High-Impact Tutoring CEO on New Jersey’s Steady Learning Loss for K-8 Students

Katherine Bassett dives into how high-impact tutoring is needed across New Jersey as math and literacy scores fail to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

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As New Jersey students recover from pandemic learning loss, Katherine Bassett believes high-impact tutoring is the best way to improve math and literacy skills.

Bassett, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Tutoring Corps, said high-impact tutoring is needed for students — particularly in high poverty areas that are often understaffed and under-resourced.

“It helps raise scholar skills, it helps raise scholar confidence and it sets scholars up for success. That’s not just me saying that — it’s research proven,” Bassett told The 74.

NJTC currently serves more than 40 schools across 17 of the state’s 21 counties, comprising about 1,300 students from urban districts in Essex and Camden to rural districts in Hunterdon and Sussex.

Through the work of NJTC tutors, the number of K-8 students performing at grade level in math improved from 16 to 40 percent and in literacy from 23 to 40 percent.

As the New Jersey Department of Education allotted about $41 million in grant awards to 240 school districts, the tutoring company aims to grow to nearly 80 schools. 

“There is a deep sense of urgency at this moment, and our mission these last few months has been to create a solid and consistent institution on which teachers and school leaders can rely,” Basset said in a statement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New Jersey’s spring 2022 student learning assessments showed test score declines — particularly in math and English language arts. With this in mind, how would you describe the educational needs in New Jersey schools?

The pandemic caused some gaps in learning — absolutely, there’s no denying that. However, gaps existed prior to the pandemic, particularly for our scholars who come from high poverty backgrounds and high-need schools that are often understaffed and under-resourced. These are the scholars we work with and focus on. They definitely need help beyond what a classroom teacher with 25 to 35 scholars at a time are willing to do. Because of this, I’m not anticipating there’s going to be a miracle occurring when the new 2023 student learning assessment data is released. (Note: This interview was conducted prior to the release of the 2023 student learning assessments. Updated test scores can be checked out here.)

Which school districts or areas in New Jersey have you noticed students need particular attention and support?

We’ve worked in 17 out of New Jersey’s 21 counties. We’ve been in urban areas, rural areas and suburban areas. As somebody who taught in a rural area, I would definitely stress that our rural schools need just as much help as our urban schools. In many cases, they need the same kinds of help and for the same reasons. So I would not want to overlook our rural schools or suburban schools that are struggling. 

Is there a particular subject you have found needs more support in the state? 

Math and literacy are both critical needs, but I would say based on the data that I have seen, our scholars need more help in math than they do in literacy. But, they still nonetheless need help in literacy.

I understand the New Jersey Tutoring Corps targets K-8 students. Are there particular grade levels you have noticed need more attention and support?

There’s this book, and it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek book, called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” that references the social-emotional skills young kids need, like getting along with people, collaborating, resilience, curiosity — all of those things. But on top of social-emotional skills, your foundational academic skills are also set in kindergarten, first and second grade. 

For literacy you’re learning phonics and for mathematics you’re learning number sense. What does the number one mean? What does it mean to add something to it? We want to help scholars as young as we can because that’s where all of your learning is grounded. So those three grades are very important to us.

What about third through eighth grade?

Third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade students are also important because they were the ones greatly impacted by the pandemic. They’re generally behind and need to get those foundational skills in a way that’s not insulting. For example, if you’re teaching phonics to a fifth grader you have to approach it in a way that’s different from teaching phonics to a kindergartner. We need leveled libraries in New Jersey with reading material that is grade-level appropriate.

With seventh and eighth grade, you’re getting ready for high school. This is sort of your last chance to get those skills down so you can move onto high school and be successful. That’s the goal we want for every scholar we work with. Helping them be successful in life by getting those math and literacy, but also, social-emotional skills.

Are there any stories that come to mind when you think of the significance high-impact tutoring has had at the schools you work with?

We’ve had our Boys and Girls Club partners tell us that when they do their surveys at the end of the year, tutoring is always their students’ favorite thing to do. Not swimming or computer gaming or coding — they like tutoring. And why? Because of that personal relationship, that personal attention. 

We had a reporter visit the Trenton Boys and Girls Club, and she was speaking with a couple of math scholars in fifth and sixth grade. She asked them “Why do you like this?” because earlier in the day she noticed tutors going to pick up scholars and the scholars that they weren’t picking up were saying “Wait, wait, isn’t it my turn yet? I want to come now. I want to go to tutoring.” 

One of the scholars told her “I didn’t get math until I worked with Miss Hawk” — Miss Hawk being one of their tutors. He continued saying “I would look at numbers and I didn’t understand what they were. I was being asked to do things that I didn’t understand. And now I get it. Math is just putting things together and taking things apart. It’s that simple.” That was his explanation of math. And now when he goes back to school, he gets it. That’s why this matters.

New Jersey gave about $41 million in grant funds to implement high-impact tutoring. How will this initiative help mitigate pandemic learning loss across the state?

When high-impact tutoring is done correctly, the research tells us that it works. It helps raise scholar skills, it helps raise scholar confidence and it sets scholars up for success. That’s not just me saying that, it’s research proven. I always describe our tutoring program as research-based and evidence rich. We’re based in research and we have a ton of evidence that what we are doing works.

We make it a point to listen to what teachers are instructing to get to know the scholars — both in terms of their academic and social-emotional skills. That way the same tutor can work with the same scholars throughout the learning cycle. That consistency is important so scholars see the same adult faces.

How does the need for high-impact tutors speak to the broader conversation of teacher shortages in New Jersey and across the country?

Look at what’s happening nationwide in education — people aren’t going into teaching anymore. This is a very real, very serious and very impactful situation. We have to figure out how to change it. Raising teacher pay is one way, but I think it’s raising respect for the profession and really treating educators as professionals. That will make a big difference in terms of bringing more people into the profession.

At the New Jersey Tutoring Corps, we are interested in being a retainer and pipeline into the teaching profession. We use pre-service educators as tutors. Meaning they have to have 60 school credit hours or more. In many cases, this is the first experience pre-service educators we work with have sitting one-on-one or in small groups with scholars and seeing what a difference they can make. 

I can’t tell you how many of our tutors have said to me “I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher but working for the New Jersey Tutoring Corps validated that I do want to be a teacher and why I want to be a teacher.” The experience working with very small groups on very targeted pieces of academic content really makes a difference. 

We have also had one tutor who shared that after her experience she realized she did not want to be a teacher. And to me, that’s just as important as finding out that you do want to be a teacher. To be able to help people figure that out early on is very important. 

A number of our tutors have been hired by the districts they’re working with. So high-impact tutoring has proven to be a pipeline that helps address the need for teachers in New Jersey.

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