As a turnaround school district with a student body that’s 59% at risk and where 62% of our families experience poverty, we knew that our kids would be disproportionately impacted by pandemic learning loss. We didn’t have the resources to provide one-on-one human resources for a program across 33,300 students — until Congress set aside the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. That allowed us to implement an online tutoring program.
Wanting to recover during the 2021-22 school year, we decided to use some of our ESSER funding for high-dosage, high-quality tutoring. Here are five best practices we used implement an online tutoring program that would help our students recover from the pandemic learning loss and achieve improved educational outcomes overall:
1. Incentivize your partners for performance
We partnered with Harvard University and FEV Tutor, among other virtual tutor partners, as well as a couple of other districts to complete an outcomes-based contracting pilot. We all wanted to better understand outcomes-based contracting, or the awarding of monetary compensation in exchange for improved student educational outcomes. The setup drove a higher level of urgency on everyone’s part.
One company that was contracted through a separate grant, and that was not using an outcomes-based contract, performed much differently than its peers, for example. The level of service, responsiveness and quality was different compared with our other partners, who are all a part of the outcomes-based contracting work that we’re doing. We saw a dramatic difference.
2. Put the right processes into place
We’ve learned, sometimes the easy way and sometimes the hard way, that initiatives like this must be very structured and organized. Certain components must be in place to ensure fidelity of implementation and ultimately success.
We put together a slide deck with the criteria for structuring our tutoring program. For example, it includes simple directives like “Students need to be escorted to the tutoring area to ensure that they arrive.” And we want adults to monitor the tutoring sessions so that the kids aren’t sitting in a room by themselves. This helps keep the students focused, connected and engaged in the tutoring sessions.
3. Focus on educational equity
I credit the ESSER program for helping open the doors to improved equity in our district. We’ve used the funding to provide opportunities to students who have never had access to those experiences. We don’t have the financial resources to manage one-to-one tutoring internally, so we chose to implement an online tutoring program with a partner that would help fill that gap and create an equitable playing field.
Now our students can have tutoring just like the students in more affluent areas may receive. As one principal described it, one-on-one tutoring is a luxury typically only for affluent children whose parents can afford it. One of our principals sold the idea to their high-school students by saying, “Congratulations. You have this opportunity that’s only been for the wealthy, but today you all have it.”
4. For best results, prioritize fidelity
Our tutoring pilot took place during fall of 2020 and included 40 middle-school students. During the second semester of the 2020-21 school year, we expanded our tutoring program to include 6,000 students. We knew that the worst approach would be to partner with a tutoring company and use it as nothing more than homework help. The fidelity of implementation is critically important, and we needed to be very intentional with our focus and design.
While the majority of our schools experienced great success, others didn’t. And as we unpack it, it quickly comes down to the way the virtual tutoring was implemented. The bottom line is that you won’t get results if you don’t do this the right way and prioritize fidelity.
Our results from implementing an online tutoring program were impressive. Students using our primary tutor partner demonstrated accelerated growth rates relative to nonparticipants in math and reading. Students who participated in higher dosages with our tutor partner showed additional gains. Those who participated in recommended dosages of tutoring demonstrated 48% accelerated growth relative to nonparticipants in math and 107% accelerated growth relative to nonparticipants in reading.
5. Encourage teachers and tutors to work together
Along with the tutoring, our district had access to a wide range of student data. Teachers knew exactly how their students were performing and where they needed help. Tutors and instructors communicated and collaborated on the data. The fact that tutors were all professionally trained and ready to jump in and help was an added bonus.
One phrase we commonly use in our district is “We do this work together.” We recognize as a school system that we cannot educate our students totally and completely on our own. It takes a village. Like us, our tutoring partners want the process to not just be effective, but highly effective.
Scott Muri, Ed.D., is the superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas. His district uses FEV Tutor.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.