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How districts can keep high-impact tutoring going after ESSER money expires

Susanna Loeb & Alan Safran | July 10, 2024

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The ESSER cliff is coming. Most districts and states that initiated high-impact tutoring using federal ESSER dollars are scrambling. Many believe they must eliminate or reduce the scope of their programs; but this is not the case. Here are six durable funding streams that could replace the ESSER dollars to help provide highly effective tutoring in new, cost-saving ways.

  • Title 1: Of all the federal Education Department’s funding streams, Title 1 is the best-known, the largest and the most appropriate for tutoring (although the others are also useful places to look). It was designed to target extra resources to high-need schools, specifically for math and reading. The good news is that a tutor is not needed for every student for every subject, so only a portion of Title 1 dollars is necessary. Tutoring is most important for students struggling with their coursework, including those who are not on track for proficiency in reading by the end of third grade or for passing Algebra 1 by the end of ninth. Students who meet these benchmarks are four times more likely to graduate from high school as those who don’t. Districts should look hard at how they are spending Title 1 dollars to help students reach these two goals, redirecting staff positions or funds to tutoring programs with demonstrable return on investment.
  • Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Districts across the nation use Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to target appropriate interventions for students with learning, social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. Many districts could improve these offerings by using a high-impact tutoring approach, making sure their interventions build relationships between students and educators that motivate, engage and target students’ growth areas using data and high-quality instructional materials. Schools can integrate high-impact tutoring with the funds already being used for MTSS by reallocating resources to more effective approaches.
  • AmeriCorps: One of the priorities of this 30-year-old program is to support effective tutoring for high-need students. AmeriCorps awards tens of millions of dollars in grant funding for tutoring and mentorship in early learning and K-12 schools. Districts can apply directly for federal funds through their State AmeriCorps commissions. These three-year grants can largely cover the costs of tutors and supervisory staff. Districts can also seek vendors that are AmeriCorps partners to provide tutoring, which brings a subsidy from the vendor directly into the district.
  •  Work-study: This 60-year-old program enables lower-income students to work their way through college. Of the 20 million undergraduates in the U.S., about 600,000 receive work-study as part of their financial aid packages. This allows colleges to use federal funds to subsidize work by their students. Recent guidance has called on colleges and universities to spend at least 15% of those funds on community-based jobs, and tutoring is among the roles prioritized. With a district as a community partner, a college can subsidize up to 100% of a tutor’s wages.
  • U.S. Department of Education teacher preparation funds: The 60-year-old Hawkins Program is designed to increase the number of well-prepared teachers from diverse backgrounds. The focus is on the various aspects of the teacher preparation pipeline, including the recruitment, support and placement in underresourced schools with underserved students. This fund goes directly to higher ed; districts should partner with local colleges to design a tutor-to-teacher pathway.
  • U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship funds: These can support apprenticeship programs for future teachers. State departments of education can help districts address teacher shortages by strengthening the pathway to the classroom through the real-world experience of tutoring in schools. New Jersey’s Tutor Corps, for example, has just become a federal apprenticeship provider.

Since school districts often lack the capacity to seek grants or manage compliance requirements, leaders could ask local philanthropies for help. They could also rethink some of their current procedures to save money in the short and long term.

For example, some contracts pay providers based on student hours, not tutor hours. In other words, instead of paying a vendor $25 an hour for a tutor’s time (and overhead), some districts paid $75 for an hour in which that tutor worked with three students. Districts should renegotiate those contracts to pay for tutor time, regardless of how many students were assigned. They should also monitor tutoring implementation and effectiveness in order to make adjustments, maximizing impact; outcomes-based contracts with vendors can help.

And, they can reevaluate the timing of their tutoring programs.

Offering high-quality tutoring during the school day makes it easier to connect to the kids and teachers, as they’re already in the building, than providing services outside of regular class time; helps cultivate a pipeline of talent entering the education system; and may help stem chronic absenteeism and reduce dropout rates.

Investing in third-grade literacy and Algebra 1 tutoring specifically makes sound long-term financial sense. Holding onto more kids is not only the right thing to do morally and educationally, but it provides a financial benefit. Allocating $500 to $1,000 per student for high-impact tutoring in grade 9 can yield an average of $15,000 in annual state per-pupil funding for each student who remains in high school for the next three years, until graduation. It is essentially an insurance policy that potentially preserves up to $45,000 in future funding per student, which can sustain tutoring initiatives and support other school needs.

It is clear that districts have options for sustaining high-impact tutoring programs. Some may require challenging choices and changes, while others will require schools to form partnerships, which takes time and coordination. But if schools are to help students recover from the effects of COVID-related learning interruptions, they will need to focus on the strategies that can provide the strongest outcomes. Schools that make high-impact tutoring a funding priority now will enable their students to succeed for years to come.

Susanna Loeb is founder and executive director of the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University.

Alan Safran is CEO of Saga Education.

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