Pairing teachers with tutors and with trained community members are two ways one big city district is distinguishing itself in accelerating literacy outcomes. With students still recovering from the disruptions of the pandemic, leaders in Oakland USD in California have turned to the community to find paraprofessionals who can help teachers by providing additional personalized instruction in early literacy.
The good news for other districts is that Oakland USD’s multi-pronged strategies are shared in the new “Teachers and Tutors Together” report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank based at Arizona State University. First of all, researchers doubted that any districts could make adequate progress on literacy using the traditional classroom model of one adult trying to get 25 to 30 caught up. Here are a few key findings:
- Using paraprofessionals as early literacy tutors made more trained adults available to provide small-group literacy instruction. Without this support, Oakland USD’s students would not have gotten the help they needed, teachers and administrators told CRPE’s researchers.
- Tutoring works best when tutors are “well-integrated into a coherent, school-wide approach to supporting literacy.” In Oakland USD, this comprised a districtwide foundational skills curriculum but researchers found that tutors and teachers needed to communicate more consistently about student progress.
- Students who worked with tutors made larger gains than classmates who did not have access to small-group literacy instruction. The most substantial gains occurred in kindergarten.
- Literacy gains made by tutored students varied dramatically—from a low of 79% of typical growth to a high of 188%.
- Teachers, tutors, instructional coaches and school leaders reported that staffing and scheduling constraints hampered progress.
- Pay also remained a critical obstacle to recruiting and retaining early literacy tutors, and maintaining their morale.
The linchpin of Oakland USD’s tutoring efforts is a partnership that trains community members to become early literacy tutors in high-needs schools. Oakland REACH’s Literacy Liberator Model and Fellowship is a collaboration between the district and the nonprofit FluentSeeds, which provides tutors with training and feedback through regular observations and coaching sessions.
This is one reason CRPE’s researchers found that many of Oakland USD’s tutors felt “at least somewhat prepared for the job.”
“The fellowship aimed to equip parents and caregivers with the mindsets, skills and support they needed to succeed in the tutor role—far exceeding the conventional goals and methods for training tutors and other paraprofessionals,” the report attests. “Oakland REACH and FluentSeeds helped schools tap new talent pipelines and fill tutor vacancies.”
Here are several recommendations for district leaders who want to replicate Oakland USD’s promising literacy model:
- The closer a district can get to placing a tutor or paraprofessional in every classroom, the more small-group and differentiated instruction a school can provide. Tutors will also have access to more mentoring opportunities, which will enlarge the local pipeline into full-time teaching positions.
- Systematize collaboration between tutors and teachers. “The power of Oakland’s early literacy tutoring initiative rests in its integration into school-wide approaches to literacy instruction, starting by having an evidence-based curriculum,” CRPE’s research wrote. Tutors can also reduce teachers’ workload when they share a language about skill development and student progress. “Principals, teachers, and tutors should know they are on the same team—equally equipped and accountable for student progress,” the researchers added
- Invest in intentional recruiting, training and support for tutors. Oakland REACH and FluentSeeds have helped 46 Oakland parents and other community members develop the skills to support early literacy instruction. School leaders who intend to build these pipelines should keep in mind that tutors should be fairly compensated and even see meaningful opportunities for advancement. Otherwise, districts risk losing their investments in these new tutors.
- Optimize working conditions. Schedules, physical location and group sizes all impacted the performance of Oakland USD’s tutors. Centralized data monitoring will likely help school districts identify the most effective practices.