When we decided to choose a tutoring partner, our students were just returning to campus after learning remotely during the global pandemic. It was pretty clear that unfinished learning was going to need our full attention. Teachers were delivering instruction virtually and face to face at the same time, for example, and faced steep challenges as they tried to navigate those complexities.
Knowing that the educational technology learning curve was very stressful for many of our teachers, we started looking for ways to provide additional support for students without putting even more burden on our teachers. Our superintendent, Dr. Scott Muri, had successfully used virtual tutoring at a previous district and wanted to implement a similar effort in Ector County, but with a twist.
We first began our work with Harvard University’s Center for Education and Research Policy as part of a project to develop win–win partnerships between tutoring providers and the district with an approach called outcomes-based contracting—likely the first outcomes-based tutoring contract in the history of K–12 education.
We received training on what these contracts would look like and how they would work. Both our district and the Harvard University team had certain criteria that needed to be met during this process. For example, we wanted students to receive high-impact tutoring three times a week for 45-minute sessions. As long as those conditions were met, we would pay bonuses to our tutoring partners when the students excelled, or bonuses would be held back if the academic goals for students weren’t met. And if we didn’t keep our end of the deal, such as by making sure students attended the sessions and were engaged and participating during their learning time with tutors, then our tutor partners were paid the base pay that we had agreed on.
Dr. Muri leveraged this concept to drive high-impact tutoring on scale to more than 3,500 Ector County ISD students, with measurable and repeatable academic gains thanks to our tutoring partners. We wanted to engage with tutoring partners who shared our commitment to supporting students and teachers in order to close the learning gaps that were present.
We initially had approximately ten vendors to choose from. Our district selected those we felt were the best fits with our students and teachers and invited those potential partners to present their solutions to our principals at a group meeting. Each vendor had 15 minutes to present their program, and then our principals made their selections. Here are six key traits that we used during our process as we whittled the list down to FEV Tutor and Air Tutors, which we ultimately selected as our tutoring partners:
- Choose a platform that utilizes high-quality instructional materials. Your virtual tutoring partner should be using high-quality instructional materials aligned to a school’s or district’s curriculum and a research-based platform. You have to make sure that they work for students and they’re not just ancillary materials that aren’t even aligned with state and/or national standards. Also, make sure the virtual instruction is at grade level. These are some critical points to keep in mind when you’re choosing and working with a virtual tutoring provider.
- Seek out quality instructors. We also wanted to make sure that we had quality tutors; we didn’t want just anyone tutoring our students, and we did not have time to waste to drive student outcomes. Having quality tutors was also important because they’d be using our data to detect the learning gaps for specific students. We didn’t want to have to “teach the teachers” how to do this for every student who was enrolled in the tutoring program.
- Pair students with specific tutors. We wanted students to be able to work with the same tutors on a regular basis, versus having a new one for every session. This would allow students to build relationships with their tutors and feel more comfortable in the tutoring environment.
- Review the provider’s safety protocols. We reviewed the protocols that the vendors had in place as far as student safety. All of FEV Tutor’s associates have to pass an FBI background check, for example. To other districts that are picking a partner, I’d say certainly ask about the safety checks that they have in place for their employees; you want to make sure it’s a safe environment for your kids.
- Find a partner who will go the extra mile. One of our top considerations when selecting a new educational partner is whether they’re willing to get in there with us to solve the challenges. Other key factors include:
- Do they have the data to prove that their program is successful with students in this type of learning
- What kind of measurements are they going to have? (You must have a way to show learning progress and know how they’re going to monitor progress.)
- What kind of feedback are they getting from the student and the teacher, which ultimately reveals where the tutoring is working for them?
Create a consistent, predictable schedule during the school day. Based on our past experience during the pandemic shutdowns, we knew that we wanted virtual tutoring. We also knew that we wanted “live” tutors and targeted instruction that was delivered on a consistent and predictable basis during the school day. We’ve found it best to schedule tutoring time during the day—and not before or after school. Elementary students may have the flexibility for tutoring before or after school, but secondary students are involved in sports and extracurricular activities that wear them out. They just skip out and go home, so it’s better to engage them while you have them. Looking ahead to next year, we may expand the tutoring schedule to include acceleration and/or intervention.
When we started our virtual tutoring program, we offered it to all of our K–12 students. The first year the program was in place, we learned that the younger students weren’t very engaged in this type of environment. This school year, we decided to start it in second grade and go right up through high school.
We started with just math and reading. Our tutoring company was really good about making sure those students—especially those in the younger grades—understand those foundational skills. This is important because any third grader whose education was disrupted by the pandemic probably missed out on many foundational skills in first and second grade. The same goes for any fifth grader who may be struggling with reading due to learning gaps that may have surfaced in third and fourth grade as a result of remote learning.
To any district that wants to start using virtual tutoring to fill in pandemic learning gaps, I would advise using a phased-in rollout. In other words, don’t try to roll it out at the same time across all of your campuses. This is important because regardless of how good the tutoring partner and your IT department are, technology issues will emerge that need to be addressed. And there just won’t be enough people on staff to cover all of your campuses when the platform first rolls out. You don’t want a student’s first experience with new technology to be frustrating. This year, we started using the tutoring at our highest-need campuses and dedicated a two-week window to working with them to make sure everything was up and running. Then, we moved to the next phase, and so on. We had it all up and running well within five weeks, and we began seeing our students learning, which led to closing their gaps almost immediately.
Lisa Wills is the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Ector County ISD in Odessa, Texas .