Expanding a City-Wide Tutoring Effort: Lessons from Chicago Public Schools

Headshot of Ellen Kim
By Rani Corak, Gustie Owens

Policymakers and practitioners have turned to high-dosage tutoring (HDT) as an effective method for improving academic outcomes for K–12 students following the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally defined as three interactions a week of at least 30 minutes, HDT provides students with personalized instruction in small group settings. The University of Chicago Education Lab and MDRC worked with districts across the nation to expand tutoring programs and study their impact on student outcomes. One of those districts, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), has brought more than 600 Chicagoans into schools as tutors through their Tutor Corps program. These tutors teach reading and writing to students in kindergarten through fifth grade and math to students in sixth through twelfth grade.

Ellen Kim is the program manager at CPS Tutor Corps. She oversees a wide range of activities, from the initial recruitment, training, and placement of tutors at CPS schools to the vendor engagement and contract process. MDRC had the chance to sit down and speak to Ellen Kim about CPS’s successes and challenges when developing its program.

One of the notable characteristics of the CPS Tutor Corps program is that the district is responsible for hiring and staffing tutors. We would love to hear a bit about the district’s process in recruiting and hiring those tutors.

In the first year of Tutor Corps, someone at the district office was dedicated to sourcing the tutors. We engaged with different departments within CPS that had community outreach programs to get the word out. There were also a lot of marketing blasts through social media and a dedicated website explaining the program that assisted with recruitment. Now, a lot of our recruits come by word of mouth—a lot of the new folks hear about us from their friends and family. We’ve also asked schools to nominate tutors. We’ve seen success when schools nominate their own candidates, as those candidates tend to already have relationships with the school community and staff—many are former students or parents of students themselves. Those candidates tend to be a good fit because they already understand the culture there.

We do two big pushes for hiring—once before the academic year starts, and the second one around midyear. Most of our tutors are between 20 and 30 years old, and many of them are in college. This means that when the semester ends, their schedules often shift and are sometimes no longer compatible with tutoring times. Some of our tutors are pursuing degrees in education and so they need to student teach as part of their practicum in the spring, and then they are no longer able to continue tutoring. Something that has become an opportunity for us is that the tutoring position has created another entry point into the CPS talent pipeline. We’ve seen that happen a lot, where [tutors] go into other roles at the schools—like special education classroom assistant—or decide to pursue a career in teaching. 

In developing these programs, what does the district hold consistent across schools, and where do schools have the freedom to choose?

At its core, the Tutor Corps’ tenets include that students should be tutored consistently, using a research-based curriculum or program three times a week for thirty minutes a session. CPS provides a recommended program for both math and literacy, with the district covering costs for materials, licenses, training, and implementation support. However, the curriculum that the schools use for their interventions is flexible, provided that the identified curriculum is rigorous and the standards aligned. The schools also have freedom of choice when deciding when tutoring takes place. CPS provides best practices for scheduling consistent tutoring within the school day, and schools then apply that to their local contexts. Some schools have chosen to schedule tutoring during their dedicated intervention period or at the end of their reading block. Some schools have chosen to schedule tutoring every day—even though the district only requires three days per week.

How do you support and monitor school engagement and progress, especially when schools have different levels of engagement with the program? What tools do you use to facilitate communication, coordination, and consistency across many tutors and multiple schools?

Schools received implementation support through virtual and in-person assistance from Tutor Corps site leads. The site leads provided program guidance, collaborated directly with the school staff to address obstacles, and coached tutors through observation cycles. 
At the beginning of the school year, we asked each school to identify a staff member to serve as a school-level lead for tutors. The school-level leads were encouraged to meet frequently with tutors to provide on-site instructional support and to review student data from tutoring sessions. Throughout the year, the district hosted monthly school-level lead meetings to allow participants to share best practices and hear updates on the timelines and updates related to tutoring.

Another way we support and monitor schools is through collecting attendance. We ask for schools to provide us with a complete roster of students receiving tutoring, and then we [the district] create an attendance sheet. Then tutors go into the attendance sheet and mark present, absent, tardy, or excused for each student. All attendance records funnel into the district’s records. This way, all attendance data is managed and overseen at the district level.

With this information, we’ve created an internal dashboard that allows us to quickly see, across the two hundred–plus schools, things like how many sessions of tutoring each of the schools are recording. This has been useful because we can use that information to share at the network level for any senior leaders or instructional support leaders, and we can also use it to do things like send emails to schools and let them know information like “This is how many sessions that we saw that you’ve recorded during the first semester.” It’s useful to have one source (where all the data pulls into) that can easily be shared with stakeholders.

The other piece of information that we hope to share with stakeholders is if there has been any growth in assessments between the beginning of year and middle of year for tutoring students. We also plan to step back and examine school-level assessments—assessments that all students have to take at the school, including tutorial students. This will include Star360 and iReady assessment data. We have multiple communication structures where we can address issues—we have a Google classroom for the reading tutors, the math tutors, and the school-level leads. This is a way we ensure we’re able to have mass messaging to all those groups and [it] allows tutors at the school level to talk to each other and engage as well. On top of that, we host a monthly district Webinar where we share updates, things to expect, upcoming training, et cetera. That also helps us to ensure a unified message across all the schools. 

Finally, we have partnered with the University of Chicago Ed Lab and MDRC on the Personalized Learning Initiative study since the inception of Tutor Corps in 2021.  Each year, our research partners support monitoring and reporting at research study schools and provide suggested overall program improvements from interviews with tutors, school-level leads, and school administrators.

What have you learned about building school buy-in [for] a tutoring program? What strategies have you used?

In each year of Tutor Corps, we’ve tried to shift more and more ownership to the school level. During the very first year of the tutoring program, schools didn’t fully understand what they would be responsible for. In our second year of tutoring, we listed out “recommitment statements’’ that lay out things that we want schools to uphold on their end and be responsible for. The recommitments were almost like a partnership agreement that says, “If you are going to have tutors at your school, then these are the things that we would like you to follow through with on your end and hold to with fidelity.” That helped, in terms of getting schools to stay with the program as we progressed. I would recommend districts to do that, too—to clearly lay [expectations] out at the beginning, so that schools understand what is expected of them as well.

We also asked principals at each school to designate someone in their building to be the Tutor Corps school-level lead. It could have been a lead coach, an MTSS [Multi-Tiered System of Supports] lead, an interventionist—hopefully not an administrator, but somebody else in the building who could oversee the tutors and really guide the tutorial program at their own school. Designating a school-level lead allowed for a sense of ownership, with them actively affirming a list of commitments that they would hold themselves to.  

About InPractice

The InPractice blog series highlights lessons from MDRC’s work with programs, featuring posts on recruiting participants and keeping them engaged, supporting provider teams, using data for program improvement, and providing services remotely.

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