What is high-dosage tutoring and why does the state’s investment in it matter?

Last week, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading held a national conversation about high-dosage tutoring, an evidence-based intervention for learning loss. On the panel — along with leaders from national organizations like ExcelinEd and The Education Trust — was John-Paul Smith, the executive director of the NC Education Corps, talking about state strategies to advance equitable learning recovery.

North Carolina was an early adopter of this intervention. NC Ed Corps started as an initiative of the State Board of Education and the Office of the Governor in September 2020, just six months after the governor’s executive order closing schools.

In its first year of providing direct services, 196 corps members served in 20 districts providing tutoring, mentoring, and contact tracing to 2,500 students. In 2021-22, 234 corps members in 23 districts served as K-3 literacy tutors working with coaching support. Initial funding included $175,000 in CARES Act funding combined with $1.75 million in philanthropic support.

Quickly, Smith and the organization, which is chaired by former State Superintendent Mike Ward and led by a bipartisan board of directors, became seen statewide and nationally as a thought leader on this intervention in addition to a direct service provider.

NC Ed Corps now operates as a 501(c)(3) with $13,500,000 in ESSER funding through the legislature and $726,058 in GEER funding through the Governor’s Office.

Thirty districts have requested upwards of 580 tutors for the 2022-23 school year. Here is the current partner guide for districts.

Need and demand outstrip funding, and NC Ed Corps is asking the legislature for an additional $13.4 million in the short session. With the additional funding, Smith says NC Ed Corps could provide virtual tutoring, add on tutoring for math, and build out an engagement strategy for those wanting to volunteer or for community organizations already working with volunteers.

If that sounds like a lot of money, consider it is costing Tennessee $200 million over three years to build a tutoring corps to serve 150,000 students in math and English.

Even if the additional funding for NC Ed Corps comes through, the difference between $26 million and $200 million is the difference between a big pilot and a big bet.

What is high-impact tutoring?

Generally when you hear educators or policymakers talking about high-impact or high-dosage tutoring, the definition includes:

  • at least three interactions per week with the student,
  • lasting at least 30 minutes,
  • with a maximum student to tutor ratio of 3:1,
  • where the relationship with the tutor is “sustained and strong,”
  • there is monitoring of the student’s “knowledge and skills,” and
  • there is coaching or oversight of tutors to ensure high-quality interactions.

This study, released in July 2020 and entitled “The Impressive Effects of Tutoring on PreK-12 Learning,” found tutoring is a “key workhorse policy model” after a systemic review and meta-analysis of studies. Here is a study published in February 2021, including design principles for effective tutoring.

The approach of NC Ed Corps is built on these best practices.

The K-3 literacy tutors recruited, hired, and trained by NC Ed Corps work part-time (10-29 hours per week, and usually about 15 hours) as employees of school districts, and districts pay for tutor time. Tutors work with students during the school day using a push-in or pull-out approach with students, depending on the preference of the teacher and the school.

“Execution is hard,” said Smith during the conversation with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. Studies find challenges include the supply of high-quality tutors, administrative capacity, district buy-in, and the sustainability of funding. Smith willingly shares lessons learned on the nuts and bolts of building these programs from the ground up with others around the country.

Amanda Clark-Miller is a member of NC Ed Corps serving students in Ashe County. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

The National Student Support Accelerator

The interest in this intervention is indeed national.

In March 2021, Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform launched the National Student Support Accelerator, which hopes to equalize access to high-quality tutoring. For the start of school in August 2021, the Accelerator released this playbook to districts wanting to implement tutoring programs. Guilford County in North Carolina was one of the pilot districts.

On May 9, 2022, the Accelerator convened over 120 district and state leaders, researchers, educators, tutoring providers, and thought leaders at Brown University to talk about how “to accelerate student learning, school engagement and overall well-being through high-impact tutoring, with its relationship-based individualized instruction.” Smith was there.

John-Paul Smith with Jess Sperling with Duke’s SSRI and Michael Maher with DPI’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration at Brown University

Kaya Henderson, the former chancellor of DC Public Schools and now founder and CEO of Reconstruction, said nonprofits — like NC Ed Corps — were the ones to stand up, rise up, and meet the moment for our students.

Here you can see videos of the conference, including sessions on early progress, the opportunity ahead, partnerships with higher education, addressing barriers, building sustainability (featuring Michael Maher), and next steps.

A high-impact investment with a high level of return

In the conversation held by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, Casey Taylor with ExcelinEd said state models like NC Ed Corps are high-impact investments with a high level of return. “It’s going well” in North Carolina, Taylor said.

In her recent analysis, which includes a look at NC Ed Corps, Taylor says these five steps matter as state-led strategies scale up:

  • allocate sufficient time for tutoring,
  • provide training and development of tutors,
  • make intentional decisions based on data,
  • focus on continuous improvement and and feedback, and
  • celebrate achievement and share success.

EdTrust released this report on targeted intensive tutoring to address “unfinished learning.” Allison Socol, a former tutoring coach now with EdTrust, lifted up Texas, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Mexico as other states to watch in addition to North Carolina and Tennessee. This chart from the report shows features of tutoring programs they found impact effectiveness.

Courtesy of The Education Trust

“We want to make sure tutoring accelerates student’s learning, rather than remediates,” said Socol. She said relationships are a game changer in the journey to become a reader.

Here is more information Socol presented on federal funding by state. Longer term, she said federal funding streams like Title I and IDEA could be used to sustain and support state investments in high-dosage tutoring.

‘Pushed by possibility’

At a roundtable discussion with business leaders and other organizations that provide tutoring in North Carolina, Superintendent of Chatham County Schools Anthony Jackson, who also serves on the NC Ed Corps board, said while gaps have always existed, they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. He said now is the time for the state to be “pushed by possibility.”

Even before the pandemic, just 36% of fourth-graders in North Carolina could read at or above grade level.

report released in March 2022 by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction well settled the impact of lost instructional time during the pandemic, and a more recent analysis estimates the additional school months necessary for recovery by subject.

Estimated additional school months necessary for recovery by subject in 2021. Courtesy of N.C. DPI

“We know high-impact tutoring works to accelerate student learning recovery,” Smith says. “But under our current system, it is not physically possible for teachers alone to provide high-impact tutoring to the number of students who need it. The time is now for more community college and college students, parents, caregivers, and retirees to step up to extend the reach of teachers and support students as high-impact tutors. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Early in May 2022, Gov. Roy Cooper stopped by South Johnson Elementary School in Scotland County Schools to see corps members in action.

“Our students participating in the high dosage tutoring program not only build relationships with their tutors,” said Superintendent Takeda LeGrand, “they build a learning community with the small group of peers who hold them accountable for learning and encourage them to take risks as they work towards their individual learning goals.”

Principal Tonya McLean echoed the superintendent, noting “100% of the students being served demonstrated growth in reading and 10% moved from below grade level at the beginning of the year to at grade level at the mid-year mark. We’re seeing a tremendous impact because of these efforts.”

The work of NC Ed Corps is being evaluated by the Friday Institute at N.C. State and the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University in a three-year study, and a new app will capture data this coming school year.

Courtesy of NC Education Corps

In the conversation with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, Smith noted at this point in the pandemic our teachers are burned out and our students are bummed out. The reality is states will either pay now or pay later, he said. “Support high-impact tutoring now or you can pay a lot more money down the road because you are not addressing the problem at the root with speed.”

As the state considers additional investments in this start up that is poised to scale up and could be a big bet like in Tennessee, students served are grateful to learn how to read.

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