The nation is struggling to help students re-engage in school and recover lost learning time. Reformers have seized on tutoring as one promising solution. Tutoring has a strong research base, but only if done well. When implemented poorly, tutoring can even deepen equity gaps (because students who don’t necessarily need tutoring are also the most likely to use it). Opt-in programs in particular can struggle with participation, let alone quality issues.
So, to find out how tutoring programs can be done well, I reached out to Brandon Brown, the CEO of The Mind Trust, a nonprofit working to provide every Indianapolis student access to an excellent education. In addition to several other cool recovery efforts, I asked Brandon about Indiana Learns, a state-run program that matches low-performing students with free tutoring supports. What follows is a lightly edited version of our email conversation.
Chad Aldeman: Tell us about the Indiana Learns program. How does it work? Which students are eligible?
Brandon Brown: Indiana Learns is a tutoring grant program that was authorized by the Indiana General Assembly last year. Indiana Learns provides $1,000 scholarships to eligible families to use for English/Language Arts and Mathematics tutoring. It is a statewide collaborative effort between the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and The Mind Trust. The Mind Trust was selected to administer Indiana Learns because of our expertise in developing and implementing programs that yield positive results for students.
Students who meet eligibility requirements [for the tutoring] are able to access a renewable $1,000 grant to be used for high-dosage, high-quality tutoring. Families are able to claim the award by entering the student’s test number and birthdate into the Indiana Learns student portal. Once an account is established, families schedule tutoring services and monitor the account balance.
Importantly, awards may be renewed when the initial $1,000 grant is fully spent by the eligible family.
Aldeman: Where can families use the money?
Brown: Indiana Learns families are able to use the funds with approved providers, which are called Learning Partners. Organizations and schools that are seeking to provide support to Indiana Learns students complete an application process. Each application is reviewed and scored by an independent committee.
All approved providers must meet certain eligibility requirements, including maintaining a 1:4 tutor/student ratio, providing a minimum dosage of tutoring of 60 minutes per week, and keeping prices to no more than $100 per student/per session.
Aldeman: What makes the program unique?
Brown: The program has a few key areas that make it unique, which all focus on creating a program that is responsive to family and student needs. We’d point to three main components: infrastructure, ease of use, and partnerships.
The infrastructure of the program removes barriers to participation by facilitating all activities through the Indiana Learns student portal. Learning Partners post schedules, upload supporting documents, take attendance, and invoice for payments through the portal. As far as we know, Indiana Learns is one of very few programs that are able to provide both paper and electronic processes to access the infrastructure.
Families schedule tutoring sessions and monitor account balances within the portal. This eliminates the need for families to track and submit receipts for a reimbursement process. Families also have the ability to choose the tutoring service that best suits their student’s needs. Approved learning partners provide in person, on-line, hybrid, and summer program offerings. The availability of options and the ability to “shop around” for the best provider is a unique feature of the program.
It’s also a unique partnership between The Mind Trust and the state. The state was able to provide a significant amount of information to the Indiana Learns team about eligible students and thus our engagement efforts can be focused on known eligible students. It’s our understanding that very few other tutoring programs know their specific eligible students.
Aldeman: I’m impressed with how easy and clear it is for families to see if their child is eligible for tutoring. The program website lets users type in their child’s name and date of birth to see if they’re eligible. How were you able to do that? And what do parents see after they plug in that information?
Brown: Indiana Learns is able to provide an easily accessible platform through the data provided by IDOE and the infrastructure built by our technology partner, Student First Technology. The Mind Trust and IDOE made it a priority to create a platform and registration process that removes access barriers.
If eligible, families complete an agreement and establish the account. Then, families can immediately view the funds available and schedule tutoring with approved Learning Partners. Due to recent legislative updates to the program, eligible students now access an initial balance of $1,000.
Families can view approved Learning Partners in an online marketplace within the Indiana Learns portal. They can click on a Learning Partner to view their profile, contact information, and available schedule. To sign a student up for a session, the family only needs to make one click in the portal.
