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Claiborne & Stockwell: Not Enough Tutors to Go Around? College Students Can Help

College students have the power to transform the tutoring landscape and overcome one of the biggest hurdles in bringing tutoring to scale

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It seems like everyone is talking about tutoring. Some 40% of school districts and charter organizations are talking about investing billions in tutoring and academic skills coaching to address pandemic-related disruptions to learning. Even more policymakers and researchers are discussing ways to create a national tutoring corps, statewide tutoring groups or lists of state-approved tutoring providers to help districts establish strong programs.

Given the consistent and compelling research base, nearly half of all districts are planning to implement tutoring programs. But, more than two years after the pandemic shuttered schools, many programs are floundering and district leaders are left wondering how they can get enough qualified tutors in front of students.

In our EdResearch for Recovery network of Rhode Island districts that are planning and running high-impact tutoring programs, hiring has been the single biggest barrier. Tutor positions were posted online and sent out to staff but went unfilled. Employing certified teachers as tutors outside of school hours is an obvious choice, given their requisite skills and familiarity with the content. But, teachers are understandably burned out, describing the past three years as the hardest they’ve ever faced. On top of that, volunteerism dropped during the pandemic.

In response, we turned to an underutilized source of qualified tutors: college students on our own campus at Brown University.

We weren’t the first to seek out college students to help shore up the ranks of K-12 tutors. Places like Guilford County, North Carolina; Nashville; and the state of Illinois have recruited large numbers of undergraduates to serve in their tutoring programs. But this group is still a largely untapped resource, though uniquely positioned to meet a few critical tutoring needs:

  • Scheduling: Research indicates that students should have a consistent tutor for three or more sessions per week. Our district partners have planned programs to accommodate their students’ varied schedules, with tutoring taking place during the school day, after school and even as late as 7 or 8 p.m. With irregular class schedules, time between classes and much later bedtimes than the rest of us, college tutors can often be available throughout the day and night to support students. Further, through virtual tutoring, college tutors can log in for multiple sessions at different times.
  • Content Knowledge: Most of our district partners have prioritized ninth-grade Algebra 1, as 80% of high school dropouts cite course failures as their No. 1 reason, and Algebra 1 is the most frequently failed course. In addition, several tutoring programs have shown the potential for massive academic gains in Algebra 1. But finding individuals with the requisite background and content knowledge to effectively tutor this subject, even when offering a competitive wage, is difficult. There is a reason why upper-level math teachers are in short supply. Add the need for flexible scheduling, and the pool of potential tutors quickly becomes even smaller. But with training and support, college students — especially those studying in the STEM fields — can tutor in such hard-to-staff content areas that are crucial for student success. Free, research-based training like SagaCoach can prepare them with an understanding of high-quality pedagogy, how to engage students and how to build relationships.
  • Mentorship: The most impactful programs have consistent tutor-student matches and embed a component of relationship building. If students are feeling heard, engaged and appreciated by a tutor who “gets them,” they will be more likely to continue working through challenging academic material, and improvement will follow. One Rhode Island principal explained to us: “Students have told me they feel more comfortable asking questions of their tutor and sharing their feelings about school when their tutor is not a teacher at their school.” Students also benefit from being instructed in ways that are distinct from their classroom education. College tutors provide this crucial outside perspective. They can easily connect with high school students, being just a few years removed, while serving as an example of what is possible after high school.
  • Diversity: Students benefit from a diverse teaching workforce, but recruiting and retaining educators of color is complex and can’t be done overnight. But college students are more racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse than ever. Hiring and appropriately compensating college tutors, rather than relying on volunteers, makes it more likely students will have a tutor and mentor who looks like them or shares the same cultural or linguistic identity. Because college students of color are less likely than white students to major in education, this approach is a promising strategy for encouraging them to pursue a full-time teaching career and diversify the teacher recruitment pipeline long-term.

Hiring college students as tutors is not a silver bullet. Creating high-quality, sustainable programs is challenging, with many unanticipated stumbling blocks. But with billions of dollars on the line to fund students’ academic support, now is the time to get the best tutors in front of students. College students have the power to transform the tutoring landscape and overcome one of the biggest hurdles in bringing tutoring to scale.

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