Schools Are Desperate for Tutors. Can College Students Help?


Schools Are Desperate for Tutors. Can College Students Help?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     May 6, 2024

Schools Are Desperate for Tutors. Can College Students Help?

Nikita Dutt, a second-year student at the University of California, Davis, didn’t come to college to work with young children.

But since September, she’s spent a couple of hours per day as a tutor through the California Volunteers College Corps, a state-funded partnership program that places college students into paid internships.

She earns $700 per month, provided she tutors elementary students for at least 20 hours per two weeks. She works on math with students in Los Angeles and San Francisco, beamed in through a host program that uses virtual-first tutoring.

Sometimes, Dutt says, it can be hard to keep the students engaged, especially when they are receiving the tutoring from a busy classroom, which often happens. But she recalls one student, a sixth grader with a learning disability. He was struggling to grasp multiplication. She worked with him, diligently, for about five weeks. One day, it just clicked. It was a big deal for the family and the student, and his teacher later told her that whatever she was doing was working.

“And I realized, like, how much difference I made in the student’s learning, and so I really want to help other students as well,” Dutt says.

Dutt is one of the college students being conscripted as high-dose tutors for struggling schools. Pandemic relief funds allowed many schools to set up these programs. But with ESSER funding nearly lapsed, schools have to find other sources to keep the programs going.

Finding a steady pool of affordable tutors has proven tough, and that’s where these college students come in: Leaders of some organizations say that college students and community members help swell the number of tutors available to K-12 classrooms and may also allow schools to more sustainably fund them.

Dutt is also the beneficiary of a new high-dose tutoring training program that hopes to boost the quality of tutors, something researchers have flagged as a challenge for schools.

A Closing Window

Much of the pandemic relief funding made available to schools went to tutoring. The Biden Administration identified high-dose tutoring — usually defined as regular, intensive, small-group tutoring — as a plausible way to give a jolt to student learning after the pandemic.

But now, with federal funds dwindling, schools have to rely on states or other sources to keep tutoring programs going.

Funding is the biggest barrier to tutoring in schools, says Alvin Makori, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Makori co-authored a research paper about the challenges to schools offering tutor services at scale. The paper — based on surveys of teachers at charter and public schools in California — also noted concerns about tutor quality and trouble finding the space and time to work tutoring into the school day as problem areas for the schools it inspected. (The study did not look at virtual high-dose tutoring, of the kind provided by some of the organizations discussed here.)

The report also recommends that schools partner with outside organizations to provide tutoring services.

That’s where a coalition behind a new tutor training program thinks it can help.

A couple of high-dose tutoring-specific collections of “nanocourses,” bite-sized lessons under 15 minutes each meant to train tutors, were recently released on Arizona State University’s Community Educator Learning Hub platform. The collections were the result of a collaboration between Annenberg Learner, Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Step Up Tutoring, aimed at providing tutors to beleaguered schools. Starting in the fall, the partnership will also offer a microcredential in high-dose tutoring competency.

These tutoring resources have the opportunity to build a corps of tutors across the country, because training is a big hurdle to getting willing volunteers and college students in place and to be effective, says Korbi Adams, a senior program manager affiliated with ASU.

Step Up Tutoring has had about 170 tutors go through the program to pick up instructional skills.

During the pandemic, investment into broadband and internet in low-income areas in places like Los Angeles made it possible to connect volunteers to work one-on-one with students, says Sam Olivieri, CEO of Step Up Tutoring.

The need for high-dose tutoring is still really significant, Olivieri says. But there are questions around sustainability.

College students are a promising source of tutors, she argues. They come with relationship- building skills, she says, and tend to have an easier time connecting with younger students who often want to know what it’s like to be in college.

There’s another reason schools might be eager to embrace the model of harnessing the power of college student-tutors, Olivieri says: Step Up is an approved federal work-study provider on 16 college campuses, meaning that the students’ pay comes from a sustainable source. They also work with California’s College Corps program. From those two sources, they’ve gotten about 350 tutors, she says, making it the main pool from which they draw tutors these days.

For the schools that work with Step Up, that provides the benefits of mentorship, with their children connecting to college students, and financial stability, Olivieri says. Not all of those students are education majors. But a lot of them show potential interest in or a proclivity for exploring the education field, Olivieri says.

Dutt, the UC Davis student, is glad for the opportunity.

She’s worked with six students, all between third and sixth grade. Right now, she tutors two students who take lessons from home and two who take them from school. She is also a substitute tutor, filling in when others can’t make it in the mornings.

A computer science major, she says she previously had no interest in education as a profession. “But then when I started tutoring, I realized how much I liked it, and how rewarding it felt to help students grow academically and instill confidence in them,” she says. “And so I think it kind of found like a newfound passion in teaching and tutoring and the education field.”

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