For eight years running, Tutors for All programs have achieved jaw-dropping results for Boston kids and the organizations that serve them.
How have our programs accomplished this? While each program in our history has its own unique story, we believe that seven key elements unite them and offer a roadmap to follow.
- High Quality Oversight
- Professionalization of Tutors
- 1:1 or 1:2 Ratios
- Balanced Collaboration and Autonomy
- Regular Assessment and Progress Monitoring
- Tutors for All (not Some)
- Leveraged Subsidies for Service
Over the next few months, we’ll be spending some time discussing each of them. Our goal: a conversation among experts and beginners on how effective programs can work.
Today’s topic: High Quality Oversight.
Of the seven elements, High Quality Oversight is the most fundamental and the most difficult.
We’ll start with the fundamentals: running a highly effective tutorial program is a complex task. At the very least, it involves the following skills:
- Teaching. Program Managers need to sell tutorial credibly to students, model effective relationship-building and instruction for tutors, and serve as a “backstop” for student accountability issues. In other words, they must be a strong teachers. Analyses of a teacher’s essential qualities are legion, so we won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that a strong Program Manager has presence with the kids while creating a highly structured environment, all in the service of a larger vision of student growth and possibility.
- Coaching. Teachers “take the field” as direct instructors of young people. They pitch, kick, and run the bases themselves (shameless plug for Kickball for All 2015). A Program Manager’s impact, on the other hand, is indirect – mediated by the tutors who work individually with students. PM’s effect change through their ability to guide less experienced educators as they develop a presence, structure, and vision of their own. As such, they must be excellent coaches.
- Leadership. Tutoring is hard work; so, ideally, is being tutored. While each provide intrinsic benefits, all tutors and students will benefit from (and at times require) the function of leadership: “to catalyze a clear and compelling vision that is shared by the group and acted upon.” Communicating and enacting such a vision is a crucial task of any program manager.
- Management. Each of the skills above contain an element of management in them, be in the HR or classroom management sense. However, the sheer number of “moving parts” involved in running an effective tutorial program – students and tutors, curriculum and payroll among them – make this worth noting as a separate category. Without the organization and delegation skills necessary to run this complex endeavor tightly, even the best teacher, coach, and leader will struggle.
If these skills look familiar, it may be because you (or someone you know) is a school principal. In fact, an effective Program Manager functions significantly like a Principal of a school within a school, with his/her own staff, students, and educational vision.
Here’s where things get difficult. No one would hire someone right out of college to serve as a Principal – if there’s a “PfA” program out there, I’m not aware of it. However, few schools make room in their budgets for a similarly qualified educational leader to run their after-school tutoring program.
All too often schools ask an Americorps member (or someone with comparable experience) to run things, with predictable results. Kids and tutors get frustrated, attrition of both is rampant, and when the tutorial manager finishes his/her year of service (or gets a “promotion” within the school) everything goes back to square one.
In a perfect world, tutorial programs would fully budget for High Quality Oversight. After all, the return on investment of a highly effective program is immense, whereas that of a typical program is negligible. At the same time, however, the financial incentives and performance incentives in most schools are not highly aligned. Spending $30k on something that doesn’t have an impact is frequently more palatable than spending $100k on something that does.
This means that some compromise is necessary. The good news is that High Quality Oversight can be achieved at a sustainable cost if one is willing to plan for turnover in the position.
At Tutors for All, we’ve found all of our Program Managers from two inter-related talent pools:
- Teachers at highly effective schools with one to three years of experience who are interested in a different professional opportunity;
- Tutors from highly effective tutorial programs (including our own!) who have developed the skills and leadership necessary through experience in these programs.
The upside – these folks make terrific Program Managers. The downside – unless you can budget for them as the educational leaders they become, they are likely to transition from your program to other opportunities.
If you or your school run tutorial programs, what’s your experience been with oversight? If you’re considering starting one, what ideas come to mind? We at T4A believe strongly in a certain way of doing things, but we don’t have a monopoly on the answers. Hoping to hear from more than a few of you on this, especially if you have questions or disagree.
Mark Destler, Executive Director
 from Collins, James and Lazier, William, Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business into a Great Company. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 1992, pg 5