The past year required teachers, parents and students alike to rethink the ways education is developed and administered. As learning moved online, the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing opportunity gaps in education and elevated the need for effective interventions and supplements. Strong evidence suggests that tutoring is an effective method for learning, and government organizations and philanthropies began to consider investments in tutoring as a potential intervention for the COVID crisis in learning.
Interested specifically in middle years math tutoring, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wanted to investigate how tutoring can positively impact learning outcomes particularly for Black and Latino students and those experiencing poverty. In collaboration with the Foundation, iF was asked to help develop a Target Program Profile (TPP) that articulated a researched-based hypothesis of what makes an effective tutoring program based on literature review, experts, and first-hand accounts from all involved stakeholders.
Like any education initiative, tutoring is susceptible to systemic racism, unconscious bias and oppression. As part of building the TPP, iF’s research needed to uncover what successful programs use to combat racism and oppression in order to create an equitable intervention. This meant our team needed to:
- Prioritize the voices of students and families of color for whom the programs were designed to support and
- Employ more equity-centered design practices in the way we engaged with stakeholders and developed the content of the TPP.
During interviews with stakeholders, we went to additional lengths to humanize the interactions. As much as possible, we wanted to remove some of the artificial distance between “interviewer and interviewee,” and to foster a sense of mutuality in the relationship: we wanted them to feel heard, and feel comfortable offering their candid point of view. Prioritizing more mutual conversation encouraged the interviewees to speak to what felt important to them and set the tone for the interviews: one of partnership and passion for the impact that effective tutoring can have.
From the very beginning of the project, iF took a stakeholder-centered approach. We conducted 50+ interviews with individuals representing a variety of stakeholder groups, including students, parents, tutors, teachers, principals, district leaders, tutoring providers and tutoring experts. Using those interviews, we formed one co-design team of 8 individuals who were either principals, teachers, or tutors. The team worked to include students, but the project timing prevented it. Once established, the co-design team completed 2 workshops and an asynchronous review to help us as we synthesized insights from interviews and then iterated drafts of the TPP.
With the backing of 50+ interviews, 8 co-designers and secondary research, the iF team was able to deliver the Gates Foundation a framework of 7 drivers that lead to an effective, scalable, and equitable tutoring intervention. This framework is already being used with partners to drive innovation in the field.
- Curriculum Alignment
Curriculum alignment Programs align their sessions with school curriculum, focusing on conceptual understanding of priority standards.
- Data-informed decisions
Programs use data to inform enrollment, session content, and program evaluation.
- High-quality sessions
Programs employ regular, small group sessions with purposeful structures that engage students.
- High-quality tutors
Programs develop skilled, relational tutors through selective recruitment and ongoing training.
- School integration
Programs integrate directly into school schedules and collaborate closely with school and district staff.
- Innovative technology
Programs lower cost while increasing reach and impact through blended and virtual solutions.
- Affordable cost
Programs achieve a sufficiently low price per student and secure a reliable funding source.
As usual, we learned a lot during this process, not just about math tutoring programs, but about what makes for successful stakeholder engagement, particularly when equity is concerned. The avenues the iF team took to research and create the TPP required thought and intention. There were two major takeaways from the project:
- The importance of committing to equity from the outset
At a very practical level, we prioritized the time and budget for the more involved work of things like first-hand engagement with stakeholders and co-design from day one. This enabled us to stay committed to those processes even as conditions changed. That commitment was also reflected in the way iFsters asked questions during internal meetings, and the issues we’re comfortable raising as we iterated and improved on the process.
- Make sure you’re hearing from all your stakeholders
Including the aforementioned stakeholders and then actively allowing space for their voices during the process allowed iF to catch issues we might have otherwise missed and develop better approaches than we could without the voices of 50+ interviewees and 8 co-designers. With the onset of the pandemic compounding the challenges of reaching all involved stakeholders, advocating for all voices to be heard was all the more important.
For nonprofits and for-profit companies alike, elevating stakeholders’ authentic voices not as an afterthought but as an integral part of the research and design process is vitally important. Implementing a team of co-designers representative of the community is one way of ensuring the end users have a voice at the table, so there is less of a risk of misinterpreting or building on inaccurate assumptions. While it might seem obvious, giving stakeholders an authoritative voice in shaping the final result will help increase its efficacy and equity. We’re sharing what we learned from this process because we are continually learning that designing more equitably is not easy, simple or straightforward. It’s a difficult thing that requires consistent work, time, and resources, much more than a simple tagline on a company vision statement.