How this superintendent incorporated high-dosage tutoring that produces results

Guilford County Schools Superintendents has helped the district set its sights on three areas crucial for the success of her students post-pandemic: expanding learning, high-intensity tutoring and acceleration—not remediation—by teaching kids grade-level content.

Like nearly every other district before and during the pandemic, this superintendent’s students faced inequities and historic learning gaps. But with solid preparation and data-driven solutions came traction, which would inevitably raise student achievement across the board. The solution? High-dosage tutoring.

Pre-pandemic (2018-19), Guilford County Schools in North Carolina made gains in all tested subject areas among all student groups for the first time ever. Superintendent Whitney Oakley attributes this success to elevating leaders and supporting them in their efforts to guide their students.

“At the time, we were well-positioned for principals to truly serve as instructional leaders,” she says. “Our board of education had made it a priority to focus on investing in high-quality instructional resources that were aligned to state standards and kind of eliminated the wild west of Googling what you were going to teach the next day. That was kind of early! Other districts are just now starting to think about the implementation of those high-quality instructional resources.”

These solutions didn’t happen by chance, either. Their message as a district is, “We know how to do this,” she says. “We know how to make gains.”

Their preparation helped them to establish momentum, one that would carry on to this day.

“As the third-largest district in the state and the 50th-largest in our country, we’ve got to stay the course,” she explains. “We can’t do this ‘chase the shiny intervention program,’ of which there are thousands now.”

Using this framework, the district set its sights on three areas crucial for the success of her students post-pandemic: expanding learning, high-intensity tutoring and acceleration—not remediation—by teaching kids grade-level content.”

Guilford County Schools high dosage tutoring.

“We focused a great deal on those three things,” she says. However, she notes that the district’s implementation of effective, high-dosage tutoring has found the most success among all of its learning recovery strategies.

“I want to keep going until every student who needs a tutor has a tutor,” she explains. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to personalized instruction. Every student has a different set of needs, which only exacerbates the effectiveness of individual, high-dosage tutoring.

“We can’t just blanket hope,” she says. “We have to be specific, targeted and focused and use data.”

From a leadership perspective, she says there’s power in giving your team a voice, especially when it comes to meeting specific goals. When it came time to assess initiatives in her district, it was up to school leaders to be “vulnerable” in their expression of what is and isn’t working for their students.

“Sometimes we don’t do that until it’s too late,” she says. “When you think about change management and process improvement, I think we have to model that. We have 126 schools, and just the 68 elementary principals alone have a whole lot to say about how early literacy tutoring is going in their building. We should listen to them.”

As their efforts to strengthen personalized tutoring continued, they eventually established an entire tutoring department to keep up with the initiative’s growing traction.

“We had to centralize a whole department to be able to make sure that we are training tutors appropriately, we’re hiring them effectively, we’re placing them at the schools correctly and they’re tracking data to make sure that we know if the help is helping, not just in a formal program evaluation way, but really in a systems-level way,” she explains.

What sets this initiative apart is that it’s been designed from the ground up within the district itself. There are no third-party tutoring interventions, which ensures that students receive instruction specific to what’s being taught in their classrooms.

“We don’t want a tutoring program where they’re going to use their curriculum,” she says. “We want our tutors to be trained on our instructional resources before they meet with the student for the very first time.”

They also require robust training for their new tutors, including a two- to three-hour introductory training session for math tutors and an additional four hours for literacy tutors.

“They learn how to use our instructional resources,” she says. “They get access to them, and even receive legal and ethics training.”

She also describes how they select students for tutoring based on their specific needs.

“At the beginning, we used an algorithm to determine which students we would prioritize,” she says. “Those were students who had two or more risk factors for not graduating, including those who are English learners, students with a history of chronic absenteeism and students who were not proficient on one or more end-of-grade or end-of-course tests.”

By expanding their leadership within the tutoring department and using data to target specific needs, they’ve been able to double their tutoring hours compared to 2021-22. Those efforts included adding four additional positions to the department to reduce workloads, hiring their own high school students looking to fulfill service hours and contracting with local universities to pay for graduate student tutors. This year, they’ve been able to tutor nearly 8,000 students totaling more than 137,000 hours.

“We do have the largest HBCU in the country here, so we have Black and Brown engineering majors tutoring high school kids that look like them, and that’s huge,” she says. “It’s also a pipeline strategy because some of them say, ‘I like this! I think I want to get an education degree,’ and we’re like, ‘Yes!'”

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As a district, she says they’ve also learned just how impactful the teacher-tutor relationship is. It’s incredibly easy to default to homework help, “which is not tutoring,” she notes. To strengthen this bond, the district compensates its tutors for attending a weekly 30-minute meeting with classroom teachers.

“You identify the misconceptions and you think about what the skill gap was from the exit ticket the week before,” she explains. “There is meaningful, targeted skill-based conversation.”

As a result of these innovations, students not only benefit academically, but teachers lives become easier. Even the tutors regularly speak of the profound impact the department has had on their development, according to Oakley.

“They now have requested their own PLCs,” she says. “Our tutors log on twice a month and have a topic that they discuss. They want to grow professionally too. They say, ‘I need tips on making this engaging or I’ve seen this bubble up three or four times and I need a new strategy.’ It happened organically.”

All in all, successful, high-dosage tutoring relies on numerous engagement and strategies from a variety of stakeholders. But at its core, as evident in Guilford County Schools, it’s about listening, individualizing instruction, and allowing your leaders to do what they do best: lead.

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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