Kids are still floundering postpandemic, the state’s latest test scores show. Is it time for a nuclear option in Massachusetts to help them recover?
Yes, parents, experts, and educators told — well, shouted, at — the Globe. It’s time, they said, for the state to dream big and organize a massive push to catch kids up.
Here are seven bold ideas:
Start a statewide tutoring army
Nearly every school has offered some form of tutoring or homework help since 2020 as a way to help kids catch up, but experts said it’s clearly not working — either because kids aren’t showing up or because the programs aren’t high quality enough.
So the state should build a large-scale tutoring army, said Robin Lake, director of the nonpartisan Center on Reinventing Public Education, which recently released a report, The State of the American Student, calling for urgent action. The report highlights statewide tutoring efforts in Texas, Tennessee, and Colorado.
In Oakland, Calif., the school system has recruited young men of color to work as reading tutors — they’re known as “Early Literacy Kings.” Community organizations are providing high-intensity tutoring as well, including one group that trains low-income parents as tutors.
Research shows “high quality” tutoring works when students are tutored at school, during school hours, at least three times per week, with one to three students per tutor, and ideally with tutors who are well-trained professionals or teachers.
But nationwide, only 2 percent of families reported receiving tutoring that loosely fit that definition, according to a study by the University of Southern California.
And in Massachusetts, there’s little evidence schools have offered such high-dosage tutoring at scale, said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. When the alliance examined plans by the state’s 20 largest school districts detailing how they would spend their third batch of federal COVID relief funds, he said, only Salem specifically mentioned high-dosage tutoring.
Teachers union contracts and school schedules have gotten in the way for many districts, Lambert said.
“We can’t let those things be obstacles to doing what’s necessary,” he said, “or we’re going to lose an entire generation.”
Tutoring programs nationwide have struggled with poor attendance, Lake said. One reason? Parents don’t realize how far behind their kids really are, advocates said. About 90 percent of parents reported their kids were at or above grade level for both math and reading, one national March poll found, but schools reported that half of students were behind grade level at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
“If you don’t tell us our kids need tutoring, why would we sign them up?” said Keri Rodrigues, a Woburn mother who founded Massachusetts Parents United and the National Parents Union.
To entice students to show up for tutoring, schools should offer incentives — maybe points toward buying candy or taking cool field trips, said Hlaa Ahmed, 17, a Boston University freshman and recent Boston Community Leadership Academy graduate.
“Otherwise, they’d view it as a punishment or they’re being singled out,” Ahmed said.
Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the state should recruit retired educators as tutors.
Longer school days, years
Students are behind in part because they missed classroom time, so clearly the solution needs to include more time in class — be it longer school days or school years, experts said.
“The crisis calls for an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Lake said. “There are people in all walks of life who would be happy to help. Let’s ask them.”
It might make sense for schools to adjust the schedules of some students who are really behind to spend more time on core academic subjects, Lake said.
But the teachers’ union said it’s important to offer students interesting, fun programs.
“Just throwing kids in seats for longer hours does not do the job,” Page said. He called for the state to offer after-school programs that mix academic enrichment with arts or sports, like those “that the most fortunate among us are able to have for our kids.”
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, supported a “much longer day” and potentially a “longer school year,” but he said the extra hours should include a lively variety of activities.
”Plenty of physical education, plenty of arts, interspersed with what goes on academically,” Koocher said.
Some education advocates supported year-round schooling with more frequent, shorter breaks instead of a long two-month summer vacation.
“Quite frankly, our children don’t need any more gaps in learning time, and the summer is a significant time gap,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP.
The teachers union said all kids should have access to great summer camps, which could include academics and which are often too pricey for low-income families to afford. “Wouldn’t it be remarkable — if we’re talking pie in the sky — if it was a guarantee that every single kid got to go to a summer camp for a few weeks over the summer?” Page said.
Chad d’Entremont, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, agreed, noting that many affluent families can afford to bring enrichment into their kids’ lives year-round.
“We need to bring those same experiences to all children,” he said.
Do more for recent grads who need help
The state can’t limit its focus to K-12, said Harvard University professor Thomas Kane. It should also support recent high school graduates, many of whom deferred further education or workforce training amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It has been nobody’s job to worry about the high school students who graduated between 2020 and 2023, who never showed up in college,” Kane said.
The state should use its internal data to identify these students and support their reentry to education, Kane said.
“There are a lot of kids in labor market who might need some help now applying for financial aid,” he said.
State Senator Jason Lewis, who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, noted this year’s state budget included funding for free community college for anyone over 25. State leaders plan to expand that to everyone next year, Lewis said.
Pay teachers more
”If we’re talking nuclear, I’d think a statewide salary scale, that made it possible for smaller districts to retain teachers,” Koocher said. “You want to put the best possible teacher in front of the class. Everything else is (expletive).”
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that with extra pay, districts could extend the work year for teachers by five or 10 days, using that time for training and collaboration. That would help with staff shortages, which have been a major headwind to recovery, he argued.
“With a lot of young, new teachers, if they don’t get the level of support and mentorship and guidance around the challenges they face, they wash out,” he said.
Tim Daly, chief executive of the nonprofit EdNavigator, said districts could offer to pay their best teachers more to take on extra students.
“When you’re trying to fill staffing shortages, those are the answers,” he said.
Daly also said districts should make sure they maximize the skill sets of staff with the scarcest credentials. For example, Daly said, high school math teachers could teach more classes if districts hired assistants to grade for them.
Overhaul reading instruction
Reading is the foundation for all learning, Rodrigues said, so now is the time for the Legislature to pass a law requiring districts to use teaching methods based on the latest brain science and inform parents whether their kids are reading on grade level.
“If we really want to meet this moment, number one is literacy and investing in it,” said Rodrigues, who only learned her son was reading two years behind grade level through a private out-of-school evaluation.
The state should have a “laser-like focus on . . . ensuring that all students are learning from high-quality academic materials,” d’Entremont said. “Too often we still rely on word of mouth or googling.”
Personalized plans for every student
To fill in students’ learning gaps, a personalized assessment could reveal what each student needs, with data-driven profiles and plans of action, Lake said. She said Virginia is taking on a student-by-student assessment, though she envisions something even bolder.
Examining the root causes of why so many kids are missing class is also crucial, advocates said. These can include lack of connection to peers and teachers, anxiety about school, or obligations like work, or caring for young siblings or sick family members.
“We have to understand the causes of chronic absence in order to talk about the solutions,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of the national Attendance Works initiative.
Education historian Jack Schneider, director of the Center for Educational Policy at UMass Amherst, disagrees with the focus on standardized test scores and said teachers are already overextended, and communities should do more to support students through, say, summer and after-school programming and weekend enrichment.
”For me,” Schneider said, “the question is what then can we do to make sure that the supports that some students have access to outside of school are more evenly experienced by all students?”
Don’t try to fix everything, everywhere
Kane, the Harvard professor, said Massachusetts should give extra financial help to any district that remains 10 percentage points or more behind their pre-pandemic test scores. Those districts could use that money for performance-based tutoring or extending students’ time in class.
Struggling districts would then be wise to narrow their own focus, Kane added. A smart area to invest in would be courses like algebra that kids need to take, and pass, to get to more advanced coursework. Student schedules could allow for a double dose of the subject so they can keep pushing ahead while also getting time to practice what they should’ve already learned. This targeted approach would be more effective than casting a wide net, Kane said.
D’Entremont agreed that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work to close achievement gaps.
“When we do the same thing for everyone, those gaps don’t close,” he said. “We need to tailor and target tutoring for those most in need.”
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