Amer­ica needs to wise up about need for qual­ity tu­tor­ing

Chicago Sun-Times - - Commentary - BY ED­WARD E. GOR­DON

You don’t take an as­pirin to cure can­cer. Yet, each year mil­lions of stu­dents face an equiv­a­lent sit­u­a­tion when they en­roll in in­ef­fec­tive tu­tor­ing pro­grams that of­ten falsely over­promise a quick and easy “cure” for com­plex ed­u­ca­tion ail­ments.

Pub­lic aware­ness of tu­tor­ing and higher parental ex­pec­ta­tions for re­sults have spiked since the pas­sage of the fed­eral No Child Left Be­hind Act in 2002. Tu­tor­ing fraud and in­ef­fec­tive in­struc­tion are large slices of a $10 bil­lion tu­tor­ing pie pur­chased each year by U.S. con­sumers, or as part of fed­er­ally funded “sup­ple­men­tal ser­vices” for NCLB. This grow­ing tu­tor­ing ripoff may be a prin­ci­pal rea­son why stu­dent achieve­ment has barely im­proved across Amer­ica or in the Chicago Pub­lic Schools. Re­search on the best tu­tor­ing prac­tices is never se­ri­ously ap­plied by most of th­ese in­struc­tional pro­grams. In­stead, tu­tor­ing re­mains largely an ad hoc, in­for­mal ac­tiv­ity punc­tu­ated by both com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions and in­ef­fec­tive pub­lic school­based drill and prac­tice tu­tor­ing pro­grams. Re­cent re­ports of in­ef­fec­tive re­sults have ratch­eted up the pub­lic’s de­mand for higher-qual­ity tu­tor­ing.

There are three key build­ing blocks to a tu­tor­ing revo­lu­tion. First, con­sumer ed­u­ca­tion and at least vol­un­tary reg­u­la­tion is needed to shield the pub­lic from ed­u­ca­tion huck­sters. Sec­ond, the qual­ity of tu­tor­ing needs to be ad­dressed by im­ple­ment­ing best prac­tices de­rived from the past 30 years of ed­u­ca­tional re­search on tu­tor­ing. Third, tu­tor­ing needs to be pro­fes­sion­al­ized by us­ing this in­for­ma­tion and fu­ture re­search in col­lege and univer­sity classes and to train com­mu­nity vol­un­teer tu­tors.

Past re­search re­veals that tu­tor- ing is most ef­fec­tive when it helps stu­dents lit­er­ally “learn how to learn.” What does this mean? It may sur­prise many peo­ple that stu­dents of­ten fail to mas­ter im­por­tant ba­sic skills be­cause of sub­tle un­di­ag­nosed learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, dyslexia, un­der­achieve­ment and other learn­ing is­sues that may limit study skills.

Good tu­tor­ing — par­tic­u­larly di­ag­nos­tic/de­vel­op­men­tal tu­tor­ing — closely ob­serves and records stu­dent learn­ing strengths and weak­nesses on a class-by-class ba­sis. Us­ing this on­go­ing in­for­ma­tion, the tu­tor can bet­ter in­di­vid­u­al­ize tu­tor­ing in­struc­tion, us­ing the stu­dent’s stronger skills to build up per­sonal learn­ing weak­nesses. This pre­cise re­me­dial approach is on­go­ing through­out the stu­dent’s tu­tor­ing ses­sions.

Other key fac­tors that re­search tells us will make tu­tor­ing more ef­fec­tive in­clude:

1. Bet­ter-pre­pared tu­tors pro­duce bet­ter re­sults than tu­tors with lit­tle or no spe­cial prepa­ra­tion. Col­lege cour­ses in the skills to be tu­tored, a de­gree, spe­cial teach­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and prior teach­ing/tu­tor­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can im­prove tu­tor­ing qual­ity.

2. Tu­tors need to fol­low a writ­ten cur­ricu­lum that helps in­di­vid­u­al­ize their in­struc­tion. They need to record their learn­ing ob­ser­va­tions in an or­ga­nized man­ner and track the grad­ual de­vel­op­ment of the stu­dent’s new skills class by class.

3. Tu­tors need to coach par­ents on how to bet­ter en­cour­age good study habits and mo­ti­vate their child’s daily learn­ing at home. Parental sup­port of this process will have a very pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on im­prov­ing a child’s class­room achieve­ment.

Tu­tor­ing is now at a cross­road. Tu­tors can be­come far more ef­fec­tive by us­ing ap­plied re­search on what works best. Or tu­tor­ing can re­main es­sen­tially a non-pro­fes­sional, ad hoc ac­tiv­ity that uses large num­bers of semi-pro­fes­sion­als or vol­un­teers who are of­ten in­ef­fec­tive.

To­day, the chal­lenge of 21st cen­tury school re­form re­quires a much broader con­sid­er­a­tion of tu­tor­ing prac­tices and meth­ods. We need to fo­cus on how a new al­liance be­tween high-qual­ity tu­tor­ing and teach­ing can bet­ter serve Amer­ica’s stu­dents.

Ed­ward E. Gor­don is the lead au­thor of The Tu­tor­ing Revo­lu­tion: Ap­ply­ing Re­search for Best Prac­tice, Pol­icy Im­pli­ca­tions, and Stu­dent Achieve­ment (Row­man & Lit­tle­field, 2006). He has taught at DePaul, Loy­ola and North­west­ern univer­si­ties in Chicago.

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