I read an article from The Dallas Morning News about the benefits of tutoring including online tutoring and how it is helping the academic loss that took place during Covid. The article is from July 2021 but I thought I’d share it as it sounds similar to what so many parents, kids, and schools are going through right now throughout the country.
Tutoring is key to helping students recover from ‘COVID-slide.’ How can Texas school maximize it?
Schools across the state will have to bolster their tutoring ranks to combat learning loss.
Kids at McShan Elementary unexpectedly found tutoring help from a teenager in Rio de Janeiro over the past year.
The pandemic’s unrelenting hold on Brazil kept 18-year-old Maria Luiza Gesteira at home, worried that if she ventured out, she could bring COVID-19 back to her parents.
She looked for ways to virtually volunteer to pass the time. And via YouTube, she found McShan, some 5,200 miles away in Dallas, and tutored students on Zoom up to three times a week.
A native Portuguese speaker, she knows what it’s like to learn English as a second language — how confusing it can be, for example, to learn to pronounce words ending in “—th.” It helps her relate to the students at McShan, who collectively speak dozens of different languages at home.
This school in Vickery Meadow has long relied on an army of volunteer tutors, dedicated to helping children who are new to the United States unlock the English language. When the pandemic hit, its reading program shifted online, opening up the chance for more people — including those from across the country and the globe — to join the effort.
As Dallas ISD officials work to dramatically bolster their tutoring corps to fight learning loss, McShan’s experience provides a glimpse of what could come next.
“It’s not a quick fix or something that’ll happen overnight,” McShan principal Joseph Medaris said. “It takes time to build relationships and to build partnerships.”
Education leaders in Dallas, and across the state, see tutoring as a key part of their long-term strategy for catching students up after the pandemic. Research shows tutoring can be extremely effective, if done right. But district officials know that it will be a costly investment and that simply throwing federal coronavirus funding at the effort won’t be enough to generate results.
The need is great: Four in 10 third-graders in Dallas failed the state’s standardized reading test, and even more fell short in math.
District officials say their approach to tutoring will go far beyond just “homework help.” School leaders plan to rely on existing best practices, including providing sessions multiple times a week, weaving tutoring into the school day, aligning the extra lessons to what’s happening in the classroom and collecting data to monitor students’ progress.
DISD is part of a national collaborative working with researchers at Brown University to study how to maximize the impact of tutoring. Brown’s National Student Support Accelerator points to research showing that tutoring interventions can translate to between three and 15 additional months of learning.
State officials acknowledge that Texas schools have historically struggled to catch students up in class.
So during this year’s legislative session, Texas lawmakers instituted new requirements for local tutoring programs, which districts are rushing to implement this fall. The law establishes rules — like how many hours of tutoring must be provided — to guide schools in how to “accelerate instruction” for the many kids who fell behind over the past 18 months.
Even before the wide-ranging bill passed, DISD officials estimated they needed as many as 1,800 tutors to carry out their plan. They expect to rely on a mix of volunteers and paid tutors, including those the district can source from more than 30 contractors. Tutors will include retired teachers, college students and other community members.
District leaders initially estimated it would cost $12 million to scale-up tutoring work over the next three years but conceded it will likely end up costing more. Tens of thousands of kids could ultimately require tutoring.
“We’re going to have to work campus by campus to figure out when students have availability to receive the tutoring and which partners can meet that specific need,” said Derek Little, deputy chief of academics.
Administrators were upfront about the challenges that lie ahead during a recent school board meeting. Amid the reality checks, a trustee encouraged administrators to study what’s worked in their own backyard.
“McShan is a place for everybody to go look at,” trustee Dan Micciche said. “It’s been sustained for a number of years, and there are some real lessons to be learned there.”
Re-creating the homeroom
When Dalene Buhl first started volunteering at McShan in 2010, the majority of its students spoke Spanish. In the decade since, the student body has transformed along with Vickery Meadow, Dallas’ most ethnically diverse neighborhood and one of its poorest.
Buhl remains at the heart of the school’s tutoring program. The retired AT&T executive took over a classroom and dubbed the space the McShan Reading Homeroom. She filled it with colorful books and the mountains of paperwork that tutors used to track students’ progress. At its peak, more than 200 volunteers came to tutor — church members who “adopted” the school, high-schoolers looking for volunteer hours and retired attorneys, doctors or teachers hoping to help out.
“It takes a village is a lesson we learned,” said Jessica Schwarz-Zik, who helps run the program.
Then COVID-19 hit. Even after schools reopened in the fall, volunteers were barred from campus to mitigate risk. Buhl and the McShan tutors joined the rest of the country in becoming all-too-familiar with Zoom, continuing to tutor kids in Vickery Meadow online throughout the summer.
Researchers say virtual tutoring can work, but it comes with trade-offs.
On one hand, it can be harder to establish a relationship through a screen and it’s difficult to make sure students show up consistently. But it can also expand the pool of tutors available.
It was 2 p.m. on a recent Friday when soon-to-be second-grader Zakirah Binti Mohammad Yasin logged onto Zoom from the floor of her family’s apartment. It was two hours later in Rio de Janeiro, where Gesteira was waiting for her.
During their session, they practiced writing sentences together, with Gesteira typing on the screen and Zakirah moving her pencil across her orange journal. When the smiley 7-year-old — who grew up speaking Burmese — got several questions right in a row, they high-fived through the screen. And when Gesteira asked what they should do next, Zakirah was quick to volunteer: “Let’s read a book.”
Gesteira is among the “stars” who joined the McShan tutoring corps during the pandemic, Buhl said. But with new volunteers — and such difficult circumstances — it was clear that additional oversight was needed to ensure the tutors were effective.
So Buhl instituted “Tutor Circles,” which bring together a small group of veteran and new tutors each week to collectively think through strategies should a student’s progress stall.
New tutors are observed periodically as “quality assurance,” Buhl said. Experienced tutors or former educators sit in on sessions — muted and with their camera turned off — to watch how volunteers interact with students and how they run their lessons. Afterward, they’ll coach rookie tutors on how to improve their skills.
“A hallmark [of the program] is the close communication between the tutor, the teacher, the student, the circle leader and the observer,” said Beth Eaton, a retired University of Arkansas faculty member who has volunteered at McShan for years. “It’s team-based.”
Assembling that team means establishing trust. Eaton has worked with the same little boy for 18 months, getting to know his whole family, too. Consistency and building real relationships between the tutors and students will be vital in pandemic recovery, educators say.
Students in McShan’s program are periodically given short assessments to track their progress. During the 2018-19 year, before the pandemic, average student scores on tests improved roughly 80% from the fall to the spring.
Tutoring across Texas will look different during the upcoming school year.
The Legislature’s requirements for school-based tutoring dictate how often a child must receive supplemental help and when he or she can get it. Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the guidance will help districts avoid “bad practices,” such as constantly yanking a young child out of recess to work on math.
Little, in DISD, said the law’s statutes — such as calling for 30 hours of extra instruction in a specific subject — are a “hard puzzle to put together” because of the scale and demand. District officials will work with principals on how to fit those offerings into schedules, as well as connecting them to outside programs that can bring in tutors who fit their needs.
The state education agency is also in the process of vetting tutoring providers.
“It’s about just making sure, regardless of the tutor type that is coming in, that we’re providing those tutors with the guidance, with the support, with the training that they need to make those tutoring sessions highly effective,” said Kelvey Oeser, TEA’s deputy commissioner of educator support.
During a recent State Board of Education meeting, Morath implored those listening in to reach out to their local district about getting involved in tutoring, echoing a message that has for years mobilized those at McShan: “Our kids are going to need all of us.”
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.