An embedded tutoring center closes achievement gaps by harnessing the power of peer tutors and collaborative teacher teams.
If we really wanted schools to be the great equalizer, much would need to change. The challenges are endless, everything from changing funding mechanisms and recruitment strategies to addressing the needs of educators caught in the political crosshairs of national standards, accountability, overtesting, and a poor preparation system.
Faced with such constraints, as well as with the urgent need to improve student outcomes, we owe it to students — especially to those from nondominant groups — to put existing resources to great use now and employ only high-leverage strategies that promote high levels of learning for all.
One high-leverage, gap-shrinking strategy is rooted in a strong research base (Koselak & Lyall, 2016) and thrives in its very simplicity: an embedded, open-all-day tutoring center that supports collaborative teacher teams by using peer tutors and community volunteers. The revitalized tutoring center provides a wealth of opportunity to students who may otherwise be underserved, creating equitable access and raising expectations for all. Centralizing these resources and providing them during the school day, free to all and targeted to some, helps schools close the opportunity gap without overburdening teachers, schedules, or budgets.
Every facet of a robust peer tutoring model has a high effect size unto itself (Hattie, 2012). When properly leveraged, however, a tutoring center opens doors of opportunity for teachers and schools to bring about meaningful improvements to learning outcomes. The model:
- Creates a diverse coalition of volunteer tutors;
- Enhances collaboration and the work of professional learning communities (PLCs);
- Leverages regular use of common formative assessments;
- Makes standards-referenced and competency-based grading feasible;
- Empowers a tiered system of intervention (such as response to intervention, positive behavior interventions and supports, and a multitiered system of supports);
- Identifies and supports struggling students in a timely and targeted manner throughout the school day;
- Personalizes learning by being flexible and responsive to individual needs;
- Inspires a growth mindset among students, tutors, and faculty;
- Promotes leadership, service learning, and mentorship opportunities to a diverse and often nondominant student population; and
- Thrives in a variety of settings because it’s fully customizable.
Schools with robust, embedded tutoring centers focus less on labeling students and pigeonholing them into tiers and more on providing just-in-time supports to ensure students reach mastery on the essential learnings for college- and career- readiness. This level of support also allows schools to accelerate more nondominant students into honors-level coursework, knowing they will be supported along the way. Further, the flexible, targeted, and directive nature of the tutoring center enables staff to tease out the root cause of a student’s academic struggle. Whether a student won’t do the work or can’t do it (or some combination of the two), the director of the tutoring center helps sort out this will-versus-skill dilemma so the team can target supports accordingly. In this model, nothing is left to chance, and students cannot hide from the opportunity.
In addition, by recruiting, training, and supporting a diverse population of peer tutors, the tutoring center encourages students of color and those otherwise at risk to become mentors and leaders to help struggling students. This gives students coming into the center a wide range of tutors to pick from; some may prefer working with tutors from their own racial or ethnic background. Tutors also model and promote the behaviors and habits most likely to lead to success in an academic environment: They put forth effort, challenge themselves, ask questions, learn, and grow, while helping others do the same. These behaviors are on display all day, every day, and others take notice. Because of the direct and indirect support they provide, peer tutors positively influence the school culture and confront cultural biases while growing into leaders.
Failing forward toward success
To get the most out of the tutoring center, this model requires that educators move beyond the belief that “students haven’t learned it” to “they haven’t learned it yet.” On a practical level, this translates into a formative approach to assessment and grading in a culture that looks at failure in a fruitful manner. Indeed, a robust tutoring center is the ideal means of providing opportunities for our most underserved students to access challenging content, to try again, and to learn and grow. This is not about avoiding failure or even preventing it. On the contrary, this model ensures that failure is productive and not final. As Thomas Edison noted, “You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails forward toward success.”
The challenge that high schools face is empowering students to “fail forward toward success” without the threat of losing credits in the process. When students don’t earn credits, their future can be bleak. In addition, because not all students may want the help, the tutoring center team should consistently demonstrate they’re a student’s number one advocate. The tone must be one of respect, empathy, and high expectations. As hard as it may be at times, the center has an obligation to never give up on students. At-risk students have to know that in the face of high expectations, the team is with them all the way.
