As evidence mounts that the pandemic is inflicting academic harm on many students, some Newark schools are turning to a simple yet potentially potent treatment: tutoring.
The city school district plans to train students to tutor their peers, and it recently launched a “homework hotline” where teachers work one-on-one with students over video chat. Some Newark charter schools are also bringing in tutors, including corporate volunteers at one school and AmeriCorps members at another. All the tutoring is happening virtually while classrooms are closed.
But as schools race to offer students extra help, experts caution that only rigorous and frequent tutoring is likely to help reverse the learning loss caused by the pandemic. The patchwork of programs in cities such as Newark points to the need for federally funded and coordinated tutoring that is widespread and intensive enough to steer students back on track, researchers say.
“We can’t expect all these schools to just reinvent the wheel for tutoring with all the coordination, curriculum, training, costs, and expertise it requires,” said Matthew Kraft, a Brown University professor who co-authored a new report calling for a national tutoring program. “We need to support them to do so.”
Data is piling up that shows this spring’s school closures knocked many students off course.
Testing this fall revealed that students started this school year behind, with progress stalling most in math; and students of color lost more ground than white students, according to at least one analysis. Meanwhile, several districts are reporting a surge in students failing their fall classes.
New Jersey, like most states, did not mandate widespread testing this fall to measure academic backsliding. But in anticipation of probable learning loss, the state recently said it would give grants to 16 districts to help students catch up.
As schools consider how best to help students rebound, a large body of evidence suggests that small-group tutoring is one of the most effective ways to boost student learning. England recently launched a national tutoring program to address learning loss, and some states and districts in the United States have funded smaller efforts.
“There are few interventions in education where the evidence is as compelling and overwhelming as it is for the efficacy of tutoring,” said Kraft, who co-authored the paper with Grace Falken calling for a massive, federally funded expansion of tutoring into every public school.
But not all tutoring programs are equal. Kraft said the most effective programs keep student-to-tutor ratios low, schedule several sessions per week, and provide tutors with high-quality training and teaching materials. Tutoring usually works better during the school day because students are more likely to attend and take it seriously, said Kraft, who recommends lengthening the school day by 30 minutes to make time for tutoring.
In Newark, the district is planning a suite of tutoring programs this school year, according to documents and the district website. While still likely to benefit students, the programs might not feature all the hallmarks of effective tutoring, such as well-trained tutors and frequent sessions.
Through the district’s peer tutoring program, students in grades 3-11 will learn to coach their classmates. Teachers are responsible for choosing and training students to become tutors, according to district guidance. The guidance does not say how often tutoring will occur or what curriculum the student tutors will use.
A district spokesperson would not answer questions or provide any information about the tutoring programs, and did not allow a school board member to be interviewed.
The effort was supposed to be up and running by October, but has yet to roll out to all schools.
The homework hotline connects students with teachers who are on call from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Students can choose a teacher who specializes in the subject they need help with, then join the teacher’s video chat.
One of the hotline workers is Wilmarie Morales, a bilingual teacher at Ridge Street School. Last Wednesday, she met virtually with a Spanish-speaking sixth-grader who recently arrived from Ecuador and needed help understanding his assignments. On Thursday, she assisted a second-grader who logs on almost every afternoon. They worked on science, math, and spelling assignments, and read a book about Santa Claus.
“Some kids, you’re on with them an hour; other kids, you’re on with them 10 minutes,” Morales said. “The kids enjoy it, they like it.”
The hotline, which began Nov. 30, offers individual support. But with only about 20 teachers, the program can only serve a fraction of the district’s more than 36,000 students.
Individual schools also offer virtual afterschool programs that include tutoring. However, school staffers say that getting students to voluntarily attend after a full day of remote learning can be difficult. Yolanda Johnson, a parent advocate whose daughter has attended University High School’s afterschool program, said tutoring should be required.
“It’s critical right now,” she said. “School districts should make it mandatory.”
Beyond tutoring, the district also created math and phonics “bootcamps” this fall, where elementary school teachers gave a series of lessons reviewing essential skills in those subjects. And through a partnership with the Newark Public Library, district teachers will record lessons on different topics that students can watch online. After a delay, the service will launch in January, a library official said.
Newark charter schools are also ramping up academic support this fall.
At Philip’s Academy Charter School, volunteers from Prudential Financial tutor struggling students over Zoom each Tuesday through a program called Math Motivators. Teachers also offer small-group tutoring sessions every Saturday. And during two “intervention” periods each week, teachers review topics with small groups of students who need extra help while the rest use online-learning programs.
Principal Yasmeen Sampson said testing this fall showed that about half of students were starting below grade level. That prompted the school to schedule the hour-long intervention periods during the school day so all students have access to tutoring.
“We don’t want students to be excluded from getting what they need,” she said.
Through an AmeriCorps fellowship that predated the pandemic, recent college graduates tutor small groups of students during a designated period each day. The full-time tutors also work with struggling students after school and on Saturdays. The school trains the tutors and teachers meet with them regularly to track student progress and plan lessons.
“You really need systems and oversight,” said Dr. Prudence Minton, chief academic officer of the network’s middle school. “That’s been the biggest part of the program.”