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Michigan Gov. Whitmer proposes $280 million tutoring investment

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
(Bridge file photo)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to spend $280 million to vet and pay tutors in an effort to help Michigan students recover from pandemic learning loss.

The proposal, which requires approval from Republican lawmakers, marks a shift for state leaders who have not previously emphasized tutoring as an academic recovery tool even as researchers made clear that many students were falling behind.

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“I am calling on my fellow Michiganders who want to see our kids succeed to join the effort to get our kids back on track,” Whitmer said in a statement.

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Tutoring, if done right, is “among the most effective education interventions ever to be subjected to rigorous evaluation,” according to a 2021 paper that laid out a blueprint for expanding tutoring in public schools following the pandemic. Those interventions are badly needed in Michigan, where academic growth slowed down sharply during the pandemic, particularly for students who are female, Black, or come from low-income families.

Yet only about a quarter of school districts statewide mentioned tutoring in COVID spending proposals totaling $62 million, according to research by reporters from Chalkbeat Detroit, Bridge Michigan and the Detroit Free Press. The reporters analyzed more than 800 district spending plans that were submitted to the state by December. 

Unlike at least 14 other states, Michigan did not spend any of its state-level share of COVID aid to support tutoring programs, reporters found. State leaders did little to encourage districts to make tutoring a priority. Whitmer declined to comment on the group’s reporting earlier this month.

Now, with state revenues forecast to continue climbing, Whitmer is proposing to get the state more involved in tutoring. She proposes spending state dollars to run background checks on potential tutors and pay them for their work with students. Tutoring programs could run before, during, or after school.

It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

The Michigan Department of Education’s current guidance on tutoring best practices, which it provided to districts in presentations about federal COVID-19 relief dollars, includes making tutoring part of the school day; making it school-wide; maintaining low student to teacher ratios; creating consistent relationships between students and tutors; using high-quality curriculum; ensuring tutors get ongoing support and training; and offering frequent tutoring sessions, which typically means three or more times per week.

Thomas Kane, an economist and the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University wrote in The Atlantic this month that there are few evidence-based strategies that exist to catch students up at the level of which they missed instruction. But he said high dosage tutoring, where a trained tutor works with no more than four students at a time, three times a week for a whole year, can produce “an average gain equivalent to 19 weeks of instruction.”

A Whitmer spokesman did not immediately return a request for clarification about how the program, called MI Kids Back on Track, would work.

In a statement, Whitmer asked citizens to sign up online. The form asks would-be tutors to indicate their preferred grade levels, subjects, and school districts, and whether they would need to be paid in order to work as tutors.

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake Township, told Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan he needs to see more details of the proposal before deciding whether to support the initiative. He said he is unsure who would serve as tutors.

“I just don’t believe you’re going to be able to have the current overworked, understaffed teachers do this,” he said. 

Runestad, who serves on both the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he supported GOP-backed legislation last year that would have allowed private donors, including businesses, to contribute to scholarships that could be used for education expenses including tutoring

Whitmer vetoed that legislation in November, saying it would unfairly divert public money to private donors through tax credits.

Whitmer’s new plan follows a GOP-backed tutoring proposal that takes a different approach.

Rep. Julie Alexander, R-Hanover, and Sen. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, are proposing a program that would give students grants of up to $1,500 for education expenses,  including tutoring, courses, software, curriculum, before- and after-school programming, academic day camps and other education services. The funds could not be used for tuition or expenses at a private school. 

The plan would give priority to students from low-income families and those who can demonstrate “academic deficiency” through report cards or test scores, for example. 

The House and Senate education committees have both passed the bills with the grant program.

Democrats called the program another attempt at school vouchers and said it would distribute funds inefficiently.

The lack of state-level leadership on tutoring until now has left a small-scale, uneven patchwork of tutoring programs around Michigan that falls far short of the broad effort that experts say would be needed to make a major dent in student learning loss statewide.

Along with analyzing over 800 district spending plans submitted to the state, Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan surveyed, interviewed or visited 16 school districts across the state and found that districts primarily offered tutoring in before- or after-school programs, the student-tutor ratios were often higher than the recommended ratio and districts were often relying on their own personnel for tutors. 

District leaders also often chose to use their own staff citing highly-trained individuals who already had built relationships with students. But reporters found this often limited the scale of tutoring initiatives as districts cope with staffing shortages and teacher exhaustion. 

Some schools reported higher student confidence and higher benchmark scores among students who received tutoring.

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering K-12 schools and early childhood education. Contact Koby at klevin@chalkbeat.org.

Isabel Lohman covers education for Bridge Michigan. You can reach her at ilohman@bridgemi.com.

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