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A new approach to tutoring: University partnerships and community building

By Christy M. Borders, Ed.D., Director, Illinois Tutoring Initiative, Illinois State University

State leaders have their eyes on tutoring as a potential approach to counteract the academic effects of the pandemic as they continue to release their plans for spending their COVID-19 federal relief funds. And while tutoring has promising results for student learning, not all programs are created equal. As the director of the Illinois Tutoring Initiative (ITI), I’ve seen first-hand how high-impact, relationship-based tutoring in partnership with local colleges and universities is not only possible but is scalable, sustainable, and affects positive change for the communities served.

In 2021, in an effort to better support students, educators, and the broader community, the Illinois P-20 Council created a guidewith evidence-based strategies to support learning renewal and student well-being, including high-impact tutoring.  As a result, the State of Illinois invested $25 million in high-impact tutoring as one part of their COVID-19 recovery plan.  The Illinois Tutoring Initiative involves strong partnerships across state agencies, higher education institutions, and K-12 priority school districts to support student learning in reading and math in grades 3-8, along with tutoring in high school math. 

The Annenberg Institute shows that on average, high-impact tutoring can increase student achievement by nearly three to 15 months of learning across grade levels, and is particularly effective for low-income students. While many states turned to traditional, on-demand tutoring that focuses on homework help and remediation strategies, Illinois turned to high-impact tutoring grounded in research.  

Focus on relationships and connection to the local curriculum are important key features of high-impact tutoring.  The approach offers adults the time and resources to understand students, their needs, and the support to be able to truly succeed in school and beyond. Pairing students with an adult who understands their community and shares similar lived experiences can significantly benefit student development and learning and deepen relationships. Sessions include instruction and guided practice directly connected to what students are learning in their classrooms, providing added benefit.

Early research indicates that this approach is working in partnership with higher education institutions across the state including: Governors State University; Northern Illinois University, Illinois Central College; Illinois State University; Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, and Southeastern Illinois College. Over the course of the  2022 semesters, ITI provided high-impact tutoring to nearly 1,300 students (the majority of whom are from low-income communities) across 45 districts and 92 schools. Preliminary indicators through reports from tutors and teachers show an increase in student confidence and self-esteem, as well as skills in tutored subjects.  The ITI research team is analyzing data  to provide a more thorough understanding of the program’s impact on students’ academic achievement, attendance, and other factors and plans to scale even further in Spring 2023.

As more states look to tutoring for their COVID-relief and education efforts, there are several key considerations that university and state leaders must keep in mind when designing and implementing high-impact tutoring statewide:

  1. Commit to a high-impact model that focuses on relationships and links to the local curriculum and context.

High-impact tutoring focuses on the whole child within an entire context. Some core features include: tutoring delivered to individuals or small groups of students for multiple sessions a week by a consistent, well-trained tutor; linking to local curriculum; and using data to inform growth. This often results in strong, trusting relationships that allow students to grow in multiple ways. We used the National Student Support Accelerator’s Tutoring Quality Improvement Scale during the design phase to ensure strong alignment to all of these research-based strategies and features.

  1. Use the network effect…network your networks.

States have established networks in place for educational initiatives. However, public schools, universities, community colleges, and nonprofit agencies often work in silos. 

It’s critical that all parties are at the table to create an impactful network effect when planning statewide tutoring initiatives. In Illinois, multiple state agencies (Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Board of Higher Education, and Illinois Community College Board), institutions and various departments, school districts, and communities build awareness and share insights. Tutors across the ITI are invited to join in cross-regional, collaborative planning time, and institutional partners regularly meet and share resources.   

  1. Be deliberate in planning for research and outcomes.

ITI took important steps during the design phase to ensure strong implementation and research on outcomes over time. The Illinois State University ITI Research Fellows team, made up of faculty members from across campus, guided research design, developed tutor training, and advised effective implementation practices. Additionally, we partnered with Pearl, a tutoring management and efficacy platform, to ensure seamless data integration, data flows, and systems that would allow evaluation of the initiative from multiple angles and perspectives.

  1. Leverage local and contextual knowledge and expertise.

A key component of our work was engaging each region in the state. Our selection of institutional partners were intentionally geographically spread throughout the state to harness and leverage local knowledge and partnerships with area districts. This allowed us to have a common structure while emphasizing the individual needs within local contexts and focusing on meeting the specific needs of districts and their unique student populations.

  1. Provide multiple support and delivery options.

Districts should have options in terms of how and when they implement high-impact tutoring. In the ITI, priority districts can either (a) work with an institutional partner or (b) deliver their own high-impact tutoring through Illinois State Board of Education grants. The ITI supports both options by training all tutors, regardless of the delivery option selected.

When universities build essential relationships with K-12 districts and the communities that they serve, high-impact tutoring demonstrates promising results to increase student engagement and learning. As more states develop their tutoring models, universities should play a key role to ensure the approach is evidence-driven, relationship-based, and equity-focused.