What California needs for Christmas: 5.9 million tutors


Tutor us, Santa baby.

Don’t bother bringing Californians four lords-a-leaping or eight swans-a-swimming, St. Nick. What we need now are 5.9 million tutors — one for every public school student.

You could fill a giant sack with all the research showing that one-on-one tutoring is students’ best bet for catching up academically after two long, pandemic-disrupted years. In testing last spring, half of California students failed to meet state standards in English. In math, two-thirds of all students fell short. California eighth-graders are testing at fifth-grade levels in math.

Tutoring is the best gift you could give kids this Christmas, and not just because it’s been shown to be the best way for students to make rapid advances in achievement. California children, after years of isolation, desperately need the connection to learning that skilled one-on-one tutors — teachers, school staffers, older students with training — can provide with sufficient time, ideally three sessions a week.

Why do you need your intervention, Santa? Because elected leaders prefer to spin the challenge (Gov. Gavin Newsom put out a press release emphasizing that California students’ test results dropped less than those in other states). And powerful teachers’ unions won’t acknowledge the extent of the learning loss. 

Santa, you always deliver what we need, while California, for all adults’ good intentions, can’t manage programs large enough to help all kids thrive.

Despite recent increases in school funding, this state fails to get kids high-quality teachers, counseling and classes. Despite the huge expansion of health programs to cover kids, California children aren’t that healthy and struggle to access care. Despite promises of universal child care and preschool, parents must scramble to find options for young kids.

Instead of creating one efficient system to solve any of these problems, California ends up placating different interest groups by creating smaller piecemeal programs that don’t really fit together.

The same thing is happening with tutoring.

Instead of focusing on a comprehensive tutoring effort to reach every child, the state has decided to spread educational recovery funds around the state to smaller and sometimes targeted programs. For example, California sent nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus funds for learning loss to local school districts, with little oversight or accountability. We don’t know how much was spent on tutoring or how much that tutoring helped students.

A second, more recent grant, the nearly $8 billion Learning Recovery Emergency Block Grant, is more promising because it has more restrictions. Intensive tutoring is one of the few things school districts can spend this money on, along with literacy intervention, counseling and additional learning time. But it’s not clear how much money will be devoted to tutoring.

Why not?

There are many reasons. One is that our volatile state budget, in surplus last year, now faces projected shortfalls with a recession looming; it’s conceivable that some of that money might be clawed back to fill budget holes. Another is that our school districts, like employers everywhere, report not being able to hire or train enough people to be tutors. Still another: Teachers, exhausted from the pandemic, are leaving the profession, not clamoring to add tutoring duties.

As a result, we are building a piecemeal system of tutoring and academic support.

Some of those pieces are quite useful. The state just put $250 million into hiring literacy coaches for low-income elementary schools over the next five years. The California State Library is providing free online homework assistance for the state’s K-12 students, available through HelpNow, a 24-hour, real-time platform with qualified tutors answering questions. Gov. Newsom recently launched the College Corps, a California version of AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. Half of its first class of 3,250 California community college and university students are working as tutors and mentors in school districts and after-school programs.

There is no shortage of ideas about expanding tutoring, inside and outside of government, for California to draw upon. The founder of Khan Academy is trying to create an online tutoring marketplace. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is pitching a way to use artificial intelligence for tutoring aimed at academic recovery. And at the federal level, there are proposals in Congress to expand AmeriCorps’ national community service network to make tutoring a priority.

But none of these amount to what is needed: dedicated tutors, who can teach one-on-one multiple times a week, win our kids’ trust and get our students caught up.

Perhaps, in a different state and country, at a different time, a moment like this might be seen as an opportunity to remake public education into a more personalized and effective system.

But that’s not happening. Because in 21st century California, providing what is necessary would take a miracle.

So, it’s up to you, Santa. Just how many tutors can you fit in your sleigh?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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