IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Ector County Schools Fight Learning Loss With Virtual Tutors

A school district in Odessa, Texas, has adopted a highly structured virtual tutoring program that connects students with instructional support from other parts of the country and pays the contractor based on results.

virtual tutor
Most K-12 students are back in class, and verdicts about how the past two years of disruption impacted their education have been rolling in: negatively, across the board. In Maryland, just 15 percent of public school students passed the math portion of their annual assessments last year, and 35 percent passed in English. In Georgia, where students had the option to opt out of assessments, 40 percent of eighth graders didn't even take the test. The online program Zearn Math, used by some 6 million elementary students, found those from low-income ZIP codes regressed in math by more than 11 percent. Several studies, like one conducted by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), found that previously lower-achieving students fell furthest behind, and even where students made progress, they made less of it than under pre-pandemic "normal" circumstances. One of the most urgent tasks facing K-12 schools today is to get students caught up, and the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, is finding success with a virtual tutoring program.

ECISD Superintendent Scott Muri told Government Technology that the district struggled at the onset of the pandemic to bring broadband to the community. After addressing that issue and bringing back kids into the classroom, Muri said, there was still a significant number of absences and, even with virtual options, the district wasn’t meeting kids' needs the way it hoped to. Muri then had the district participate in a program spearheaded by Harvard University that focused on one-on-one, outcome-based tutoring in a virtual setting, connecting students with tutors remotely instead of limiting them to those who were locally available. Things went well in a pilot program with one middle school, so Muri expanded the concept throughout the district, with 6,000 students in elementary, middle and high schools — about 20 percent of the district's students — taking part in the program.

It was outside-the-box thinking, Muri said — the idea of paying a service based on results is “not something we typically do in education."

"You see that much more in the business world, but (school districts) simply buy a product and hope for the best, if you will, and that's not a good practice,” he said.

The school district committed $6.1 million to the program, aimed at helping disadvantaged communities most impacted by the pandemic, including students who experienced the biggest learning drop. ECISD now works with four virtual tutoring companies, paying them based on student progress determined by a tool created by NWEA called the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP. Essentially, the more academic growth it measures in students, the more money ECISD pays the virtual tutoring companies, with a cap at $6.1 million. The less student progress, the less money.

The program launched for all students at the beginning of this academic year. Each student is assigned a tutor for the year, and they carve out 30 minutes to an hour per session, which can be held before, during or after school, Muri said. Focusing on reading and math, the tutor goes through the school curriculum while a teacher or staff member from the student's school supervises. For the year, students will have 60 hours of tutoring sessions. Explaining the specific amount of time, Muri pointed to research that says 60 hours of tutoring per year is the threshold to see effects in a student’s performance.

“It's a very rigid environment. We receive weekly updates from the tutoring companies on each student. The tutors themselves work with our teachers to understand the specific needs of children,” Muri said. “It's a very formalized and pretty tight process that we use to ensure effectiveness. It's a very structured program. And that's really been the reason we've been successful.”

Though the school year is far from over, Muri believes the success of the program will be reflected in MAP assessments at the conclusion of the year. He said the district has set just north of $3 million in the budget for next year to continue the program, expecting some students won't need the same level of support. Muri said that the Texas Education Agency has now recognized the success of the virtual tutoring program and has begun to vet a group of virtual tutors at the state level, providing the opportunity for interested school districts in Texas to participate — albeit not in an outcomes-based contract. Muri said other districts have shown interest in Harvard's tutoring program and have contacted him asking for information.

“Those early days required an adjustment for all of us, because it was just something so different. It rocked our world a little bit,” he said. “But we see effectiveness and the response (from administrators, teachers, parents and kids) has been very healthy because the results are good.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the size of ECISD and what proportion of them are participating in the virtual tutoring program. A previous version of this story said 6,000 students encompassed ECISD's entire student body. In fact, the district's enrollment is approximately 30,000.
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.