Contract tutoring in schools in Baltimore City and elsewhere is reshaping today’s classroom –

Intensive tutoring is increasing in schools in Baltimore City and elsewhere, thanks to an influx of grants. (stock photo.)

In a trend that could transform learning in Baltimore and across the country, a huge influx of federal stimulus money is fueling massive growth in the tutoring industry. These programs — many of which are backed by data and employ high-dose techniques over long periods of time — are designed to help students and teachers recover from education systems devastated by the pandemic.

Private companies, nonprofit organizations and volunteer groups have worked with and in competition to help children close the performance gaps exacerbated by COVID-19. This year, as children returned to using the books and tablets behind their school desks, districts have been eager to increase their ratings.

Volunteer grandparents, Americorps employees, and for-profit and not-for-profit corporations with diverse models all compete to help children in Baltimore and elsewhere reach their academic potential.

According to the Baltimore City Public School District, about 10,200 students, representing 13% of the student body, received at least six weeks of high-dose tutoring this year. This was done through small group or even individual tuition during the school day outside of the classroom. The meetings take place several times a week over several weeks.

The number of Baltimore students educated is expected to increase in the coming years.

The trend has been a boon to for-profit businesses. In Baltimore alone, the city school district has received 28 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER) totaling $790 million. The federal pandemic aid is to be awarded over three years, from the current school year until 2024.

Only a portion of that funding goes toward tutoring, but the financial windfall has already transformed the traditional day of schooling in Baltimore. Many tutored students and class teachers report that the change has been beneficial.

Though federal funding could taper off after 2024, some city school district administrators have said this modern incorporation of tutoring into everyday school life may have permanently changed the K-12 educational landscape.

“There is a lot of scientific evidence supporting this work that will be around for some time,” he said Matthew Barrow, Academic Tutoring Coordinator for the Baltimore City Public School District. “It’s quite revolutionary because it offers something that didn’t exist before. It offers a completely different level of instruction that teachers are not directly responsible for implementing on a daily basis.”

These tutoring programs, designed using collected data and governed by federal and state laws, are called high-dose, evidence-based efforts. In Baltimore, the district is using multiple tutoring models and is throwing whatever it can at the benefit gap caused by the pandemic to see what makes a difference.

There are currently twelve different organizations contracted with the municipality to help students. Programs range from computer program-led early literacy interventions to small group interactions with just a few children. Programs have focused on literacy and math, and sessions can be as short as five minutes or as long as 30 minutes.

[Author’s note: I took on the role as an early literacy intervention tutor for several weeks this spring at Calvin Rodwell Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. The common practice at the assigned school was to pull students from their homeroom to a separate learning area a few times each week when they weren’t being taught core curriculum.]

The students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to get out of the classroom for a few minutes. They often asked to be drawn to tutoring. A survey of district students who have received tutoring found that most students found the tutoring approach beneficial.

“We learn that when students have the opportunity to meet with a caring adult, they feel good,” said Jalima Alicea, director of specialized learning at the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

Many teachers also value the efforts of tutors working with their students. Teachers and tutors work together to help children achieve educational goals.

“We do surveys,” said Innovations for Learning founder Seth Weinberger. “The teachers are overwhelmed. Within a few weeks they start to see how the person (tutor) is really helping. Teachers are often our biggest supporters.”

Innovations for Learning is a nonprofit organization founded by Weinberger 25 years ago to help younger elementary school students close the literacy gap. The organization signed a contract with the Baltimore City Public School District for the first time this year. But the nonprofit already teaches over 20,000 students across the country.

“The reason we’re in Baltimore is for government funding,” he said. “There are other programs that are embarking on that. It’s mostly positive… more models can be tested.”

Federal and state laws categorize and limit the types of tutoring contracts that districts can enter into. The federal government provides four levels that evaluate the content of a tutoring program.

Level one is considered the highest level for evidence-based tutoring programs that have undergone double-blind studies to analyze effectiveness. Level four is the lowest level. These programs contain only some of the components of evidence-based programs.

Maryland restricts school districts to only use programs that meet a level one or two designation.

“It makes it a bit harder to find partners,” Alicea said. “However, it helps us to allocate resources that are research-proven to be effective.”

With the arrival of the federal funds in 2021, the municipal school district was able to take off. He had already set up his own small internal tutoring program before the pandemic. Because of this, the Alicea department already knew how to better monitor and evaluate data.

“We were able to capitalize on this opportunity last year with the lessons learned,” she said. “That influenced our approach a lot.”

Alicea said that reviews from in-house tutoring programs are already showing an impact on student performance. This program is being expanded, and 83 new positions are now waiting to be filled.

The jury is not yet on the results of the contract tutoring as the school year is just coming to an end. But Weinberger said his nonprofit organization expects to expand into Baltimore City Public Schools next year.

The success of high-dose tutoring programs can depend on how the money is distributed. To be sustainable, admins may need to be as efficient as possible.

Tutors are not often required to have a teacher certification, but it takes a lot of time to verify it. And many tutors make over $20 an hour in their positions. “What’s cheapest?” asked Barrow. “That leads to sustainability. “It allows us to be the best stewards of the public money so we can keep this work going.”

Matthew Liptak is a veteran reporter and author from Maryland who spent 7 weeks in April and May as an Early Literacy Interventionist at Calvin Rodwell Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. He would take 3rd grade students out of their classrooms for five to 10 minutes a day and work with them through a computer program that used phonetics to improve reading skills.

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