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Principals Are Key to Making Tutoring Work. Here’s Why

Who’s the linchpin in making school-based tutoring work? New research suggests it’s principals.

High dosage tutoring has become integral in schools as a strategy to recover academic skills that slipped during the pandemic. And there is strong evidence that when tutoring in schools is frequent, predictable, and held in small groups, it works.

But despite the evidence and support at the district level, tutoring interventions are often hobbled by uneven implementation. Students might not get the prescribed 50 hours a week. The school might struggle to find tutors. Teachers may not understand how it complements their own work. There might be conflicts in scheduling these sessions.

This is where principals need to come in, and steer.

“Principals are responsible for creating a positive culture around tutoring in their schools. They promote the idea that you need an extra set of hands to promote learning,” said Nakia Towns, the chief executive officer of Accelerate, a nonprofit that funds and promotes effective academic interventions.

Accelerate partnered with the research group Mathematica to detail the key logistical ingredients that can make high dosage tutoring effective in schools. It’s based on the experience of eight of its grantees.

Principals create capacity

The research indicates that tutoring providers have to first build relationships with principals.

Accelerate’s interventions reached over 300,000 underserved students across 180 districts and 25 states. Seven of the eight organizations included in the research offered the tutoring during the school day.

“Principals helped these organizations align tutoring within interventions that were already running in schools. For instance, the tutoring support needed by some students who are well below grade level is like the Tier-3 support provided by a MTSS plan,” said Towns, referring to multi-tiered systems of support, in which students receive progressively more intensive levels of help. (Tier 3 is the most intensive, and usually provided in a one-on-one format.)

When principals prioritize tutoring, it can simplify other logistical problems too, like finding a suitable time and space for it, the report found. “Principals can appoint a coordinator for the school who makes sure things run smoothly. This person can also be an intervention coach which connects it back to the MTSS support,” said Towns.

The coordinator does more than logistics. They are in charge of selecting students, developing lesson plans for tutors, and observing tutoring sessions at least twice a week.

Teach For America, one of the grantees in the study, requires a “veteran educator” to fill this role, spending 5 hours in this role beyond their regular duties. I changed this OB to coordinate the tutoring efforts in their school.

Principals can help “protect” the coordinator’s time from being diverted to other activities, Towns said.

Building trust with teachers

When principals open the doors to outside help, the report finds that their staff—assistant principals, department heads, instructional coaches, and, most crucially, teachers—follow their lead. To convince principals of the merit of tutoring, though, the grantees had to show there was alignment between their curriculum and classroom instruction, or the grade level skills that students must master.

The eight grantees highlighted in the report followed different approaches. Four organizations aligned their literacy curriculum with the critical skills that students needed to read, rather than aligning it directly with each school’s reading curriculum. In some cases, organizations met with teachers to show them their curriculum and the reading skills they were focused on.

“Teachers were initially skeptical about the quality of instruction that tutors would bring. They had to see the materials, observe the instruction and watch the students respond. That’s how tutors built trust with teachers,” said Towns.

One provider, TN SCORE, created a toolkit for Tennessee school districts to embed their tutoring into school curricula and the MTSS plan in their schools.

Principals give teachers cover

Student absenteeism remains a major obstacle to a successful tutoring intervention.

“When principals change the perception about tutoring, it can help bring down absenteeism too. Parents feel like they’re missing out on something when their kids don’t make it to the tutoring session,” said Towns.

How parents respond to tutoring is connected to how teachers feel about it, Towns added.

“There needs to be a national conversation about how kids are behind. Principals can give teachers enough cover to talk to parents about the gaps in their kids’ skill levels,” said Towns.

Teachers aren’t just highlighting a problem: They are also offering support in the form of trained tutors, she said.

“You must make parents believe that this isn’t only their problem to solve. But they do have to get their kids to school on time. That’s how you can partner with [teachers] to reduce absenteeism,” Towns said.

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