Santa, California, schoolchildren need tutors for Christmas

Teach us, Santa baby.

Don’t bother bringing Californians four leaping lords or eight swimming swans, St. Nick. What we need now is 5.9 million tutors, one for every public school student.

I could fill a giant sack with all the research showing that one-on-one tutoring is students’ best bet for catching up academically after two long years interrupted by the pandemic. On tests last spring, half of California students did not meet state standards in English. In math, two-thirds of all students fell short. California’s eighth grade students are performing at the fifth grade level in mathematics.

Tutoring is the best gift you can give kids this Christmas, and not just because it’s been proven to be the best way for students to rapidly advance their achievement. California children, after years of isolation, desperately need the connection to learning that qualified one-on-one tutors (teachers, school staff, older students with training) can provide given enough time, ideally three sessions per week.

Why do you need to intervene, Santa? Because you always deliver, while California, out of the good intentions of all adults, strives to run programs that serve children. Despite increases in school funding, this state does not provide high-quality teachers or enough tuition and counseling. Despite the massive expansion of health programs, California’s children are not that healthy.

Rather than create an efficient system to solve any of these problems, California prefers to placate interest groups by creating smaller, fragmented programs that don’t really fit together.

This is what is happening with tutoring.

Instead of creating a comprehensive tutoring program for each child, the state is distributing educational recovery funds statewide for smaller programs. During the pandemic, California sent nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus funds for learning loss to local school districts, with so little oversight that we don’t know how much was spent on tutoring or if that tutoring helped students.

A new $8 billion grant this year is more promising because it is restricted to intensive tutoring, literacy intervention, counseling and extra learning time. But it’s not yet clear how much tutoring it will produce.

Why not?

One reason is that our volatile state budget, running a surplus last year, is now facing projected deficits with the looming recession. Could some money be recovered to plug the budget holes? Another is that our school districts, like employers everywhere, report that they cannot hire or train enough people to be tutors. Yet another: Teachers, exhausted by the pandemic (among other things), are leaving the profession, not clamoring to add tutoring roles.

As a result, we are building a fragmented system of tutoring and academic support.

Some of those pieces are quite useful. The state just invested $250 million to hire literacy coaches in low-income elementary schools over the next five years. The California State Library provides free online homework assistance for California K-12 students, available through HelpNow, a 24-hour, real-time, live platform with qualified tutors answering questions. Governor Newsom recently launched the College Corps, California’s version of AmeriCorps and Peace Corps. Half of its first class of 3,250 California college and community college students are working as tutors and mentors in school districts and after-school programs.

There is no shortage of ideas about expanding mentorship, inside and outside of government, for California to take advantage of. The Khan Academy founder is trying to create an online tutoring marketplace. An MIT professor is presenting a way to use artificial intelligence for tutoring aimed at academic recovery. And at the federal level, there are proposals in Congress to expand AmeriCorps’ national network of community services to make mentoring a priority.

But none of this equates to what it takes: dedicated tutors, who can teach one-on-one several times a week, earn our kids’ trust, and get our students up to speed.

Perhaps, in a different state and country, at a different time, a time like this could be seen as an opportunity to remake public education into a more personalized and effective system.

But that is not happening. Because in 21st century California, providing what is necessary would be a miracle.

So, it’s up to you, Santa Claus. How many guardians can you fit on your sled?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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