All California Kids Want for Christmas Is a Tutor

Forget Naughty or Nice, Every Student Should Get the Gift of Academic Support This Holiday Season

All California Kids Want for Christmas Is a Tutor | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Send tutors, Santa—one for every single student, urges Connecting California’s Joe Mathews in his latest column. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

Tutor us, Santa baby.

And don’t bother bringing Californians another four lords-a-leaping or eight swans-a-swimming, St. Nick. What we need this year are nearly 5.9 million tutors—one for each and every one of our public school students.

Because you could fill a giant sack with all the research showing that one-on-one tutoring is students’ best bet for playing academic catch-up, which is needed more than ever right now.

St. Nick: Most of our kids, both the nice and the naughty, would need a team of flying reindeer to get back to grade level after two long, pandemic-disrupted years. In testing last spring, more than half of California students failed to meet state standards in English. In math, two-thirds of all students fell short; four out of five Black, Latino, and low-income students couldn’t make those same standards. California eighth graders now test at a fifth-grade level in math.

Tutoring is the best gift you could give these kids right now, 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 both the instruction and connection that tutors can provide.

Of course, just having a tutor isn’t enough. You need to gift us tutors who know what they are doing—retired teachers, paraprofessionals, older students with real training—and in turn give them sufficient time with students, ideally three sessions a week, adding up to 50 hours per semester.

None of this information is a secret. But no one likes to talk about it much. Teachers’ unions have been reluctant to acknowledge all the learning loss. And elected leaders have too often tried to spin the problem; the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a press release emphasizing that the drops in California test results were less than in other states.

Which is why we need your intervention, Santa.

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.

You always get us what we need, while California, for all the good intentions of its adults, can’t manage to deliver the resources kids need to thrive. Despite recent increases in school funding, this state fails to get kids high-quality teachers, counseling, and classes. Despite massive 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 pre-school, 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. 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 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 (among other things), 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 invested $250 million in hiring literacy coaches in low-income elementary schools over the next five years. The California State Library is providing free online homework assistance for California K-12 students, available through HelpNow, a 24-hour live, 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. An MIT 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, in 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?


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