A Pair of Big-City District Officials Talk About What’s Working With Tutoring, and What Isn’t

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San Diego

When it comes to how to make a tutoring program work at scale in a district, two superintendents in the thick of the process point to the importance of changing the mindset around academic interventions, and changing course when something doesn’t work.

District officials from Denver and Chicago Public Schools, speaking on a panel at the ASU+GSV summit, talked about how their districts are using high-dosage tutoring to improve student outcomes, and the key factors that matter in launching and implementing a wide-reaching program.

The two major school systems are among many nationwide that turned to tutoring to make up for learning lost during the pandemic — an approach research shows can be effective when done right. 

Bolstered by a huge influx of federal emergency aid, many educators have viewed tutoring and other forms of academic intervention as innovative approaches to making up academic ground.

Now, as many of those tutoring efforts have been in place for a year or more, some K-12 officials are stepping back to evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

Creating a Culture of Seeking Help

For Corey Morrison, director of mathematics for the Chicago Public Schools, school climate played a major role as the district looked to significantly expand its tutoring program. Culture building has to come first, he said.

For the 320,000-student district, which has partnered with Saga Education since 2011 to provide in-person tutoring, that meant bringing tutors in on the district’s efforts to help every student see themselves as a mathematical thinker who can solve novel problems.

We’re not just talking about tutoring skills We’re talking about tutoring around your mindset.Corey Morrison, Director of Mathematics, Chicago Public Schools

“We’re not just talking about tutoring skills,” Morrison said. “We’re talking about tutoring around your mindset.”

If the district can reach a critical mass of students with that message through tutoring, Morrison said it shifts the culture of a school from students saying they are “bad at math or “don’t do math” to one of, “kids that look like you do math.”

That, in turn, boosts enrollment and attendance in tutoring as students actively seek help, rather than feeling as though they’re being pressured to go, he said.

“If that’s the culture of the school, then when [students] do start to struggle, they will reach out,” he said.

Be Nimble with Strategy

In Denver Public Schools, Associate Chief of Academics Simone Wright said it has been critical to be able to change direction when the evidence suggests doing so is what’s needed.

The 90,000-student district is in its first year of its high-dosage tutoring program, and it has prioritized using data to inform how it makes adjustments to its implementation.

“We’ve just become a lot better at looking at data and really thinking about, what are the inputs that are driving this data?” Wright said. “And creating the space to make revisions to the work we’re doing.”

This kind of adaptation is not possible in all school districts, Wright said. 

“I am very grateful for my experience in general, because in some systems you don’t have the space to revise strategy,” she said. It’s critical to have “permission to enact strong mechanisms and systems of continuous improvement.”

Cultivating Teacher Support

Both officials acknowledged that successful implementation of tutoring programs requires earning teacher buy-in.

“I have to figure out how to mobilize a lot of different constituents, and even, at times, break down doors to have conversations with teachers to understand what would be helpful” to educators, Wright said.

In Chicago, Morrison said the district works to have tutors deeply embedded in classrooms, so that tutoring  doesn’t feel separate from everyday learning.

Tutors should be “meaningfully engaging” in department meetings and going to staff meetings, he said. And an email sent to a parent from a tutor should hold just as much weight as an email sent by a teacher.

“We try our best to have the communication and relationship be so fluid that folks don’t know who works for Saga and who works for Chicago schools,” he said. “Having that rapport and that relationship — that expectation that your tutoring is an extension of your tier-one instruction — is important.”

Image by Getty

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