THE Journal Insider

Tutoring Triumphs in Texas: Ector County ISD's Unique Approach is Yielding Remarkable Results

When pandemic shutdowns began, Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, was already preparing to tackle the kinds of challenges and learning losses that COVID-19 would inflict on America’s public schools.

ECISD had begun Fall 2019 semester with a brand new superintendent: Scott Muri, Ed.D., who’d just spent four years as superintendent at Spring Branch ISD in Houston.

When he landed in Odessa, Muri immediately began an aggressive academic recovery plan — setting extraordinary goals and launching research-backed methods to achieve them, in a district that was failing most of Texas' public-school accountability standards: About half the district’s 44 schools were rated a ‘D’ or ‘F’ by the state; 21% of students were considered chronically absent; 18% of the district’s 1,980 teacher positions were vacant; and ECISD’s overall academic growth grade was a 59/F, according to district records.

Muri began looking into digital tutoring providers and recommendations from researchers on how to implement tutoring in a broadly diverse district where almost half of the 33,500 students were economically disadvantaged. He also signed the district up for a study with Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research, piloting outcomes-based contract tutoring — paying tutors based on evidence of growth, rather than strictly based on tutoring hours.

In Spring 2020, ECISD began its first trial using an outcomes-based contract with a virtual tutoring provider, Muri told THE Journal in the newest episode of THE Journal Insider podcast.

The pilot included 40 middle school students, who would each receive nearly 20 hours a trimester of after-school tutoring in a supervised physical space together, and students also worked online one-on-one with the same tutor over the course of the pilot. Tutors used NWEA MAP growth data and feedback from teachers to identify target skills for intervention, according to Harvard’s summary of the project.

Then the pandemic hit the United States.

The pilot was already showing impressive results, Muri said, so it was accelerated and expanded to 6,000 students that summer. The sessions were made a part of the school day; the district discovered different providers' varying formats weren't necessarily one-format-fits-all — high-schoolers prefer chatting with their tutors, elementary students get more out of video sessions with their tutors, is one example — so ECISD landed on four different tutoring providers, Muri said. 

The district is seeing remarkable results across a number of academic and learning indicators.  

“In some cases, students were achieving over 2 years’ worth of growth; those results were exciting for us,” he explains in the newest episode of THE Journal Insider. “Good learning research says that the reason growth happens at an accelerated rate is because of the structured environment that we've created — simply giving (access to hours of tutoring) to kids and asking them to do it on their own does not yield the kind of results that we get.”

Over the three years since the tutoring program began, ECISD has achieved remarkable progress: The district’s overall academic growth rating has jumped to 85/B; almost half the district’s schools are now rated ‘A’ or ‘B’; 18 schools showed double-digit gains in state assessments; STAAR scores improved in almost every subject area; teacher vacancies have dropped from over 350 to 40; and ECISD’s graduate rate of 85.5% is the highest its been in over two decades, according to state education data.

Muri said he believes the outcomes-based contract approach with the tutoring providers ECISD uses — which include FEV Tutor, Air Tutors, and Amplify — has also boosted the success of the district’s tutoring efforts.

This approach means “you design a contract with the tutoring provider that pays them based upon the academic growth of students, so if students are growing a year and a half or two years (academically) in a given year, then those tutoring companies make more money,” Muri said. “But if the students are not growing, the companies do not make money on (tutoring) those kids.

“The outcomes-based contract really requires that everybody has a lot of skin in the game — the providers, the tutors, and the district.”

View and download a sample of ECISD’s outcomes-based contract addendum here.

In the 25-minute February episode of THE Journal Insider, Muri discusses a number of insights gained from the district’s tutoring program, including the following:

  • Different tutoring companies deliver their tutoring in a variety of channels — video, chat-based, and or a combination — and each channel is more effective for one age group than it will be for a different age group.
  • Professionally trained tutors are far more effective than, say, college students who are tutoring because they’re really good at a particular subject, for example.
  • Each student participating in tutoring should have a long-term tutoring plan that is data-driven and created by the teacher in conjunction with the tutoring provider.
  • Tutors who are required to use the district curriculum are far more effective at improving learning outcomes.
  • Tutors who are required to work in communication with each student’s teacher are far more effective at improving learning outcomes.
  • Tutoring sessions must be structured, included in the school day, and overseen or supervised by an educator — this is considered high-dosage tutoring, versus opt-in tutoring where a student has access to a tutor but isn’t required to participate a set amount of time each week.
  • Mid-way through a school year and at the end of a school year, each student’s assessment data should be used to determine whether a tutoring plan is working and helping a student catch up — and adjustments made if needed, he said.
  • Districts can save a lot of time on RFPs and the process of selecting a tutoring provider by using the Texas Education Agency’s list of vetted tutoring companies, published after a new state law passed in 2021 requiring 30 hours of accelerated learning time for each student failing state assessments in core subjects.

“Tutoring based upon sound research is the most effective way to accelerate student learning,” Muri said. “However, it must be implemented with fidelity: when you think about investing financial resources that yield a positive return, tutoring — whether face-to-face or virtual — will do that, but only if it is done right. Fidelity of implementation and structured implementation is the way to maximize results.”

Watch the podcast discussion below or stream the episode on your preferred podcast app to hear Muri explain each of his recommendations for district-wide tutoring programs.