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Mobilizing the Nation to Save the Students Hardest Hit by the Coronavirus Pandemic

The press is full of stories about the massive loss in learning caused by the raging virus. Several districts in the Greater Houston area reported that nearly half of their middle and high school students received at least two F grades because they routinely missed classes. The percentage of students failing at least one class has doubled, tripled or even quadrupled in several of the nation’s largest school districts. The average student could start next year having lost as much as a third of his or her expected progress from the previous year in reading and half of their expected progress in math, according to the New York Times. A model developed by the consulting group McKinsey & Co. shows that Black students could wind up 10 months behind and Latino students nine months behind. Bear in mind that these ‘losses’ are piled on top of the gaps in achievement that pre-existed the pandemic. The Times reports that the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that only 27 percent of the rural school districts they surveyed required any instruction while the schools were closed. The McKinsey report cites data showing that, while 90 percent of high-income students are signing on to online instruction, only 60 percent of low-income students are doing so.

This data grab bag is not a full survey of the carnage, but these bits and pieces of information allow us to begin to grasp the enormity of what is happening to our children. This is not an after-action report. As I write this, the case rate from COVID-19 is reaching new heights and the worst, it seems, is yet to come. Experts are now projecting that the casualties from this war could double in number before it is over, with a half million or more dead. Many schools that were open until recently are now hastily transitioning back to virtual learning. When the dust clears, we could see a very large fraction of America’s student body a year or more behind in school. Larger than you might think, because statistics show that our student body is much poorer, more Black and more Hispanic than the population as a whole.

Let’s be honest. The achievement gaps between students from low-income and minority families and everyone else have have been with us for a long time. We have put a lot of money on the table and many very talented, dedicated people have been working very hard to reduce them. But the gaps have proven to be exceptionally stubborn. They were here before, but the pandemic is making them much, much worse.

Realistically, there are only two ways to address this crisis. If the students who are now so far behind are ever to catch up, they will, first, need more time. I mean time in the morning, before school begins, more time during the day—say at lunch, more time in the afternoon, more time on weekends, and more time during the summer. But they will also need more help—tutors and mentors who can work with them one on one and in small groups, not just to provide instruction in the subjects they are studying but to give them the emotional support they need to believe that they have a future, that it is worth putting in the effort. The instruction is very important; the emotional bond is vital.

For a glimpse of the kind of national program we need for tutoring and mentoring support, look at the National Tutoring Program in the United Kingdom. This is the program the Brits have organized to deal with the challenges I have just described. It is a collaboration among the national Department for Education, a group of private foundations, and for-profits and not-for-profits that deliver the services.

The Education Endowment Foundation designed the program and serves as its program manager. The board of the Foundation is largely made up of some of Britain’s leading—and very well-connected—business executives, most of them from the investment community. They drew on the expertise of an advisory committee composed of leading educators. The Foundation recruited a half dozen other leading UK foundations to their cause, as well as the Department of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation observed that Britain has a large number of organizations, some for-profit and others not-for-profit, that have delivered tutoring to British students, but most of them, and a large proportion of the best, have done this in the main for well-to-do families who have been able and willing to pay to give their children an advantage not enjoyed by children from families with fewer resources. What they came up with is a plan for drawing on this resource for the children who have suffered most from the ravages of COVID-19. They created the National Teaching Partnership (NTP) as the umbrella organization to manage the whole program.

The NTP has two offerings. The first is the National Tutoring Program, which is designed to mobilize the best of the nation’s tutoring programs on behalf of those students most adversely affected by the pandemic. They refer to these tutoring programs and institutions that offer them as their Tuition Partners. The Foundation developed a list of strict criteria for becoming a Partner, designed mainly to assure a high quality of offering—based in part on the results of the research done on their results—and a high standard for assuring the safety of the students and school faculty.

