High-intensity tutoring is on the rise in Baltimore City schools and elsewhere thanks to an influx of stimulus relief funds. (Stock photo.)

In a trend that could change learning in Baltimore and across the country, a huge influx of federal stimulus money is creating massive growth in the tutoring industry. These programs – many of which are backed by data and deploy high-dosage techniques over long periods – are designed to help students and teachers recover from educational systems devastated by the pandemic.

Private companies, non-profits and groups of volunteers have been working with and competing to help kids bridge the achievement gaps worsened by COVID-19. This year, as kids hit the books and tablets behind school desks again, districts have been trying diligently to boost their assessment numbers.

Volunteer grandparents, Americorps staff and for-profit and nonprofit companies with different models are all vying to help children reach their academic potential in Baltimore and elsewhere.

According to the Baltimore City Public School District, about 10,200 students representing 13% of the student body received at least six weeks of high-dosage tutoring this year. That came through small group or even one-on-one tutoring during the school day outside the classroom. The sessions take place a few times a week, over the course of many weeks.

The number of Baltimore students being tutored is expected to increase in the years to come.

The trend has been a boon to for-profit companies. In Baltimore alone, the city school district has received 28 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grants totaling $790 million. The federal pandemic relief funds are to be allocated over three years, from the current school year until 2024.

Only some of those funds are going to tutoring, but the financial windfall has already altered the traditional class day in Baltimore. Many tutored students and classroom teachers are reporting the change has been beneficial.

Although federal funding may ebb after 2024, some city school district administrators have said that this modern incorporation of tutoring into the school day may have permanently changed the K-12 education landscape.

“There’s a lot of science pointing to this (as) work that is going to be around for some time,” said Matthew Barrow, academic tutoring coordinator for Baltimore City Public School District. “It’s rather revolutionary because it’s providing something that hasn’t been there before. It provides a whole other tier of instruction that teachers are not directly responsible for implementing each day.”

These tutoring programs, designed with the help of accumulated data and regulated by federal and state law, are described as high dosage, evidence-based efforts. In Baltimore, the district is using multiple tutoring models, throwing everything it can  at the achievement gap created by the pandemic, to see what makes a difference.

Currently there are twelve different organizations contracted with the city district to help students. Programs vary from computer program-guided early literacy intervention, to small group interactions of only a few children. The programs have focused on literacy and math, and sessions can last for as little as five minutes, or as long as 30 minutes.

[Author’s note: I took on the role as an early literacy intervention tutor for several weeks this spring at Calvin Rodwell Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. The common practice at the assigned school was to pull students from their homeroom to a separate learning area a few times each week when they weren’t being taught core curriculum.]

Students seemed to relish the chance to get out of the classroom for a few minutes. Often they would request to be pulled for tutoring. A survey of students in the district who have been tutored revealed that most students found the tutoring approach to be beneficial.

“We’re learning that students feel good about having an opportunity to meet with a caring adult,” said Jalima Alicea, the director of specialized learning for the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

Many teachers also appreciate the efforts of tutors who work with their students. Teachers and tutors work collaboratively to help kids reach educational goals.

“We do surveys,” said Innovations for Learning Founder Seth Weinberger. “The teachers are overwhelmingly ecstatic about it. Within weeks they begin to see how the person (tutor) is really helping. Teachers are often our biggest supporters.”

Innovations for Learning is a nonprofit started by Weinberger 25 years ago to help younger elementary school students bridge the gap in literacy learning.  The organization began contracting with Baltimore City Public School District for the first time this year. But the nonprofit already tutors over 20,000 students around the country.

“The reason we’re in Baltimore is because of the federal funding,” he said. “There’s more programs getting into it. It’s mostly a positive…more models can be tested.”

Federal and state legislation categorizes and restricts the type of tutoring contracts districts can enter into. The federal goverment provides four levels evaluating the content of a tutoring program.

Level one is considered the highest level for evidence-based tutoring programs, which have undergone double-blind studies done to analyze effectiveness. Level four is the lowest level. These programs contain only some of the components of evidence-based programs.

Maryland restricts school districts to only use programs that meet a level one or two designation.

“It makes it a little bit harder to find partners,” Alicea said. “However it helps us allocate to resources that has research backing up (their) effectiveness.”

The city school district was able to hit the ground running when the federal funding arrived in 2021. It had already instituted its own small-scale internal tutoring program before the pandemic. Because of that, Alicea’s department already knew how to better monitor and evaluate data.

“We were able to come into this opportunity last year with those lessons learned,” she said. “It very much influenced our approach.”

Alicea said assesments of internal tutoring programs already showed an impact on student achievement. That program is expanding, with 83 new positions now waiting to be filled.

The jury’s out yet on the results of the contract tutoring since the school year is just ending. But Weinberger said his nonprofit is expecting to expand in Baltimore City Public Schools next year.

The success of high-dosage tutoring programs may depend on how money is allocated. To be made sustainable, administrators may have to be as efficient as possible.

Tutors are not often required to have teacher certification, but significant time is taken to vet them. And many tutors make above $20 an hour in their positions. “What is most cost effective?” Barrow asked. “That leads to sustainability. “That’s going to let us be the best stewards to the public dollar so we can sustain this work.”

Matthew Liptak is a longtime reporter and writer based in Maryland who worked as an Early Literacy Interventionist for 7 weeks in April and May at Calvin Rodwell Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore. He pulled K-3rd grade students from their homerooms for five to ten minutes daily and worked with them through a computer program that used phonetics to improve reading skills.