As educators look for ways to help students as they recover academically from pandemic interruptions, tutoring can play a key role.
But across the country, many leaders are seeing that some of the students who need the help the most aren’t taking advantage.
So, as parents, what questions should you be asking about tutoring and whether your student can benefit? Here are answers to some common questions.
Rhonda Haniford, associate commissioner of the school quality and support division at the Colorado Department of Education, said the first thing to keep in mind is that different tutoring programs are designed to achieve different goals.
While parents might think tutoring is only to help students who are struggling academically, sometimes programs are designed instead to keep students engaged, accelerate their learning, or hone in on specific skills or needs.
If a parent believes their child is struggling academically, Haniford said they should look at what their school offers.
“First, I would say meet with the school and talk about what they’re seeing,” Haniford said. “Talk about what’s working, what are the child’s strengths as well as where are their needs. And can tutoring help? It depends on what the tutoring program is designed to accomplish.”
Parent Keri Rodrigues said her five sons’ report cards showed good grades and that her boys were doing well. But when she asked them to read to her at home, she noticed two were struggling.
“These were things I could see,” Rodrigues said.
Rodrigues is co-founder of the advocacy group National Parents Union. She advises parents to trust their instincts and ask questions when they believe their children might be struggling. That means starting with more conversations with teachers.
When talking with teachers, Rodrigues said, one of the most important questions to ask is whether your child is reading at grade level, and if not, what is being done to get them there.
“Report cards often are not telling us this information,” she said.
Ashara Baker, a mother to a rising second grader and also a leader with National Parents Union, advises parents that if their child attends a school that has low state test scores, they should consider tutoring even if it seems like their child is doing well.
Haniford said the first step is to make sure that the goals of the tutoring program match your child’s needs.
After that, she said, parents should ask if their school has a diagnostic assessment of their child. Most schools do, she said. That information can guide tutors to a student’s needs and to build on their strengths.
Rodrigues likes to remind parents that they don’t need to be well-versed in education curriculum to start asking questions. She suggests asking if a program is using evidence-based practices, which are strategies that are based on research and have been proven to work, and if their reading programs are based on the science of reading, the research about how children’s brains learn to read.
“If you hear things like balanced literacy, that might be a problem,” she said. Balanced Literacy is an approach to teaching reading based on a debunked philosophy that reading is natural and requires encouragement. “Even if you just remember they should say ‘science of reading,’ you shouldn’t be intimidated.”
Some research shows that “high-dosage” tutoring programs may be most effective for students who need academic help. Usually that involves in-person instruction a few times a week.
Baker is leading an effort to get New York schools to make high-dosage tutoring available in public schools.
She said good communication is important. Her local district advertised a summer enrichment program, and her daughter attended. Baker knew her daughter was taken to get a library card and to the farmers market, and she heard about how much fun the kids had with water balloons. But Baker said she didn’t know the program was meant to be a form of tutoring.
“It can be fun, but you have to be checking in: How are we doing? Are we making progress?” Baker said.
She also suggests asking if tutors are trained and certified and finding out how many students are working with each tutor. Small groups are best, she said.
Haniford agrees about small groups. She said the most successful programs have no more than six students per tutor.
“They have a clear purpose and vision for what they want to accomplish, and it’s not a catch-all with too many students, because then students are not getting individualized attention,” Haniford said.
Baker suggests that parents make sure the tutoring program their school uses, or that they select from outside groups, does some testing that will measure improvement or where more help is needed.
The tutoring program she pays to help her daughter outside of school now gives parents regular reports about how things are progressing and how parents can help maintain the progress at home.
Jennifer Castillo, new principal of Boston P-8 in Aurora, said that the school has tutoring run by an outside group, but uses the school’s own teachers that are already familiar with their students.
“Having those relationships is very important,” Castillo said. “They know where those student’s gaps are, they know the reasons students are there. I think it’s important for the tutors and the student to be able to go to their parents and show that progress. After a month, I’m seeing an increase in scores or ability or confidence, whatever the issue. As a parent, hopefully you don’t have to ask in a strong partnership.”
Castillo said that if the program you’re considering has tutors who aren’t teachers in the school, parents might ask if there’s a way for the tutors and teachers to communicate with each other so that the tutoring help is aligned with what is happening in the classroom.
“There’s always that tug of should I wait a little longer? Maybe it was a rough year. Maybe it was a rough teacher,” Rodrigues said. “Things don’t get easier the more you wait. They get harder.”
This is especially true for younger children who need extra help to learn to read. Being able to read will help students learn more complex subjects later.
Haniford and Castillo believe parents should clarify why their child needs a break — is there a social or emotional issue, for example — and to look at various options to address the issue.
“Kids don’t need a break from learning,” Castillo said. Learning can happen all day, she added. “But we need to ensure they’re engaged and it’s not just sitting and listening. Taking the tutoring outside, making it more hands-on, or making it more applicable might help.”
Castillo also recommends that students understand the importance of tutoring and the benefits they should see themselves.
“The students have to want to be involved,” Castillo said. “Letting them have some ownership will help as well.”
Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at [email protected].
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.