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How Central Offices Can Lay the Groundwork for Tutoring in Schools

As schools prepare to spend the remainder of their $190 billion federal funding boost from the past four years, districts’ central offices can support principals’ work in establishing tutoring programs that pay dividends.

Principals play a key role, by handling the on-the-ground logistics. But they need the right training and support to make their tutoring programs successful. That’s where a strong central office comes in. Among other things, the central office can help explain the tenets of a high-quality program, conduct quality control, and ensure that outside providers are aligned with the curriculum in use in the schools.

Nick Erber, the director of learning acceleration for the Uplift charter school network in Fort Worth, Texas, has been developing this kind of support since the 2021-22 school year. Uplift is the largest charter network in Texas, and runs tutoring programs in 40 of its 45 schools, a quick scale-up since launching the tutoring support in 2021.

“When I came into this role I spoke with every single principal to understand what they thought tutoring was. They needed some clarity about what was high-impact tutoring and what wasn’t,” Erber said.

In Tennessee’s public school districts, supporting principal as they implement tutoring looks a bit different. The state, in partnership with a nonprofit that works on school improvement, has provided toolkits and training to districts.

Tanna Nicely, the principal of South Knoxville Elementary in Knoxville, Tenn., received helpful information on how to organize the program in her own school before she was expected to implement it.

“The research and accountability department in our district dug out data on each school’s benchmark [scores] and how many students met that benchmark. They gave us individual names and scores so it was a great starting point,” Nicely said. “But we had the autonomy to pick the actual students on campus who would receive this help.”

Information must circulate

In addition to the data, Nicely’s district also offered options for high-quality instructional materials and funding sources forhiring three tutors. Nicely said she was able to combine district funding with Title I money to stretch it to six full-time tutors for the more than 200 students in her school who receive high dosage tutoring.

For each school in the Uplift network, the central office created a “design studio”—a working document of what the school’s needs were, its staffing situation, and its master schedule—to match it up with a vendor.

Scaling up to tutoring in 40 schools within two years came with its challenges. For one thing, Erber’s office had never procured tutoring services at such a large scale.

“Initially, our recruitment and finance weren’t set up to contract for big services, where the vendor would interact with kids every day. Information needed to flow from schools to vendors in a meaningful way,” he said.

If schools had a field trip plan or saw that the tutoring would get in the way of whole-class instruction on a particular day, they weren’t used to informing the vendor.

Similarly, tutoring vendors looking to scale up quickly weren’t always providing high-quality services, Erber said.

In one instance, he recalled, a vendor with 15 schools under contract was woefully underprepared to manage schedules and keep track of student attendance. The design studios were a way to iron out these issues: Erber would involve the vendor and the principals to coordinate time slots, information management and curriculum.

Connect to the curriculum

Tutoring programs often fail because they don’t try and align themselves with a school’s curriculum, said Elizabeth Oviatt, the principal of Uplift Summit Primary in Arlington, Texas, which is part of the Uplift network.

Even tutoring based on good curriculum could fall short if it doesn’t align with the curriculum or assessment tools that the school uses. “You want high dosage tutoring to double down on what’s being taught in class,” said Oviatt.

Oviatt favors vendors whose curriculum is based on “science of reading” principles, which match her school’s teaching.

Her focus on curricular alignment is shared by tutoring partners like Ignite, a tutoring service spun out of Teach For America during the pandemic. Ignite connects with students online through two models—either as part of small-group instruction time in a class, or a pull-out for students from different classes who face the same literacy or math challenge.

In both cases, Ignite insists on being part of the school’s overall academic recovery efforts. “That’s why we work closely with principals to use the same curriculum and assessment tools that the school uses. We look at school partners’ curriculum in relation to EdReports [a free curriculum-rating service]. In case it doesn’t, we offer free curriculum to these schools,” said Katie Tennessen Hooten, Ignite’s founder and vice president.

Ignite also relies heavily on—and pays—veteran educators at the school who can train tutors on the curriculum, Hooten said.

Keep a tight check

Uniform curriculum and assessment styles help Oviatt track impact. She gets a weekly report on each student’s progress and tutor feedback on each student’s attendance, ability to focus, or behavior.

Erber said while his office pays for all the programming, schools do have some responsibilities of their own. They have to figure out how to get aides or coordinators locally to run the programs.

Central offices are also best positioned to make sure the school network or district is getting a return on their investment. This means writing requests for proposals that reflect features like whether tutoring happens in person, ensure bids are competitive, and require vendors to meet key benchmarks and service requirements, like tutors who consistently meet with students on time.

“If a group of students isn’t meeting with the same tutor 90 percent of the time, that’s a problem. The vendor will just get the base payment then, and we’ll have a hard conversation with them about why they can’t hold on to their people,” Erber said.

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