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$1.5M grant jump-starts teacher development


Tutor.com hopes to improve teaching by providing on-demand, one-to-one support for math teachers starting this year.

Tutor.com, which connects students with live tutors online for tutoring in math, science, social studies, and English, is the largest online tutoring and homework help service available—and, with help from a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the company is expanding its horizons to help teachers as well.

Thanks to the grant, awarded last November, the company hopes to help improve U.S. teaching by offering an innovative new professional development model that will provide on-demand, one-to-one support for math teachers starting this year.

Approximately 200 algebra teachers from selected schools will be able to access the service beginning in September 2011 and running through December 2012. Participating teachers will be able to connect with online teaching coaches for on-demand, one-to-one live help from Sunday through Thursday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. local time. Coaches will be standing by and will provide live help within minutes of a teacher request, Tutor.com says.

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Research shows that one of the most important factors in a student’s academic success is the quality of his or her classroom teacher. To maintain excellence in teaching, school districts must find new ways to provide the guidance and help that teachers need every day. But too often, professional development for teachers means sitting in a room and listening to a lecture a few times each year. Tutor.com believes that, to significantly move the needle on teacher effectiveness, schools and districts must provide new ways to support their teachers.

The program, still in its development stage, has Tutor.com working closely with school leaders and classroom teachers to identify specific areas of focus, but it will be based on one-to-one online sessions between a teacher and a “master teacher,” or professional development coach. The program will offer ongoing help to teachers in the areas of curriculum content, mastering effective teaching techniques, classroom issues, and reviewing and refining lesson plans to achieve better results.

“Unlike seminar- or lecture-based professional development models, the program will be integrated into a teacher’s day and provide ongoing support as often as is required throughout the school year,” says George Cigale, founder and CEO of Tutor.com.

Participating teachers also will have a view into their own students’ learning challenges, thanks to Tutor.com’s Live Homework Help service. This program, already in use in school districts across the country, lets a student contact an online tutor for personalized assistance. The student and tutor work in real time, using an online classroom environment that features an interactive whiteboard space, application and file sharing, and shared web browsing. Sessions are saved and are available for teachers to review. In this way, a teacher might discover, for example, that half the class had trouble with the previous day’s lesson, and he or she then can tailor future lessons to take those issues into account.

Teachers get stuck just like students do,” Cigale said. “If it is easy for teachers to connect with a professional teaching coach on their own schedules, and ask any questions they want, we believe there will be dramatic improvements in teacher performance. We’re changing the way teachers get the instructional support they need, and that’s so critical. Having a great teacher who’s well prepared in the classroom can make a huge difference.”

The Tutor.com On-Demand Professional Development program will focus on math teachers and students at the middle and high school levels. A third-party evaluator will design and complete a study to measure the effectiveness of this on-demand professional development project. The evaluation study is scheduled to be available to educators at the end of 2012.

After evaluating the research and feedback from participating educators, administrators, students, parents, and teaching coaches, the program will be available to teachers across a variety of subjects and grade levels in all districts nationwide. The cost for schools to participate in the expanded program will be developed at the end of the pilot project.

School districts interested in participating in the pilot must submit an application by March 15. More information can be found at www.tutor.com/ondemandpd.

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