DiPerna: A National Tutor Corps Could Help Students Learning Online, Ease the Burden on Parents & Create Jobs for Recent College Grads

COVID-19 increasingly threatens in-person schooling for K-12 students and the job market for recent college graduates. It’s time to consider a novel solution to both problems: a national tutor corps to help our most vulnerable students overcome mounting learning loss.

Five years ago, Brown University professor Matthew Kraft proposed such an idea based on research and insights at the time, describing how tutors “raised student achievement in English language arts from a half-year to a full year’s worth of learning.” In addition to Kraft, economists Susan Dynarski and Sarah Cohodes, psychologist Robert Slavin, columnist David Brooks and former secretary of education Arne Duncan have all voiced support, at least generally, for the value of tutoring right now. This is not a new idea, just one whose time has come.

The pandemic has severely compounded the usual summer learning loss with months of remote schooling for which no one was prepared. A recently released Education Next poll reported that 71 percent of school parents “think their kids learned less than they would have had schools remained open.”

Over the summer, there was hope that public officials could figure out a way to safely bring students back into the classroom — and some are planning to. Yet now, more and more school districts are depending on virtual learning to start the school year.

Tutors can help address individual students’ academic challenges, families’ child care crunch and the national unemployment crisis as we adapt and persist through the pandemic. Navigating remote learning is challenging; tutors can help with that. They can mitigate, stop or even reverse learning loss. And they can do this accessibly via Zoom, Skype, Google Meet and other online video platforms.

Tutoring is no replacement for school. But a tutor can offer valuable supplemental learning and be a powerful ally to parents and teachers.

The evidence is compelling. Last month, the National Bureau of Economic Research published a working paper showing that the impacts of tutoring are generally large and positive. Slavin has highlighted scientific findings showing that one-on-one or small-group approaches using tutors who have college degrees — not teaching certificates — provide “roughly equivalent to five additional months of learning over a school year.”

Parents benefit, too. Tutors can help families overwhelmed by balancing work and their children’s schooling by adding structure to the day, freeing up time needed to focus on the job or explaining, say, how math is being taught these days.

And with 1 in 5 20- to 24-year-olds out of work, a tutor corps could offer employment to millions of educated young adults, providing solid returns on investment for public dollars — in effect, a jobs stimulus that will keep people productive and contributing to the economy.

So what would a national tutor corps look like? A good example is taking shape in Tennessee, where former governor Bill Haslam is recruiting 1,000 college students to the Tennessee Tutoring Corps. Its members will help as many as 5,000 K-6 students in the state.

In Oklahoma, there’s the new Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet, tasked with giving 5,000 low-income families $1,500 to spend on curriculum content, tutoring or technology.

State-based programs are a good start, but even before the pandemic, EdChoice’s national surveys of parents had shown a broad demand for tutoring services, with about 20 percent of K-12 parents saying they had paid for tutoring with their own money during the previous school year.

How can we implement a nationwide expansion of tutoring? The federal government could step in at first, via emergency stimulus, and fund state education savings account (ESA) programs to rapidly expand student access to tutors.

ESAs offer parents a government-authorized bank account with restricted, but multiple, uses for K-12 educational purposes. These funds can pay for tuition, tutoring, online education, supports for special needs students, textbooks or other instructional materials, or a college fund. The EdChoice Public Opinion Tracker consistently finds around 70 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 80 percent among parents of school-age children. Over the past decade, states such as Arizona, Florida and North Carolina have pioneered ESAs and can serve as examples for other states to follow.

We should start by investing in tutor banks, based on the ESA model, that directly provide funds to students and parents so they can afford regular tutoring. A tutor bank at the state level, paid for with federal and state funds, could help alleviate or prevent COVID-related learning loss. This approach could also balance the emergence of “pandemic pods” — small groups of children organized by parents for learning together outside of school — whose impact on pre-pandemic educational inequities will be unclear for some time. All students should be eligible for tutor bank enrollment to establish a large and enduring constituency of children, parents and guardians. But funding should be determined case by case on a sliding scale and based on individual student circumstance.

America is fortunate to have a cohort of recent college graduates with immense drive and talent, but they need work. A tutor corps could be their generation’s clarion call to service.

The need for tutoring is urgent and escalating. Tutor banks would establish a direct funding channel between the government and families that is swift and responsive, while providing a twofold economic and education stimulus. Now is the time for us to figure this out.

Paul DiPerna is vice president of research and innovation at EdChoice.

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