One year into a nearly $11 million deal, educators say access to a 24/7 tutoring service is a positive addition to their school districts, though usage data shows just 35% of students with access have used it at least once this school year.
The Mississippi Department of Education signed a $10.7 million contract with Paper, a virtual tutoring company, in March of 2022. The tutorial services are one effort to address learning loss caused by the pandemic and are funded by federal pandemic relief dollars. Paper has numerous contracts across the country, some of which have already ended because of poor student participation. Columbus City Schools in Ohio had a usage rate of 8% when the district cut ties, as reported by Chalkbeat.
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The contract required a minimum of 300 tutoring sessions a month, distributed evenly across the state’s six regional education communities. When asked if this goal was rigorous enough given the 320,000 Mississippi students grades 3-12 with access to Paper, Associate State Superintendent Marla Davis said it’s important to keep in mind that the state cannot mandate students use the service and that even if it was a low goal, it’s one that Paper has far exceeded. Students have used Paper over 2 million times this school year, with 285,000 of those uses being live one-on-one help sessions.
Paper provides 24/7 access to live tutoring through an instant messaging platform, but recently added a new feature that allows students to send voice recordings if they are not strong typists. Students are randomly matched with a tutor based on the subject they request, and can also upload essays for writing review or practice for the math state tests. The test prep, which does not involve a live tutor unless a student asks for help, accounts for 80% of the 2 million log-ons.
While more than a third of students with access have used the service at least once since the start of the school year, 18% are regular users.
Nicholas Munyan-Penny, assistant director of P-12 policy at national education civil rights group The Education Trust, said some states or districts have made their on-demand tutoring contracts results-based, requiring students to improve a certain amount for the contract to get paid. He said this seems like a better model to hold vendors accountable for providing high quality services, which some districts say has brought improved vendor engagement.
To date, Mississippi’s education department has paid Paper $4.5 million through flat-rate invoices.
The contract was originally presented as a ”high-dosage tutoring” option, a research-supported method of tutoring that involves a structured curriculum aligned with classroom work being taught during the school day in small groups with the same tutor each time, ideally three to four times a week.
Davis, the associate state superintendent, said while the state still encourages districts to use Paper frequently, the department has changed its language, calling the service “on-demand tutoring” to better reflect what Paper offers.
Paper participation varies significantly across the state, largely because districts get to choose how to implement the services. Some have incorporated it into structured class time or remediation activities, while others just encourage students to use it independently.
Districts with lower usage rates had a variety of reasons for why they were not utilizing the platform more, including students doing well enough that they didn’t need additional tutoring and having a local contract with a different virtual tutoring service to finish out first.
The Natchez-Adams School District has pursued in-person tutoring more closely resembling the high-dosage model, saying in an email that it’s what students and parents preferred, but that it hopes to push Paper more next year as well.
“When we see that usage is waning, we do get on the phone,” Davis said at the April 19 meeting of the state Board of Education. “We did quite a number of phone calls to districts and say ‘Hey, you all opted in to these tutorial services, they are free, is there anything we do to support you in the implementation?’”
Teresa Jackson, superintendent of the Winona-Montgomery school district, said the district decided to delay implementing Paper for a year because it received a grant from the education department to update textbooks and other curriculum materials.
“For us, it was just another thing to have to learn,” she said. “We actually think it is a very good program, it’s just that we were kinda saturated with curriculum products this year and we want our teachers to be very well trained in something before we ask them to use it.”
Jackson said training sessions are already scheduled to familiarize teachers with the service before summer school and the 2023-24 school year.
Other districts with high usage rates have cited the training provided by the local Paper representatives as instrumental to the adoption of the program. Davis said the regional representatives are all former Mississippi educators, an aspect she believes is unique to Mississippi’s services.
In the Quitman School District, where 87% of students have used Paper at least once, Curriculum Coordinator Shevonda Truman said the district asked its local representative to come work with teachers who were not utilizing it as often.
“When you have that kind of exposure, when you have that opportunity to really have someone show you the tools and how to use them in your classroom, individualizing it just for you and just for your kiddos, it makes a big difference,” she said.
Truman also said the majority of Paper usage in the district occurs during the school day, something other districts and state-level data have echoed.
