HomeSchool Reform NewsHigh-Dose Tutoring Programs Can Help Ease Teacher Shortages

High-Dose Tutoring Programs Can Help Ease Teacher Shortages

The shocking number of teacher and staff vacancies in school districts around the country is well known, but an article in the Washington Post laid out some of the consequences in stark terms: the superintendent in Bothell, Washington, recently was pressed into service as a physical education instructor.

Teacher shortages have challenged school districts for decades, but the pandemic turned a problem into a crisis. A lack of qualified teachers not only significantly affects students’ academic achievement but also stalls progress toward their completion of unfinished learning. Unfortunately, teacher shortages are greatest at schools with high populations of low-income students.

Here’s an idea for patching holes in the teacher talent pipeline: invest in “high-dosage” tutoring programs – those involving intensive one-on-one or small-group tutoring.

Consider Saga Education, the high-dosage math tutoring program we founded and lead. About 30 percent of our tutoring fellows – recent college graduates and seasoned professionals alike – have used their work with us as springboards to jobs in the classroom. Most arrive with no training or experience in education, only an aptitude for algebra and an eagerness to support students. After being embedded in a school for a year or more, many discover a passion for teaching they never knew they had.

Because our fellows spend so much time in schools (or virtually, if they are tutoring remotely), principals get a 180-day opportunity to observe their potential for full-time teaching. Virtual tutors get hooked on teaching students and can become a nationwide pipeline for teacher talent.

Hiring people straight out of intensive yearlong tutoring experiences represents a new way of looking at educator preparation. In 2018, the Noble Networks of charter schools in Chicago, for example, hired 37% of their high school math teachers directly from Saga’s Chicago tutor corps. Noble determined that these tutors’ year-long experience working closely with students and families, and going through the cycles of the school year, provided valuable preparation for managing classrooms and full teacher loads. Also, Roosevelt University, which has an innovative teacher prep program in Chicago, recently changed its licensure requirements so that tutoring time can count toward the undergraduate teacher license. More educational institutions should follow this lead: higher-ed teacher-prep programs should look at high-quality, high-dosage tutoring hours as a legitimate component of the field experience and teacher-practicum requirements for licensure.

Evidence is mounting that the tutoring-to-teaching pipeline works. A report released in October by FutureEd and EducationCounsel found that “[e]nsuring that candidates have exposure to teaching experiences in shortage fields” can help reduce teacher shortages in hard-to-staff areas. The nonprofit Deans for Impact says that potential teachers often become actual teachers after experiences in which they engage students in “authentic academic work and receive embedded support from experienced mentors to help link theory to practice” – something that high-quality tutoring programs provide.

The key phrase here is “high-quality.” The best tutoring programs – those that are academically rigorous, evidence-based, and high-dosage – take the time to teach tutors how to build relationships with students and structure rigorous tutorials with the right balance of student effort and tutor guidance. That means offering insight on creating optimal lesson plans, using data to drive student achievement, and conducting frequent mini-assessments of students to see how much they’ve learned.

Saga, for example, recognizes that for our fellows, algebra content is the easy part of tutoring – the challenges come in setting high expectations for students without overwhelming them, communicating effectively, and improving the quality of instruction. Tutoring, especially when performed daily, has a way of demystifying the teaching process, making it feel a lot less scary and a lot more fun. Our fellows who moved into the classroom after leaving Saga can remember the moment they no longer felt “out of their depth,” the moment they transitioned from “great tutor” to “good teacher.”

But to be clear, the main benefit of tutoring is its effect on students. A recent study showed that tutoring routinely leads to academic improvements, the equivalent of a student moving from the 50th to the 65th percentile. That’s particularly true for the millions of U.S. eighth- and ninth-grade students who take Algebra I every year. Research shows that those who pass the course are four times more likely to graduate from high school and are better positioned for success in post-secondary education or training. Conversely, 84% of students who drop out of high school cite course failures as the primary reason – and Algebra 1 is the course they fail most frequently.

As we emerge from the pandemic and begin to recover from one of the roughest periods in the history of modern education, we need every tool to bring teaching talent into schools. Creating a tutor-to-teacher pipeline is one of the best new ways to make that happen.

Alan Safran & Antonio Gutierrez
Alan Safran & Antonio Gutierrez
Alan Safran & Antonio Gutierrez are cofounders of Saga Education.


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