by Sarah Toulouse, Executive Director, ASSET Inc.
This month, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona addressed the country’s teacher shortage, calling for a revamping of the profession. His vision includes more teacher supports like mentorships, hands-on experiences and concerted efforts to attract more students of color into the profession.
Earlier this year, his focus was on students and the need for robust tutoring programs in the overall effort to overcome pandemic learning loss and advance equity.
At ASSET Inc., both messages are music to our ears.
They not only affirm the new path we have taken over the last year, they set Pittsburgh on a course to once again serve as a national model for education innovation – a path ASSET helped forge nearly 30 years ago when it was founded to drive systemic science education reform throughout the region.
Our mission then was to support teachers in the shift to hands-on, inquiry-based science learning by providing them with ongoing professional development and coaching necessary for student-focused science learning.
We’re still in the business of teacher preparation. But our work has evolved. To ensure we’re an organization fit for purpose, our focus now is on preservice educators and high-impact tutoring, simultaneously addressing the needs of two sets of learners.
High-impact tutoring is defined as one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups at least three times a week delivered by professionals and paraprofessionals.
Pandemic-related learning loss has been acutely felt among K-12 students in Black, Brown, and low-income communities – something the latest results of the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA) exams confirm.
But learning loss is not only an issue for K-12 students. It is also impacting our newest generation of teachers. Think about it. Many who are in college today training to be the professional educators of tomorrow have been deprived of their necessary classroom field experiences. They’ve also had to learn new skills in the shift to remote teaching environments, a likely reality for the foreseeable future, even as we return to in-person activities.
For ASSET and those we serve, learning recovery has begun.
With generous support from Richard King Mellon Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation, we have expanded a pilot tutoring program begun last Spring in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, A+ Schools, and Duquesne University.
Through these innovative new partnerships, and also now in collaboration with Carlow University, University of Pittsburgh Johnstown and Westminster College, ASSET is integrating tutoring field experiences into curriculum and course requirements at schools of education.
What began as a crisis response is now the formal PALS program, which has grown steadily since Spring 2021. It is driving education equity by training and providing tutors in the form of preservice teachers to students in some of Pittsburgh’s most under-resourced communities. Today, 79 preservice educators have provided 699 no-cost tutoring sessions to 118 Allegheny County learners, primarily at out-of-school-time (OST) programs in Pittsburgh’s Northside, Lincoln-Larimer and Sheraden neighborhoods.
In addition, under the aegis of the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, ASSET has assumed a leadership role, coordinating and advancing tutoring efforts regionwide by convening a coalition of OST programs and community partners.
Mounting research has shown high-impact tutoring is effective in reversing learning loss and getting students back to grade level. Finding tutors, however, is another matter. ASSET is not only finding them in the teachers of tomorrow, we’re training them, too.
Affluent families have long employed tutors for their children. Now, through this innovative new program of tackling two birds with one stone – learning loss among students and preservice teachers – less affluent families will have access to this effective remedy.
There’s a kind of symmetry here – two sets of learners helping each other.
And it couldn’t come any sooner.
A recent RAND study reports nearly one in four educators planned to leave their jobs by the end of the 20–21 school year, while other studies have found that new teachers have a particularly high attrition rate, due primarily to stress. An antidote to this is the kind of continuous professional learning and development that PALS and other ASSET services provide, which research shows play a critical role in retaining teachers.
Right now, school districts across the country are currently receiving funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Pittsburgh Public Schools has been allocated roughly $100 million. Twenty percent of the ARPA funding has been earmarked to address learning loss. Given that requirement, just imagine how many of our students could benefit from high-impact tutoring?
Around the country, some have called for a national tutoring corps to address the intellectual potential we risk losing. Others are focused on reforming the education profession to stave off a teacher shortage.
Whatever the case, as ASSET grows and scales this program, we believe Pittsburgh will be in a unique position to help lead the way to learning recovery.