Munyan-Penny of The Education Trust said that on-demand tutoring services often do not have the characteristics that make high-dosage or intensive tutoring effective. Despite this, he was pleasantly surprised to hear that the majority of Paper usage in Mississippi is happening during the school day, as it helps ensure that students who need help are getting access to it.
Holmes County Superintendent Jennifer Wilson said shifting to incorporating Paper into the school day has improved participation in a rural district where many students struggle with home internet access. In December, only 3% of students had used the service at least once, a number that rose to 28% in April once they started using the math state test prep feature during the school day.
“We’re going to be looking at how else we can move the needle in terms of our usage of Paper so that we get the biggest return on the investment,” Wilson said.
Some teachers have said they feel like the investment is worth it and hope to see it continue.
“I’ve been a teacher for 12 years now, and this is the first time that they’ve pushed out something new like this that I was actually excited about and felt like was worth the money,” said Shundra Young, a biology teacher at Germantown High School in the Madison County School District.
Young said she uses Paper to help students review content they missed on benchmark tests, giving them a list of questions they’re required to go over with the Paper tutors. Students then upload screenshots of the conversation and take a mini-quiz afterward to make sure they understand what they went over with the tutor.
“From the beginning to the end of the conversation with the tutor, I’ve even seen more of an effort or students going from one or two-word answers to actually typing out things,” she said. “Sometimes they even start asking questions that weren’t on the list for them to ask, so I feel like, one, it’s really building confidence because it’s helping them realize they can get it, and the other thing is I have seen an increase in comprehension for the ones that have used it.”
Davis, the associate state superintendent, said she sees it as “premature” to comment on whether Paper is improving outcomes statewide since state test results aren’t available yet.
Results may not be in, but recent efforts to increase use of the platform have shown results. A “March Madness” contest accounted for 1.6 million Paper log-ons out of the overall 2 million this year. The contest specifically tracked activity in math games developed using Mississippi content standards to help students prepare for the state tests. If a student has trouble with a question in the math games, they can request a tutor to join them.
The success of the math prep questions has led Taylor McCain, an English Language Arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in the Columbia School District, to request them for her subject area as well. This addition is one of the only things McCain said she would like to see changed though, as she has “thoroughly enjoyed” using the essay check feature in her classes to help with peer reviews of essays.
“(Paper) saves me so much time in grading essays,” she said. “Now the peer review of the rough draft is finished and they’re just going in for final edits, and I get to grade the whole finished essay instead of the rough draft and the peer review and then grading the whole essay.”
McCain said she likes how Paper’s system requires students to explain the prompt and what the tutor should be checking for. She added that the feedback from the tutors is always constructive criticism and does not merely fix things for students.
Other educators echoed this sentiment and said sometimes students express frustration that they don’t get the answers more quickly, but that it’s one thing teachers really appreciate about the platform.
“Tutors do not give them the answer, they talk them through it and talk them through how to get to it … asking them leading questions like a teacher would,” said Katherine Pitts, a math instructional coach in the Biloxi School District.
Pitts also said she has heard from some math teachers that high-achieving students have an easier time using the platform.
“Your higher achieving students know what questions to ask and so they know ‘this is what I need help in and this is what I don’t understand,’” she said. “Whereas some of our regular students, it’s kind of one of those things of ‘I don’t understand what I don’t understand,’ so it sometimes is difficult for them.”
Pitts said they’re planning to “use it as much as we can as long as we have it.” The state’s contract with Paper is slated to end in September 2024.
Pitts added the Biloxi School District wants the state to see that it’s being used and students are taking advantage of this resource.
Multiple districts expressed their desire for the state to make the service available after the expiration of the federal pandemic relief money. Davis said the education department has not discussed extending the contract yet, but she hopes to be able to since the department has received such positive feedback.
Munyan-Penny of The Education Trust said it should come down to whether or not there’s growth in student performance, particularly among students who are the most at need.
“If Mississippi does some evaluation work on how the Paper tutoring is going and they find that it’s actually making an impact, then that seems like maybe it’s something they do want to continue,” he said. “But I think it’s important to make sure that anecdotal positive feelings and experiences with the platform translate into actual gains.”