‘Essential government-funded youth programs could be repurposed to transform the current potpourri of citywide services into a comprehensive public-private partnership focused on creating a rigorous academic tutoring system, with education and youth workers at the core.’ 

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

A scene from the first day of the 2020/2021 school year in September.

New York City must use a powerful tool to eliminate a widening academic abyss that hundreds of thousands of New York City public students face in the unsettling COVID-19 era, and beyond. Tutoring students from Pre-K through 12th grade, one-on-one or using small group instruction, is a proven and effective way to help students of all backgrounds and circumstances to learn. So many of our schoolchildren are falling hopelessly behind due to the lack of quality academic support, but the trend does not need to continue.

New York City’s public schools struggled to meet the academic needs of students long before the coronavirus pandemic, when our massive, decentralized educational system ground to an unanticipated halt. What followed has been a well-intentioned but sputtering attempt to provide a basic education to over 1.1 million students enrolled in the city’s school system via remote, hybrid and limited in-person learning for younger children and students with disabilities. With so much time and effort devoted to COVID-19 response and a valiant effort to get children back into full time in-person learning, not enough thought has been put into how we might reshape the city’s educational system moving forward to get schoolkids on track academically.

New Yorkers deserve a clear plan to close this massive academic achievement gap. Our future as an equitable city built on the promise of opportunity depends on it. Mayor Bill de Blasio was right when he declared late last year, “We must close the COVID achievement gap,” but his proposed six-point framework to do so excludes tutoring services to help disadvantaged students catch up.

The mayor’s scheme to conduct assessments to monitor students’ progress, providing a digital curriculum for every school, professional development for educators, and confronting trauma and mental health crisis for students is an important start, but does not help to resolve the growing educational crisis that we face.

The academic challenge is real. The need to confront glaring basic human needs exists. According to the New York City Department of Education:

  • Over 1 of 10 students don’t speak English as their primary language. 1 out of 5 are students with identified disabilities.
  • 1 out of every 4 students will drop out of high school.
  • Close to 3 of 4 students are from low-income families. And most public schools in poorer neighborhoods provide free lunch to 100 percent of children.
  • A public school system comprised of 85 percent students of color is stressed in every way.

Too many students are behind grade level, a number that will only continue to grow as COVID-19 further upends their learning and lives. What is most troubling is we know that once students are behind, it can be very difficult for them to catch up. With overcrowded classrooms and overstretched resources, tutoring is a proven and agreed upon strategy that we know can equalize dramatic academic backsliding driven by stark racial, economic, housing and zip code-of-residence disparities.

A recent J-PAL North America research ​study​ highlights the significant positive impact that tutoring programs can have on student learning. J-PAL’s Tutoring Evidence Review found that tutoring effectively combats inevitable COVID-19 learning loss, improves student learning outcomes, and reduces the growth of academic disparities.

New York City and State currently invest hundreds of millions of taxpayer money in afterschool, community school, youth cornerstone centers and summer camp programs to support low-income and working families. These programs are not currently focused on academic tutoring. My nonprofit organization, Grand St. Settlement, is one of the largest city-funded providers of these critical youth services in Lower Manhattan and in many of the highest need communities of Brooklyn. We believe that essential government-funded youth programs could be repurposed to transform the current potpourri of citywide services into a comprehensive public-private partnership focused on creating a rigorous academic tutoring system, with education and youth workers at the core. These tutoring services could be provided by experienced teachers, nonprofit educational workers and service corps members along with existing social services and mental health support for children and their families.

What would a scalable and comprehensive citywide tutoring program look like? New York City, with our immense brainpower and grit, could develop and implement a bold, grand and inspired program to lift up to a million students out of educational poverty. Valuable insights and best practices from the J-PAL evaluation highlight key program design and effectiveness elements that could be adapted and adopted:

  • Tutoring programs consistently lead to large improvements in learning outcomes for students.
  • Tutoring programs led by teacher or paraprofessional tutors are generally more effective than programs that use volunteer or parent tutors. Paraprofessional programs led to positive effects of nearly the same magnitude as teacher programs and were more consistent in their outcomes. This is a potentially cost-effective option for highly impactful programming.
  • The effects of tutoring programs tend to be greatest among students in earlier grades, although a smaller set of programs at the secondary grade level was also found to be effective at improving learning outcomes. With New York City’s groundbreaking universal Pre-K system, there is a tremendous opportunity to give every child a real head start with tutoring support.
  • While the overall effects for math and reading tutoring programs are about the same, reading tutoring tends to be more effective for students in preschool and primary school. And math tutoring manages to be more effective for students in second through fifth grade. Subject matter tutoring could easily be incorporated into city-funded summer camp and afterschool programs to offset the learning achievement gap.
  • Tutoring programs conducted during school tend to have larger impacts than those conducted after school. This is notable because comprehensive tutoring could be integrated into the city’s successful Community School and Beacon models, which embed experienced, culturally-competent nonprofit groups like Grand Street with low performing schools to improve educational outcomes.

There is no time to waste. We do not have to helplessly stand by as hundreds of thousands of our city’s future leaders slip even further into an academic void. Let’s invest in teaching all of our children to learn how to learn through tutoring, from preschool through high school.

Robert Cordero serves as Executive Director of Grand St. Settlement in New York City, a nonprofit settlement house founded in 1916 that currently serves over 13,000 families. 

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