More than 70 percent of Baltimore’s elementary school students are reading below grade level based on testing at the beginning of the school year.

But a new report from the Abell Foundation recommends investing in tutoring services could help students recover from learning loss experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — and employing recent college graduates who are looking for work.

The report, which was released Tuesday, shows that a total of 24,902 Baltimore City students in kindergarten through 5th took the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Of those, 17,960 students — or about 72% — were found to be reading at a level “below” or “well below” proficient, while the remaining 6,942 were proficient readers.

The authors of the report credit the Baltimore City Public Schools system for their efforts to continue teaching students during the pandemic, but acknowledged that some students have faced difficulties with remote learning and have fallen behind their peers.

“Although City Schools invested the time of talented developers and teachers in creating and implementing remote teaching for students and distributed thousands of computers to provide students with access, many students still were unable to take full advantage of remote learning opportunities. As a result, many elementary and secondary students will be far behind grade-level expectations,” the authors wrote.

They added that even before the pandemic began many students were already far behind on their reading skills.

The report recommends that city schools should increase tutoring by drawing funds from Transitional Supplemental Instruction for Struggling Learners (TSI) grants from the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education package; funds from Congress’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that included support to reopen schools and aid academic recovery efforts; and philanthropic donations.

All the money that the state has earmarked for tutoring should be used for one-on-one and small group tutoring through evidence-based programs, the report said.

The report said different instructional models should be matched to each student based on a tiered intervention system: Tier One for students who most benefit from whole class research-based core instruction; Tier Two for at-risk students who would be better served by targeted small group interventions; and Tier Three for students who need individualized intensive interventions.

The report said that the expansion of tutoring services would not only help catch up to their peers, but would also be an investment in a workforce that is reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

“Experience tells us that in recessions, new entrants to the labor force suffer the
most. Recent college graduates are particularly likely to have difficulties finding
college-level jobs, and this may have negative effects on their employment prospects
for many years,” the report’s authors wrote.

The Success for All Foundation and other tutoring providers found significant success with recruiting recent college graduates, the report said.

The number of applicants for the Success for All Foundation’s tutoring opportunities far outnumbered the number of available positions, and the applicants and hires were almost entirely local residents and reflected Baltimore City’s racial makeup, said the report from the Abell Foundation.

Although tutors may not necessarily need to have earned teaching certificates, the report found that nearly 30% of tutors from Literacy Lab, a nonprofit tutoring organization that is already partnered with Baltimore City Public Schools, entered the teaching profession.

Reading Partners, another City Schools partner, reported that nearly 20% of its tutors pursued graduate programs in education or teacher certificate programs, the report said.

“A substantial tutoring effort could pave the way for a rapid tutor-to-teacher certification program, so that the best tutors can become classroom teachers, filling teaching positions with young, eager, local people who have already proven their capability as tutors,” the report’s authors wrote.

The Abell Foundation report also recommends researching tutoring programs for middle and high school students, as well as tutoring programs in mathematics.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at