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Kalman Hettleman: The Advent of Tutoring – Good News for Education

U.S. Department of Education photo

Stop the presses, or digital downloads. At a time when our already ailing and failing public schools are now pandemic stricken, and Gov. Larry Hogan has vetoed the Maryland Blueprint for school reform, some relief may be on the way.

It’s a fact that, as schools plan to reopen, tutoring is getting priority attention. It’s long overdue.

No, tutoring isn’t a complete vaccine against illiteracy. But it’s the most research-proven and cost-effective school program that can enable vulnerable, struggling learners to succeed. And, as we all know, struggling learners are disproportionately poor and of color and suffering the most as schools are pretty much shut down.

The evidence of the effectiveness of tutoring far surpasses that for any other instructional reform. And Maryland is fortunate to have two home-based national experts to prove it.

R. Barker Bausell, a retired medical biostatistician and professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, wrote a 2011 book “Too Simple to Fail.” Though not a K-12 educator, he pursued a passion for research on how to teach children to read and write. The “simple” way to reform public schools, he concluded, was “massive doses” of “the most effective instructional paradigm ever developed” — tutoring.

Today, the leading national expert on tutoring is Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University.

Slavin, who heads a federally funded website that catalogs evidence-based best practices in all K-12 subjects and programs, finds that tutoring has more impact than any other known intervention. He has been writing lately on how other nations, like England and the Netherlands, are massively investing in tutoring to counter the COVID-19 crisis, and how the U.S. should be doing the same.

Fortunately, there are hopeful signs that such an effort is underway. The Brookings Institution has touted tutoring as a cost-effective recovery strategy. Most school plans across the country mention tutoring as a priority objective. And even Gov. Hogan – usually tone deaf on public school issues – seems to have gotten the message.

He announced June 29 that $100 billion of the federal CARES Act funding for Maryland will be earmarked for tutoring initiatives. It’s a small portion of our overall CARES funds, but it’s a start and signal to the Maryland State Department of Education and local school systems.

It isn’t only the amount of the money that matters. It’s whether the tutoring is done based on best practices and targeted to where it can do the most good. To that end, MSDE has dropped the ball. It has failed to provide strong guidelines and monitoring of the tutoring undertaken this year with 2019 down-payment Blueprint grants. Now, while urging local schools to provide tutoring in their recovery plans, it has still not put forth specific guidelines and technical assistance.

There are a variety of options, including the professional qualifications and pay of the tutors and the instructional intensity – that is, the tutor-to-student ratio per session and the frequency of the sessions. Dr. Slavin’s most recent research supports the use of college-graduate but non-certified teachers as tutors, if they’re given proper training and support. This can cut the cost significantly.

It’s noteworthy that the Baltimore City school system is in the vanguard statewide and even nationally. Its programming with the 2019 Blueprint grants is a model for tutoring in reading in grades K-2, and I have been assisting in its development.

Notably, tutoring is most effective in the early grades when students should learn the foundational skills for literacy.

Further, tutoring has one singular and essential feature. It can be implemented and brought to scale fairly easily. There is a large pool of potential tutors, ranging from unemployed college graduates to retired teachers.

With all this evidence in its favor, why hasn’t more of it been done in public schools?

No surprise, first and foremost, it’s the lack of upfront money. Later, tutoring will save lots of money by reducing retentions in grades, referrals to special education, and the costs resulting from other academic and behavioral problems when students don’t learn to read.

So, let’s seize the moment to boost the funding. We must urgently increase the re-prioritization of CARES Act, state and local funding to support in-person classroom tutoring, especially in the early grades. Even Gov. Hogan has joined the call; maybe he’s been tutored on it.


The writer is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – the Kirwan Commission — a former Baltimore City School Board member, a former deputy mayor of Baltimore and a former Maryland secretary of Human Resources.


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Kalman Hettleman: The Advent of Tutoring – Good News for Education