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Illinois uses federal COVID money to expand high-impact tutoring. Will it help students catch up?

Woman wearing suit and kneeling on a colorful carpet in a classroom points to paper worksheet as a girl wearing leopard print headband looks on

Illinois uses federal COVID relief funds to expand high-impact tutoring to schools throughout the state. Will it help students catch up before funding ends in 2024?

Sylvia Jarrus for Chalkbeat

Jack Goodwin was already struggling with math in middle school when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, upending his education even more. His mom, Shelly, knew he needed extra help to catch up.

But Shelly Goodwin couldn’t find a tutor in their small town of Paris, about four hours south of Chicago.

“I would ask the teachers, ‘Do you know anybody that tutors or can you tutor?’,” Shelly Goodwin said. “They would try to meet with [Jack] after school but they had five or six kids after school and they would say, ‘We don’t really know anyone that tutors around here.’”

Now, Jack is a high school freshman and spends one hour three days a week with a tutor provided through a high-impact tutoring program called the Illinois Tutoring Initiative.

His district — Paris Union School District 95 — was one of seven that were a part of a initial rollout of the $25 million effort to help students catch up on reading and math by using federal COVID recovery money for the program, which state officials aim to expand to 60 districts by the end of this semester.

In order to roll out the program, hire tutors, and expand the initiative to districts, the state partnered with local universities and Pearl, a tutor management platform. But the federal relief money supporting the initiative will dry up in two years, raising questions about how effective the effort might ultimately be. 

The Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and Illinois State University teamed up to create the initiative in the spring semester of last school year. The state’s P-20 Learning Council recommended high-impact tutoring in a report in 2021 to help get students back on track.

The program provides tutoring to districts that serve a majority of students from low-income families and were hit hardest by the pandemic. Students from kindergarten to eighth grade work on reading and math with an in-person tutor while high school students work on math online. 

This fall, 300 tutors are working with 800 students across 30 districts throughout the state. The initiative expects to double the number of districts in the next few weeks. 

Chicago Public Schools has invested $25 million of its federal COVID recovery money into a similar program called the Tutor Corps, which helps match students with a tutor. The district has provided 230 schools with at least one tutor to work with students in math and reading. 

As of Oct. 18, the district had hired 662 tutors to work with 9,000 students. The district plans to expand the corps to 20 more schools, with a total of 800 tutors to work with 12,000 students this school year.

High-impact tutoring could help students catch up

At first, Jack Goodwin balked at getting a tutor. He would rather play football over the summer, he told his mom. But she insisted and he started meeting in person with his tutor, Cody Sanders, three times a week. Since school started this fall, he has switched to online tutoring after football practice and started working with a new tutor.

Just like Jack, students in the program meet with tutors one-on-one or in small groups with no more than three students for one hour, three times a week for eight to 14 weeks. The program doesn’t give students new lessons to work on, but supports what teachers are already doing in classrooms. 

Education researchers call this approach high-impact tutoring and say it is the most effective way to get students back on track after the pandemic.

Only about a third of Illinois fourth and eighth graders are considered proficient in reading and math, according to the results of the National Assessment of Academic Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” released yesterday. Fourth graders performed somewhat better on the math test, with 38% considered proficient. 

Miguel Cardona, Education Secretary, called the national test results “appalling and unacceptable” and said how the nation responds would determine “our standing in the world.” 

He noted that more than half of districts across the country are turning to high-impact tutoring to recover. 

That’s because it is one of few programs that show students making gains in math and reading, according to a 2021 report from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and the University of Virginia. 

The report defines high-impact tutoring as more than three days per week or at least 50 hours over 36 weeks. It recommends that students work one-on-one with tutors or in small groups of no more than three to four students. 

Tutors do not have to be current educators in order to help students, the report concluded, but they need adequate training and ongoing support. 

Community members step up to tutor

When Cody Sanders was first assigned to work with Jack over the summer, Shelly Goodwin was relieved because she already knew the tutor from their Paris community.

“I am overprotective of my children, and they will tell you that,” Shelly Goodwin said, laughing. “It made me feel really good that I actually knew him and he is from the community. He’s a really awesome person.” 

Sanders wanted to tutor students after losing his leg to sepsis due to diabetes in October 2020. He wasn’t feeling like his usual self and thought that helping people would be good for him. 

Sanders has been tutoring third to eighth graders at Paris Union School District students since the program started in the district in the spring. Tutoring has benefited Sanders as well as his students, he said. “These kids have also helped me to come out of my shell.”

In addition to placing future educators from partner institutions of higher education into the classroom, the program also hires current teachers, retired educators, and community members such as Sanders. Potential tutors only need a high school diploma. For high school math, program leaders look at transcripts to see if tutors are proficient in the subject they are tutoring. 

The program trains tutors to help them adjust to working with students, learn about high-impact tutoring and culturally responsive teaching, and understand how to support students. Before working with students, potential tutors are required to pass an assessment of the content with an 80% or higher. 

During the initial rollout of the program in the spring, tutors received $20 an hour for one-on-one tutoring and $30 an hour for group tutoring. Now tutors can make $50 an hour regardless of class. 

Christy Borders, director of the Illinois Tutoring Initiative, said that it was important to increase the pay rate because the program was struggling to recruit tutors who could work somewhere else for the same amount or more 

While the main goal of the initiative was to address learning needs for students, Borders said, the program is also helping create jobs in communities that need them.

Will tutoring continue after COVID money expires?

Shelly Goodwin says the tutoring program improved her son’s mood and gave him confidence. Jack even smiles now, she noted. 

This was the first time Jack’s district was able to provide this kind of tutoring and school leaders say they are seeing students make progress in reading and math. Jeremy Larson, the superintendent of Paris Union School District 95, said the district saw gains in both subjects on the state’s annual spring assessment for third through eighth graders. 

There are also signs that the tutoring is paying off in more than just better test scores. 

“We noticed that students who participate in it have better attendance,” Larson said, “which we believe is a social-emotional factor of having an interest in coming to school.”

Even as positive results are emerging from the rollout of the tutoring initiative, the program may be running out of time. 

Federal COVID relief funds are set to expire in 2024, with much work still left to do. Since the initiative is still young, there is not enough data to prove the program has helped students recover from the pandemic and make significant academic progress. 

For her part, Shelly Goodwin has seen Jack improve in math and hopes that the tutoring program lasts through his high school career. She still remembers the struggle to find affordable tutoring in her rural community and hopes she’s not left in the same position after federal funding dries up.

Correction: Oct. 25, 2022: This article has been updated to reflect that Pearl is a tutor management platform, not an online private tutoring company.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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