What it needs to succeed
For a tutoring center to flourish and shrink gaps for nondominant students, it needs:
- Strong, supportive leadership;
- A passionate champion to run the center and be a fierce student advocate;
- A decent space that is open all day and welcoming to all;
- Access during the school day to students who need support;
- Collaborative teacher teams (or PLCs) that use formative grading practices and data from common assessments to inform instruction and intervention; and
- A diverse cadre of peer and community tutors who have been recruited, trained, and supported.
This model also depends on belief systems that drive action, several of which come from the PLC model (DuFour et al., 2010):
- All students can learn at a high level with enough time and support.
- It is our responsibility to respond systematically and collectively to those who need extra time, support, and enrichment.
- Educators working in collaborative teams with a results-orientation and a focus on learning represent the best approach to build capacity, shrink gaps, and improve outcomes.
- This is about never giving up on students, supporting them in “failing forward toward success,” and building a growth mind-set.
Turning these beliefs into action and daily practice requires committing to several structures. School leaders must provide time in the school day and guidance for collaborative teacher teams. They must also build time into the master schedule to reach struggling students without having those students miss core content. If we really believe that all students can learn at a high level, schools must vary the amount of time they make available to learners, as well as the supports they put in place, because students don’t all learn at the same pace in the same way.
The most effective tutoring centers are open all day every day and are staffed by two teachers, one for math/science and one for humanities (for schools between 1,000 and 2,500 students). To facilitate students’ access, schools also should provide a study hall or study skills class (potentially staffed by educational assistants or rotating teachers as part of duty hours) every period of the day to freshmen and some struggling sophomores. This approach gives students a chance to get work done during the school day and distributes the demand on the tutoring center’s resources. Adding to this structure, schools also should empower the recruiting of peer tutors (they should earn an elective credit) to staff the center, in addition to partnering with community volunteers.
With a solid foundation of resources, schools can fuse a partnership between the tutoring center and PLC teams. Teachers in PLCs collaboratively determine essential learning outcomes, design common assessments to measure results, and deliberately analyze data to improve teaching and learning. The tutoring center adds a layer of flexible support by partnering with teachers, tutors, and community volunteers to ensure students master the essential learning outcomes. This support is tiered, timely, and proactive by providing a systemic model structure for preteaching (around common homework assignments), reteaching and retesting, as well as revision and rewriting support. Given how many schools struggle with providing this degree of support in a flexible manner during the school day, tutoring centers play an important role in shrinking the opportunity gap.
A case in point
Palmer High School is a fairly diverse urban school in Colorado Springs, Colo. Of the school’s 1,800 students, 50% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; about 8% are black and 33% Hispanic. As a result of a nearby high school closure and the recession of 2007-09, the school’s free and reduced-price lunch population increased by 150%, with students showing up with significant gaps in all academic areas.
Rather than accepting the tempting premise that demographics are destiny, the school confronted the changing student composition with a collective response from teachers and administrators to set and help students reach high expectations. A team of instructional leaders approached the challenge with a sense of urgency and an eye toward sustainability. More important, the team responded to the incoming data through the lens of an “opportunity gap” rather than an “achievement gap.” Following the lead of Adlai Stevenson High School in Illinois, which had great success with this approach, Palmer creatively linked an embedded tutoring center to PLCs. This enabled the school to improve the tiered system of support while fulfilling the potential of PLCs in the face of historic budget shortfalls.
Revitalizing the traditional concept of a tutoring center initially involved reallocating resources; two new full-time teaching positions were created, one in math and one in language arts. In the first year alone, these two teachers were able to provide (either directly or with the help of a number of peer tutors and community volunteers) academic services to roughly 550 of the school’s 9th graders. By the sixth year, they had scaled up the program dramatically, recruiting a diverse cadre of 180 support personnel (140 peer tutors and 25 volunteers, along with 15 teachers assigned part time to the center) and reaching more than 1,200 students across grades 9-12. And while many of those students are identified for support and directed to the center by their teachers, about half of them seek tutoring voluntarily during a free period or study hall.