Aldeman: I follow you on Twitter X, and I love seeing your real-time updates on the number of students participating and the number of hours of tutoring they’ve received. Other tutoring efforts elsewhere have been plagued by low participation rates. What can you share about the Indiana Learns data you’re seeing? Is there any seasonality to participation? What gives you hope that students are benefitting from the program?
Brown: Indiana Learns launched its online portal for families in October 2022 for a pilot phase. Since then, over 10,000 students have claimed their grants, with over 18,000 hours of tutoring completed. Tutoring hours are growing exponentially – we’re setting new records almost every week. While it’s too early to definitively state academic impact, qualitative and formative data indicates growth is happening for students that participate in the program.
Aldeman: Some tutoring programs have been in the news lately for providing services that are little more than one-off homework help. Some “tutors” are being asked to work with multiple students, at different grade levels and different topics, all at the same time. How do ensure the tutoring students receive through Indiana Learns is actually high quality?
Brown: Indiana Learns has a rigorous application process for all Learning Partners. Providers must meet the requirements in order to become an approved Learning Partner and provide tutoring to Indiana Learns students. Applications are reviewed by an independent, statewide committee, with participation from the IDOE. The Mind Trust takes our role in facilitating this process very seriously because we feel strongly that only quality Learning Partners should have access to the program.
Aldeman: The program is funded through a state grant thanks to the federal ESSER funds. But those funds expire in 2024. What will happen to the program after that?
Brown: We are beginning to work with the Indiana Department of Education to determine a sustainability plan. While the program was initially funded by ESSER, it is also supported by other revenue streams that are long-standing grant programs. We believe it will take several more years of sustained effort for our state to get back to pre-pandemic achievement levels. And, we know that those levels were already too low. Continued statewide investment in this program will be critical to those efforts.
Aldeman: For other state or district leaders who are thinking about designing a tutoring program, what should they learn from your experience with Indiana Learns? If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
Brown: We have learned so much over the last year. There are a number of changes we made in collaboration with our state partners after the first phase of the program to make it more accessible to families and to ensure a robust offering of tutoring providers. The Mind Trust and the Indiana Learns team are happy to support other states as they consider their own programs.
The Mind Trust has implemented large-scale programs before, like our Indy Summer Learning Lab program in partnership with the United Way of Central Indiana. Through our work on Indiana Learns, we’ve learned some specific things on what a strong, statewide tutoring grant program should include.
First, a clearly defined eligible student population. This allows the program to create and deploy targeted communications focused on enrollment and completing tutoring services. Second, the program has a customized platform that lowers barriers to participation for students and learning partners. Third, our team has implemented an aggressive communications strategy to reach families, schools, and Learning Partners.
Regular, clear communication to various stakeholders is key to growing student enrollment and the number of tutoring providers. Families receive weekly email reminders focused on scheduling tutoring services, and school building leaders receive regular updates on the number of eligible families versus the number of enrolled students.
After more than a year creating and managing this program, we believe a statewide program designed to reach a broad range of students and effectively impact student learning outcomes requires more than 20 months from launch to expiration to have a significant impact on student learning.
Looking back, I think it’s very important to have sufficient planning time on the front end in order to build sufficient infrastructure and develop community engagement plans. Taking that time to get it right on the front end saves a bunch of headaches on the backend and greatly increases the chances for success. We also were able to work with our state partners this year to advocate for some legislative tweaks, such as allowing tutoring to take place during the school day, which we know from research is very important.
I am incredibly proud of the work our team at The Mind Trust and our partners at IDOE have done to set up a new, fully functioning program that is centered on the needs of Hoosier students and families. We knew going in this would challenge and stretch our team in new ways, but felt like we could make a real impact on students’ lives if we could set up a high-quality program. As we move forward, students and families will always be at the center of how we grow and improve Indiana Learns.