Minnesota 2020 Journal: Tutoring Solutions
Minnesota’s public schools need help but not the help that ideologically-driven conservative education policy advocates champion. In conservative policy minds, every school problem is a nail requiring a big hammer delivering a crushing hammer stroke. Learning, however, isn’t a problem to be beaten into submission; it’s an opportunity to be advanced.
While I lay this issue firmly at conservative policymakers’ feet, we’re all guilty of projecting our insecurities, fears and short-comings on to schools. Rather than obstinately pursuing the conservative educational policy equivalent of strict determinism, let’s tackle, district by district, school by school, the problems in front of us.
When I was a teenager, a tornado skipped across our farm. It was a glancing blow rather than a direct hit. Tornados are blunt phenomena so the distinction is somewhat academic. The next morning, we faced a dispiriting, financially paralyzing mess.
Neighbors materialized, helping mend or replace fences, round up spooked cattle and pile storm debris. No one debated a great plan or argued over purpose. The task was clear and unambiguous. Everyone in my rural community was affected by that storm, understanding that the next one could very well sweep through their farm or town. Everyone pitched in.
That experience remains permanently fixed in my psyche and the aftermath’s lessons guide my personal and public policy thinking to this day. Lesson one: community is strength. Lesson two: work the immediate problem.
Imagine the outcome if Minnesota’s public policymakers applied this approach to education’s challenges?
Let’s start with learning, schooling’s elemental activity. Kids are natural learners but every kid doesn’t learn all subject matter in exactly the same way. This is not a startling development. Educators have understood this for as long as there have been teachers.
Teachers employ multiple, overlapping teaching strategies, casting a wide instructive net. Instruction is reinforced through worksheets, discussion, group work, student presentations and homework. But, not every student grasps every lesson every time. Kids periodically need extra help.
Teachers provide a great deal of students’ additional assistance but, even without steadily rising class sizes, extra tutoring is required. That’s where tutors come in.
Many Minnesota schools rely on volunteer tutors. But, not all tutors are created equal, even if they’re generously volunteering their time.
The best tutoring occurs in context with the student’s instructional material. Encouraging students is important but it’s no substitute for effective tutoring. Poor tutoring can undermine rather than support student learning.
In the 19th century, as American cities’ population rocketed, concentrated poverty’s negative social impacts became publicly recognized. Determined to do something positive, alleviating misery, wealthy and upper middle class women embraced a structured, organized poverty intervention strategy. “Friendly visiting” paired wealthy women with poor women in the hopes that wealthy women might encourage and inspire poor women to structural change. So inspired, the thinking went, poor women would simply stop being poor.
It didn’t work. Good intentions without rigorous methodology and fundamental public policy change, backed by public investment, can’t succeed. The ineffective Friendly Visiting experience didn’t just fade away. It helped establish Settlement Houses, social work as a professional discipline, and built the case for an expanding social safety net.
We’re at that point with tutoring. I’m not criticizing tutors. Quite the opposite, I herald tutoring. We need more and better tutoring. As a public policy matter, how do we move towards this goal? We work the problem.
While a great many publicity seeking conservative activists have spent the last twenty years beating up on teachers, declaring public school failure and requiring standardized tests that reinforce the conservative perspective, another, smaller group of education advocates have been improving tutoring. They’re using research, establishing evaluation and performance metrics, and contributing to the school’s larger learning community.
Saint Paul Public Schools, through the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, offers a great example. Best Practices for Tutoring Programs: A Guide to Quality lays out vision—the idea that tutoring is an essential component in a larger learning strategy—and roots its methodology in research. It’s a refreshing change from ideological ranting.
Minnesota’s tradition offers a clear path forward. If we work the problem, we discover and test solutions. It’s not just tutoring and schools. Studying challenges and testing and applying solutions helps create affordable healthcare, bolsters transportation infrastructure, and grows jobs. Calmly working the problem creates prosperity and opportunity.
Let’s try that.