Since the program was launched, Palmer has seen dramatic improvements in its on-time graduation rates (see Figure 1). From 2011 to 2015, for example, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students jumped by 34%, and the rate for black males nearly doubled. Across the board, race- and income-related gaps in high school completion have all but disappeared.
Moreover, this steep rise in graduation rates has coincided with a simultaneous increase in achievement and higher scores on standardized tests. In other words, the school can’t be accused of handing out diplomas to students who haven’t earned them; graduation rates appear to be going up because student performance is improving.
Nor can these gains be attributed to a broader pattern of improvement at the district or state level. As shown in Figure 2, graduation rates at Palmer increased much faster, from 2011-2015, than they did at other schools of similar size and composition, whether nearby or elsewhere in Colorado. And while those gains have been especially dramatic for students categorized as Hispanic, black, economically disadvantaged, and/or English learners, the graduation rate for white students at Palmer (which was relatively high to begin with) has increased as well, far outpacing gains made by white students at other schools in the state.
What students have to say
Because of the powerful role a tutoring center plays in supporting the most at-risk students in reaching their goals, students often come back to express gratitude and to share their story. In fact, many of those we had to work the hardest to reach decide as upperclassmen to become tutors and mentors to struggling freshmen. One student in particular, Heather, turned herself around in the second semester after lots of support. She later wrote,
“Me passing this semester seemed impossible because of the grades I had last semester. But you helped me achieve the impossible. I was just a girl who didn’t care about anything. Well that’s what you would see if you saw my grades and attendance, but inside I did care that I was failing. When you first start high school, all you hear about is how no one cares if you fail. But you did care. You showed me that I should care because I am the only one who can choose what my future will hold. You helped me all along the way. Now I have an A in math and English and B’s in history, science, and computers. Last semester, I had four F’s and two D’s. Now I have the confidence and the will to be successful” (Koselak & Lyall, 2016)
Karen Littlejohn, the cofounder of the tutoring center at Palmer High School, notes that while we may not be able control for things beyond the school walls, “we do control what students experience inside our buildings. Underneath the bravado and belligerence, there are young people waiting for someone to show them how to fly. The Tutoring Center has served as wind beneath the wings of countless students who need a caring individual tirelessly invested in their success” (Koselak & Lyall, 2016).
In addition to great feedback from students who received tutoring, we also gather feedback and reflections from peer tutors. Here are a few excerpts from responses to the following prompt: “What was the most memorable part of tutoring this semester?”
“The day that 100 students raised grades so they weren’t failing anymore was a big victory. It was rewarding to know that our hard work paid off and wasn’t just going through the students’ heads.”
“Being able to make a connection. Knowing that I have a friendship with a person I am tutoring makes me feel I make a bigger change. They won’t be afraid to ask questions and fail because they know I won’t judge them.”
“Helping students and watching them grow. Seeing them learn and defeat obstacles that previously kept them from moving forward.”
“I really feel like I am making a difference in multiple students’ lives and futures, and I get credit for doing something good” (Koselak & Lyall, 2016).
Cost-effective and high impact
Although there is still room for improvement, the gains suggest that schools can improve outcomes for all and reduce the achievement gap for those most at risk by providing — and even requiring — that students take advantage of extensive opportunities. The work at Palmer High School shows that a school faced with the challenges of a lower-skilled group of students need not accept that demographics are destiny. Indeed, all students can learn at a high level when structures are in place to provide time and layers of support.
As Michael Fullan (2009) notes, this type of endeavor requires that leaders:
Mobilize and engage large numbers of people who are individually and collectively committed and effective at getting results that society values . . . it is focused, relentless (stays the course), operates as a partnership among and across layers, and, above all, uses the collective energy of the whole group (p. 21).
Bringing resources together so strategically results in a cost-effective, scalable, high-impact model that fundamentally shifts the culture of schools. That shift occurs because the tutoring center facilitates a transformation in mindset among students, tutors, teachers, and principals. All students benefit from this increased attention to reducing the opportunity gap, but nondominant students in particular move from surviving to thriving.
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Fullan, M. (2009). Motion leadership: The skinny on becoming change savvy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Koselak, J. & Lyall, B. (2016). The revitalized tutoring center: A guide to transforming school culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
Originally published in February 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (5), 61-66.
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