting us rethink our approach to overcoming long-standing challenges in schooling. I am in awe of how much they are carrying.

In that mix, the very real impact this interrupted schooling will have for our children is coming into clearer view as we look at the data from the first rounds of interim assessments. Several cities and a few states have released data that shows stark declines in proficiency rates from this time last year, particularly for students in poverty and Black and Latinx students.

I am always cautious about reports of interim assessments — while norm-referenced tests in particular serve an important purpose, I think we can fall into the bad habit of using them in ways they were not intended to be used. In doing so, we reduce the complexity of our brilliant and nuanced children in favor of labeling and sorting them, which can lead us to take unhelpful or, in some cases, harmful actions. But these data points, alongside the experiences reported by students, families, teachers, and leaders, all point to the clear reality: learning is not consistent or smooth this year.

All students have things they know and are good at, as well as things they are still learning to do. A researcher I talked to recently called this our natural “spiky-ness.” This is one of the reasons that reducing kids to a grade-level estimate can be misleading. It is clear that, in this time, the “spiky-ness” is growing.

Fortunately, we do know a great deal about how to meet varied learning needs. We can learn from the fundamentals that have endured over time and particularly from the examples found in communities that have educated children successfully even when the system was not built to meet their needs.

The things that have always worked (time on task, love and joy in community, challenging work across disciplines, individualized support) are likely to be the things that work now, just in higher dosages (more time on task, more love and joy in community, more challenging work across a range of disciplines, more individualized support).

The power of individualized support in particular has led to a growing call to think about the potential of expanded access to tutoring as an important part of the set of solutions. Tutoring is one of those reliable approaches that works across time, subjects, and countries; something about the relationship and problem-solving fostered in those one-on-one contexts has a power that can round out the spikes.

There are some meta-analyses coming out soon, but my preliminary read across studies of tutoring seem to indicate that tutoring can be particularly impactful when it is:

  • delivered in high doses (30–60 minutes, 3x per week),
  • for a meaningful length of time (~16–20 weeks),
  • by a knowledgeable tutor,
  • who is consistently assigned to the same student(s), and
  • using a quality curriculum.

In addition, these analyses reveal that tutoring is most effective for young learners — the very students history tells us are most at risk for long-term harm due to interrupted schooling and that distance learning struggles most to engage and support.

Tutoring is expensive and time-consuming, but I doubt we will find ways to face the very real threats to children’s futures and the future of our country that are neither expensive nor time-consuming. With the right resourcing, we could imagine a range of ways that harnessing the power of individualized attention could play in school and out of school. In school, we could think about tutoring as a more fundamental part of the design of MTSS/RTI, as a focused job function for paraprofessionals, as a part of the scheduled day, or as a relationship over time across the experience of different grades. Out of school, we could imagine tutors as a fundamental part of municipal planning, as an expanded service of neighborhood associations, or as a part of a universal service requirement.

I dream about an expanded vision of tutoring on the clear understanding that it is already happening, paid and unpaid, every day in thousands of ways. And with the clear understanding that, powerful as it may be, this too is not a cure-all and needs to be part of a mix of answers. That said, what if every young learner in need had access to a tutor who committed to stay in a relationship with them until they were on track? What would that do for our students and what incredible contributions would that bring to our future? I’d like to find out!

Here are some of the resources I have been learning from recently:

In closing, as we approach Thanksgiving, I offer all of you my profound gratitude for all I have learned from you and with you this year and my hopes for a safe and restful break.

Instruction Partners CEO, former AssistCommish for TDOE, library lover, Sunday afternoon chef and head of the Jan, Owen and Liam fan club.

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