OpinionEDlection 2020  Pandemic  

Slavin: An Open Letter to President-Elect Biden — a Tutoring Marshall Plan to Heal Our Students

By Robert Slavin | December 14, 2020

A version of this essay originally appeared on Robert Slavin’s blog.

Dear President-Elect Biden:

Congratulations on your victory in the recent election. Your task is daunting; so much needs to be set right. I am writing to you about what I believe needs to be done in education to heal the damage done to so many children who missed school due to COVID-19 closures.

I am aware that there are many basic things that must be done to improve schools, which have to continue to make their facilities safe for students and cope with the physical and emotional trauma that so many have experienced. Schools will be opening into a recession, so just providing ordinary services will be a challenge. Funding to enable schools to fulfill their core functions is essential, but it is not sufficient.

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Returning schools to the way they were when they closed last spring will not heal the damage students have sustained to their educational progress. This damage will be greatest to disadvantaged students in high-poverty schools, most of whom were unable to take advantage of the remote learning most schools provided. Some of these students were struggling even before schools closed, but when they reopen, millions of students will be far behind.

Our research center at Johns Hopkins University studies the evidence on programs of all kinds for students who are at risk, especially in reading and mathematics. What we and many other researchers have found is that the most effective strategy for struggling students, especially in elementary schools, is one-to-one or one-to-small group tutoring. Structured tutoring programs can make a large difference in a short time, exactly what is needed to help students quickly catch up with grade level expectations.

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My colleagues and I have proposed a massive effort designed to provide proven tutoring services to the millions of students who desperately need it. Our proposal, based on a similar idea by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), would ultimately provide funding to enable as many as 300,000 tutors to be recruited, trained in proven tutoring models and coached to ensure their effectiveness. These tutors would be required to have a college degree, but not necessarily a teaching certificate. Research has found that such tutors, using proven models with excellent professional development, can improve the achievement of students struggling in reading or mathematics as much as can teachers serving as tutors.

The plan we are proposing is a bit like the Marshall Plan after World War II, which provided substantial funding to Western European nations devastated by the war. The idea was to put these countries on their feet quickly and effectively so that, within a brief period of years, they could support themselves. In a similar fashion, a Tutoring Marshall Plan would provide intensive funding to enable Title I schools nationwide to substantially advance the achievement of their students who suffered mightily from COVID-19 closures and related trauma. Effective tutoring is likely to enable these children to advance to the point where they can profit from ordinary grade-level instruction. We fear that without this assistance, millions of children will never catch up and will show the negative effects of the closures throughout their time in school and beyond.

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The Tutoring Marshall Plan will also provide employment to 300,000 college graduates, who will otherwise have difficulty entering the job market in a time of recession. These people are eager to contribute to society and to establish professional careers, but will need a first step on that ladder. Ideally, the best of the tutors will experience the joys of teaching and might be offered accelerated certification, opening a new source of teacher candidates who will have had an opportunity to build and demonstrate their skills in school settings. Like the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration programs in the Great Depression, these tutors will not only be helped to survive the financial crisis, but will perform essential services to the nation while building skills and confidence.

The Tutoring Marshall Plan needs to start as soon as possible. The need is obvious, both to provide essential jobs to college graduates and to provide proven assistance to struggling students.

Our proposal, in brief, is to ask Congress to fund the following activities:

Spring 2021

  • Fund existing tutoring programs to build capacity to scale up their programs to serve thousands of struggling students. This would include installing proven tutoring programs in about 2,000 schools nationwide.
  • Fund rigorous evaluations of programs that show promise but have not been evaluated in rigorous, randomized experiments.
  • Fund the development of new programs, especially in areas in which there are few proven models, such as programs for struggling students in secondary schools.

Fall 2021 to Spring 2022

  • Provide restricted funds to Title I schools throughout the United States to enable them to hire up to 150,000 tutors to implement proven programs, across all grade levels, 1-9, and in reading and mathematics. This many tutors, mostly using small-group methods, should be able to provide services to about 6 million students each year. Schools should be asked to agree to select from among proven, effective programs. Schools would implement their chosen programs using tutors who have college degrees and experience with tutoring, teaching or mentoring children (such as AmeriCorps graduates who were tutors, camp counselors or Sunday school teachers).
  • As new programs are completed and piloted, third-party evaluators should be funded to evaluate them in randomized experiments, adding to capacity to serve students in grades 1-9. Those that produce positive outcomes would then be added to the list of programs available for tutor funding, and their organizations would need to be funded to facilitate preparation for scale-up.
  • Teacher-training institutions and school districts should be funded to work together to design accelerated certification programs for outstanding tutors.

Fall 2022 to Spring 2023

  • Title I schools should be funded to enable them to hire a total of 300,000 tutors. Again, schools will select among proven tutoring programs, which will train, coach and evaluate tutors across the U.S. We expect these tutors to be able to work with about 12 million struggling students each year.
  • Development, evaluation and scale-up of proven programs should continue to enrich the number and quality of proven programs adapted to the needs of all kinds of Title I schools.

The Tutoring Marshall Plan would provide direct benefits to millions of struggling students harmed by COVID-19 school closures, in all parts of the U.S. It would provide meaningful work with a future to college graduates who might otherwise be unemployed. At the same time, it could establish a model of dramatic educational improvement based on rigorous research, contributing to knowledge and use of effective practice. If all goes well, the Tutoring Marshall Plan could demonstrate the power of scaling up proven programs and using research and development to improve the lives of children.

Robert Slavin is director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the Success for All Foundation. 

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