At the conclusion of the 2021-22 academic year, I visited schools and districts in Tennessee that are a part of the statewide tutoring program, the TN All Corps. I observed many students and tutors working together in the pursuit of catching up in their math learning. At each I visited, I witnessed sparks going off. Kids were truly engaged in learning math. In the face of two-plus years of pandemic-era learning, this left me feeling hopeful.
As the new school year commences, however, students are still way behind. As economist and Harvard University Professor Thomas Kane demonstrated through his recent research, unfinished learning is not only quantifiable, but also inequitable. Scalable solutions for addressing unfinished learning, Kane says, are often hard to implement.
As the CEO and co-founder of Zearn, I have had the privilege of supporting state education leaders in Tennessee and Texas who are making monumental investments in high-impact, large-scale tutoring programs. Through the TN All Corps and the Vetted Texas Tutor Corps, more than 125,000 kids in 375 districts and over 2,800 schools are accelerating their math learning.
As Kane rightly notes, the work is intensive. In both states, however, programs that provide students with extra learning time, like tutoring or summer classes, are being implemented in a manner that encourages continuous improvement and leverages local resources. With a few key strategies, this approach can become a reality throughout the country.
First, while it’s important for states to set up a centralized framework for small groups to meet for tutoring three or more times per week, it is also critical to allow local education leaders — who know their communities and available resources best — to manage the programs. In Texas, where the teacher shortage is acute, districts are looking beyond teachers and recruiting individuals, like college students, in their communities to staff their programs.
Second, to ensure the tutoring delivered is consistent and successful, states must choose providers that offer centralized, comprehensive and ongoing professional development. In Tennessee, for instance, tutors have access to a five-module training course that teaches aspiring and alternative educators everything from the basics of tutoring to academic best practices.
At the beginning of these programs, the focus was solely on training tutors. They quickly pivoted, however, to also offer professional development to district and school leaders, to ensure all goals were met. As with any new undertaking, the more informed leaders are, the more seamless and structured the program will feel for kids.
Third, to support districts and schools, states should select and vet providers to determine the best options for supporting learning recovery. Research shows kids learn more and struggle less when they tackle grade-level work, getting help with lessons and skills from earlier grades only when needed, than when they receive remedial work. Rather than utilizing math apps and worksheets that are below grade level, in Tennessee and in Texas, students engaged in this sort of accelerated learning with real-time feedback, empowering them to continue to move forward with their math learning. Real-time data insights also enable states to evaluate program effectiveness.
Finally, as was done in Texas, states can negotiate a lower price to ensure no or low cost for districts. Local education leaders must do an immense amount of work with varying levels of resources. One district may have a single person assigned to rolling out a tutoring program, whereas another might be deeply staffed. Both districts, however, have kids who need support. Thus, it’s prudent for states to remove any barriers to funding or implementation.
Reflecting on my visit to Tennessee, what stood out was the palpable enthusiasm among the students and their teachers. After a tumultuous time, students, while struggling, are re-engaged with learning. State assessment results in math in both Texas and Tennessee are encouraging.
Moreover, a penchant for continuous improvement is ever-present. Over time, these programs will continue to get stronger, and I hope that, with a sustained commitment, states across the nation can help all kids catch up and move forward in math.