Many districts, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), are using ESSER funds to invest in high-dosage tutoring programs as a way to combat learning loss caused by the pandemic. We sat down with Dr. Frank Barnes, Chief Accountability Officer at CMS, to discuss how ESSER funds have enabled the district to begin this initiative.
ERS: How have ESSER funds allowed you to introduce or widen the scope of tutoring at CMS?
Barnes: I can say with confidence that without these ESSER funds, we wouldn't be able to offer high-dosage tutoring at the magnitude or depth that we are. We already had partnerships with certain organizations to provide tutoring during the school day, but we’re now able to expand that offering to do something during out-of-school time. Being able to target tutoring services towards a set of prioritized schools is what gives us real power.
ERS: How do you envision the initiative helping with COVID recovery? Why tutoring, specifically?
Barnes: As we started to prioritize the ESSER budget, something became really apparent: the majority of earmarked dollars were primarily toward things that were for adults and for central office. It was at that moment we realized that we really needed to get more funds directly to the students we wanted to help the most. We looked across the field at what could have an impact and help accelerate students' academic performance, and identified high-dosage tutoring.
We were able to set aside $50 million, which was a powerful statement: that we were making sure that American Rescue Plan dollars were going directly to the students that needed help the most.
We envision these funds helping students who need more support without it coming at the expense of other core instruction or co-curricular activities. In fact, with high-dosage tutoring, we not only avoid further disruption to core instructional experience but add to it–and that's where the power is.
ERS: What were some key considerations when deciding to hire external tutoring partners rather than use certified teachers or other district staff?
Barnes: At the beginning of the ‘21-’22 school year, we were experiencing all types of disruption—mass vacancies in teaching positions; overtaxed teachers, staff and administrators; students who had lost tremendous amounts of instructional time because of the pandemic and remote learning—so we wanted to make sure we held that seven hours of in-person instruction sacrosanct.
At the same time, we were being reminded daily that our teachers and principals couldn't take anything additional given the circumstances. Many of them were already doing far more than what was expected, so we didn’t want to ask them for more—we wanted to bring them help.
ERS: CMS sent out an RFP (request for proposal) "all-call" for tutoring partners and developed a rubric to select candidates. What were the most powerful parts of the rubric you developed, and how was it applied?
Barnes: There were multiple components. The first, most powerful component was being clear about what characteristics of high-dosage tutoring made them effective. The second thing was to codify what that looked like in practice so that we could look for them in the proposals. The third thing was defining our standards: balancing the need to maximize the number of providers while not compromising the quality of the services we wanted to offer our students and families.
ERS: What were some research-backed components that you looked at when evaluating these tutoring partners (group size, frequency). and how did you decide what was acceptable across partners?
Barnes: Some of the research indicated that tutors that weren't certified teachers could still be as effective as teachers depending on the intervention used. Another element was student-to-tutor ratios. Although one-to-one tutoring was perhaps desired, student-to-tutor ratios as high as four-to-one could also be impactful.
One thing to keep in mind is tailoring that intervention to the specific needs of students to meet them where they are and accelerate them as quickly as possible.
The last thing was the idea of alignment. We wanted the tutoring to be a true supplement to the core instruction, not just an appendage, so we needed to make sure that the tutoring aligned as closely to our instruction as possible. All those elements played a role in how we thought about that work.
ERS: How are you ensuring that the tutoring materials used by your partners match the classroom instruction by your teachers?
Barnes: In our RFP, we asked that partners align to our North Carolina standard course of study and specify the standards that they wanted to be able to reach. Although pedagogically it may be a bit different, we wanted to make sure that they were aligning and pursuing the same standards that the students and schools are going to be asked to account for. As we go, we're going to monitor how services are being provided and being experienced. It'll be an ongoing process with continuous improvement.
ERS: How do you plan on matching the tutoring partners to students and families specifically to their individual needs?
Barnes: It's a multi-part effort. Based on feedback we've gotten from our partner organizations, it would help them to more easily connect with families if we partnered them with a set of schools, so we're in the process of doing that matchmaking. We don't have a clear one-to-one ratio—30 partners to 42 schools—so some schools will have more than one partner, and that's okay. We want to give families maximum choice, so they can opt to work with the specific provider(s) partnered with that school, or they can choose to work with another provider in the network that serves schools virtually. We want to be able to help partners connect with families and school communities as best we can—but ultimately, we want to put the power and the agency in the hands of families.
ERS: Are there any practices or procedures in place to make sure that all students have access to these tutoring partners?
Barnes: Yes, there are some things that we've baked into the program to try to increase the levels of equity as much as we can. One is to offer transportation when there's going to be a school-based service provided or transportation to that off-site service if it's immediately after school. We're also looking to integrate tutoring into our preexisting after-school enrichment program and subsidize that program for students at the targeted schools.
The research shows that students who often need the tutoring the most are the least likely to get it, so that’s why we’re intentionally building community with the partners, schools, and staff.
Teachers and administrators are in the best position to identify students who could particularly benefit from tutoring and communicate that opportunity to their families. The classroom teacher who built the relationship with that family over time is often the most trusted messenger between a school system and a family, and that’s invaluable. Through that relationship, we can make sure that families who may not have as much agency or information about resources in the community aren’t just getting information, but an active invitation to engage and participate in this opportunity.
ERS: Given that ESSER Funding is a one-time infusion, how do you plan to continue meeting student needs after that money is phased out?
Barnes: The Charlotte community is rich with resources, a strong philanthropic community, and a growing corporate community. I believe that if we take this one-time investment and demonstrate success, there will be philanthropic and corporate dollars, as well as other municipal and county dollars, to support this type of initiative. But the burden of proof is on us to make it work for our students and families and build evidence that supports future opportunities.
ERS: What else would you like people to know about ESSER funding at CMS?
Barnes: Every community believes that money matters when well spent, but none of us have the amount of money to meet all the needs that we have in our communities. The ESSER dollars prompted us to think harder and more boldly about what students need. That was something that was powerful for our community. It also helped us think about how to engage a broader net of stakeholders in helping our families recover—never trying to escape our primary responsibility as a school system, but engaging our whole community to partner with us on the road to recovery.