In rare circumstances, tutoring services can be offered in students’ homes or other non-school locations, but in almost all cases, the services are to be offered in schools. A website maintained by the Foundation enables a school to find out which of the Partners offers its services in the community served by the school. A school can sign up for multiple Partners. The Partners can be authorized to offer in-school tutoring or online tutoring or a combination of both, but they must meet the quality criteria set by the Foundation. Each offering is unique in its design. So far, close to 400 Partners have been authorized, giving the schools a wide range of choices. There is a strong incentive for the offerors of these tutoring services to provide tutoring that is well-aligned with the school curriculum and earns the support of the school faculty. This is not as much of an issue in England as it is in the United States because England has a national curriculum that all schools and tutors are obligated to use.

Seventy-five percent of the cost of the National Tutoring Program is paid for by the Department for Education. The Foundation takes care of creating the criteria for being allowed to offer tutoring services, publishing those criteria, entertaining proposals and certifying those who meet their criteria. They can, of course, revoke the Partner status of providers that fail to meet their obligations.

The other program offered by the Foundation and supported by the Department for Education is the NTP Academic Mentors Program. This program is managed for the Foundation by Teach First, the British version of Teach for America. Like Teach for America, it recruits young people who have graduated from universities with strong academic credentials. They may have some experience teaching or may not. They may be considering a career in teaching. Teach First provides them with two weeks of online training and then supplements that training after they begin their work in the schools with training they say is tailored to their situation. Like the Tutors, they are expected to work with and under the direction of the faculty of the school, with one or a few students at a time, giving them intensive help with their studies. The Department of Education covers the costs of the mentors’ salaries.

Could a program like this work in the United States? Tutoring has a mixed record in the United States. But we have learned a lot about what needs to be done to make it highly effective. We learned that the tutoring students get needs to be closely tied to the curriculum, and that there need to be clear criteria for the hiring and training of tutors. There need to be incentives for the providers to coordinate closely with the school and to be responsive to the school’s direction.  And there need to be strong provisions for accountability for results. When these things are in place, there is no doubt that tutoring is a powerful instructional method. The design of the British tutoring program I just described addresses every one of these factors. The British
tutoring program is designed to enlist and certify organizations to deliver the tutoring. The mentoring program is designed to enlist and certify individuals. What I find particularly attractive about the tutoring program is its quality control features, its close linkage to the schools and to the curriculum taught by the schools and the accountability for performance. It is not clear to me that the mentoring program’s quality control and accountability features are as strong as they need to be. An American version of this system needs to be open to individuals, including retired teachers, who want to help and are fully qualified to help, but it would need to address the issues I just raised.

It is ridiculous to expect our overtaxed teachers to make up for a year or more of student learning loss. That is not possible. Even if it were, learning loss is not the only problem. Many students are now disengaged, unmotivated, frustrated by distance learning, and lack the skills to learn independently. Our teachers will need help and a lot of it.

We can’t just copy the British design. Foundations in Britain play different roles there than they do in the U.S. The structure of their for-profit tutoring industry is different, too. But we certainly can adapt the British design for the American context. 

This is a national emergency. Students who fall this far behind are less likely to finish high school, go to college or be successful in the workforce. This would be tragic for students whose lives were stunted in this way. We should be mobilizing government, our private foundations, our schools and the private sector to address it.

There is a lot that the incoming Biden administration needs to do for our schools, but I hope that the Biden team gives careful consideration to a program built on this model. If it does, it needs to think about the role of the states in the program. If it does not, the states should think about doing it on their own.  

It would be expensive. High-quality tutoring is always expensive. But, quite apart from the humanitarian imperative, we should remember that today’s students are tomorrow’s workers.   Before the pandemic, in 2009, McKinsey estimated that the gap in academic performance between White students and Black and Hispanic students cost the U.S. economy between $310 billion and $525 billion in GDP, and the achievement gap between students from high-income families and students from low-income families cost us $400 billion to $670 billion. That’s before the pandemic. Those numbers will look trivial compared to what is coming if we fail to address this issue like the national emergency it is.