Covering the Land of Lincoln

Closing the gap ISU leads tutoring program aimed at helping students impacted by COVID learning disruptions

Eighth-grader Fischer Killian sat in a Bloomington Junior High School classroom last spring and offered a blunt assessment of remote learning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“It was terrible,” Killian said.


Illinois State: Summer 2022




He took his courses online from home the previous year. Speaking through a Spider-Man-branded face covering, he talked about the haphazard nature of the lessons and how easily he could duck out of class.

“First of all, nothing was really planned because it was their first time doing this. And the lessons just weren’t good. It was pretty boring.”

The pandemic has increased education across the United States. Schools have switched from in-person instruction to remote learning and back again as the number of coronavirus cases have waxed and waned. Many parents held their children out of in-person classes for the entirety of the 2020-2021 school year due to understandable concerns about placing unvaccinated students together in close quarters. These disruptions have left a noticeable mark, statistically and anecdotally, on students.

Last fall the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) reported drops of nearly 17 and 18 percent, respectively, in the number of students meeting grade-level standards in English language arts and math between 2019 and 2021. The Chicago Tribune noted that one in five Illinois students were chronically absent during the 2020–2021 school year a 21 percent increase from 2019.

“There is a gap, and I think it’s just exactly what the students were reporting,” said Diane Gallucci ’96, MSE ’01, an eighth-grade teacher at Bloomington Junior High School. “Even though many students did show themselves online and did come to school in our Zoom sessions, they didn’t have the focus as if they were here in person. I feel like some students are just getting back into that mode of learning this year.”

“What we learned through COVID is that face-to-face, personal contact with students really impacts their ability to gain new content. And so we call it learning disruption rather than learning loss, because part of that is thinking about, ‘Well, did they really move backward or was their learning paused?’”

– Tutoring Initiative Director Dr. Christy Borders

Illinois State’s College of Education (COE) is leading a $25 million federally funded initiative to help close this learning chasm by offering high-impact tutoring at schools across the state. Gallucci coordinates the tutoring effort at her school where students such as Killian meet with university-provided tutors three times a week for small-group and one-on-one sessions in math.

The University is the central office for the Illinois Tutoring Initiative in partnership with the Governor’s Office, the ISBE, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and the Illinois Community College Board. ISU is one of six regional hiring institutions, along with Governor’s State University, Illinois Central College, Northern Illinois University, Southeastern Illinois Community College, and Southern Illinois University.

Tutoring Initiative Director Dr. Christy Borders is at the epicenter of this daunting two-year endeavor. The former director of ISU’s Cecilia J. Lauby Teacher Education Center and her colleague Kim Champion were tasked with creating the novel tutoring program, with an initial goal to provide math and reading tutors to thousands of students in grades three through eight. This effort is requiring the University and its partners to screen, hire, train, and place tutors in schools most impacted by the pandemic.

“COVID impacted every single classroom, impacted every single kid, whether they were online or face-to-face,” Borders said. “What we learned through COVID is that face-to-face, personal contact with students really impacts their ability to gain new content. And so we call it learning disruption rather than learning loss, because part of that is thinking about, ‘Well, did they really move backward or was their learning paused?’ What we want to do with high-impact tutoring is take them from where they’re at and get them moving forward again.”

Champion, the program’s Institutional Partner Office coordinator, hopes the Tutoring Initiative will benefit students and teachers alike. “The COVID outbreak has revealed and widened existing educational disparities. High-impact tutoring is evidence-based in responding to students’ individual needs and proven to accelerate learning.”

Illinois State was chosen as the lead agency because of a plan put forward in summer 2021 by then COE Dean Dr. Jim Wolfinger, which was based in part on the Cecilia J. Lauby Teacher Education Center’s creation of an e-tutoring program during the pandemic. That smaller-scale program placed Illinois State teacher candidates as online tutors for families and students across the state.

Funding for the Tutoring Initiative was released in fall 2021, and tutors began working in some schools the following March. In those few short months, Borders worked with colleagues across the University to develop an evidence-based approach known as high-impact tutoring. The program is designed for tutors to meet one-one-one or with groups of no more than three students for one hour, three times a week for eight to 14 weeks. Lessons are tied to what students are learning in the classroom.

“High-impact tutoring is one of the only research-based interventions that has shown impacts in both reading and math across multiple grade levels,” Borders said. Eight Illinois State faculty members from units across campus served as research fellows to design the tutoring program, create the online training modules, and develop processes that allow tutors to receive feedback.

illustration of Dr.  Jeremy Larson

“Our most at-risk families are the ones who were greatly impacted by the pandemic. This is not only good for my students. This is great for my economy, and for my labor workforce.”

– Paris School District Superintendent Jeremy Larson

Some research fellows will assess the overall effectiveness of the tutoring programs. Others like Mathematics Education Professor Dr. Jeffrey Barrett focus on narrower questions. He is examining how to guide, support, and develop math tutors.

“It’s a challenge to get the workforce in place,” Barrett said. “Let’s assume we get the workforce in place and we have the tutors engaged. Our challenge in terms of research is to learn from this situation and do better with what we understand about tutoring. There’s a hole in the research literature in my opinion.”

The tutoring program serves a very practical purpose: providing economic stimulus and decent-paying jobs in towns and cities that need them. Tutors are paid $20 per hour for one-on-one and $30 per hour for small-group sessions. They are also compensated for their training, travel, and prep work. Successful candidates just need a clean background check and a high school diploma or the equivalent.

“We’re trying to remove the barriers that would prevent someone from taking a high-intensity position,” Borders said. “Some people may think that anybody can tutor—just go to meet a kid at the library and go through their homework. This isn’t that, and so we want to be able to pay well for the hard work involved in high-impact tutoring.”

illustration of Institutional Partner Office Coordinator Kim Champion

“The COVID outbreak has revealed and widened existing educational disparities. High-impact tutoring is evidence-based in responding to students’ individual needs and proven to accelerate learning.”

– Institutional Partner Office Coordinator Kim Champion

The program is already having an impact in Paris, a town of about 8,000 near the Illinois-Indiana border that has its share of poverty and unemployment, according to Paris School District Superintendent Jeremy Larson. He recruited 35 individuals from the community to tutor more than 100 students. The tutoring pool includes student-teachers, local parents, college students, and community members looking for an organized way to mentor children.

“Our most at-risk families are the ones who were greatly impacted by the pandemic. This is not only good for my students. This is great for my economy, and for my labor workforce,” said Larson, who hopes students will be helped in a couple of ways.

“Number one, I want these kids to have healthy, responsible relationships with a good, quality adult. It’s so important for kids to get attention and to get time and have conversations and to build relationships and to be inspired by healthy adults. The other thing I hope to get is quality instruction to help them recover in reading and math. I think those two things go hand in hand.”

Gallucci wants the same outcomes in her school. “I think our staff does a fantastic job of teaching and trying to bridge those gaps that are there. The tutoring is just a fantastic added piece of support. It can build that relationship with that adult. The students can ask questions that maybe they don’t feel comfortable in class asking, and can get clarification, understanding, and confidence to get back in the classroom and feel on par with the rest of their peers.”

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