New Partnerships to Stem COVID Learning Loss: School districts and tutoring providers explore outcomes-based contracting in K-12 math education

Third Sector and the Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) collaborated to lead an Outcomes-Based Contracting (OBC) Summit, a four-workshop virtual series exploring outcomes contracting in K-12 math instruction. The OBC Summit was funded by Schmidt Futures.  

Summit participants learned about the nuances of outcomes-based contracting and defined an approach for their organization. Over 55 participants from seven school districts and eight tutoring providers across the country gathered in pursuit of three goals:

  1. Bring together schools and tutoring providers to find new ways of improving core academic outcomes
  2. Provide schools with a reliable way to improve math achievement at a scalable cost
  3. Unlock new R&D investment and attract new talent to the K-12 market

These organizations participated in the OBC Summit:

Background: The OBC Summit is one of the first of its kind in the K-12 field. Outcomes-based contracts and pay-for-performance initiatives have been tested in social services, workforce, the environment, even early childhood and higher education. Still, they remain rare in K-12 education, where student outcomes are a function of not only teaching and curriculum quality, but also students’ level of engagement, support, and access to opportunity. School districts use traditional fee-for-service contracts for a range of services, from curriculum development to online learning and afterschool programs. Until now, they have not deeply explored the potential to use these contracts with contingent payments or financial incentives focused on improving student outcomes. Through outcomes-based contracts, school districts can focus on students who are furthest from opportunity and ensure their limited resources lead to results.

“If districts and their providers could make improving student outcomes the basis of their work together, we believe that both sides would benefit—school agencies would get more return for their dollars and contractors would have more opportunities to work with districts to develop novel services. Most importantly, students would benefit.” - Tom Kane, Faculty Director at Harvard Center for Education Policy Research

Why tutoring? Why math? As educators, parents, and districts grapple with the implications of COVID-19, tutoring has emerged as a promising way to counter learning loss. Research shows that tutoring is a reliably impactful academic intervention, especially in its most concentrated forms: personalized (one-to-one or two-to-one), with consistent student-mentor relationships developed over time. Tutoring is also an expensive intervention, traditionally reserved for families who can afford private instruction. School districts have long recognized disparities in math outcomes, where opportunity gaps for low-income and students of color show up in gatekeeper courses like Algebra I. School-based tutoring, funded in whole or in part by school districts, may be a way to combat COVID slide while reducing systemic disparities in student access and learning outcomes.

“There are a lot of ancillary benefits that go along with high-dosage tutoring, in addition to academic skills development. It can be a tool for mentorship and coaching. It can be a parent communication tool. You can even think of it as a talent pipeline—tutoring could be part of the portfolio of things you’re doing to cultivate and nurture the next generation of highly qualified black and brown teachers.” - AJ Gutierrez, Cofounder & Chief of Marketing at Saga Education

Overview of the OBC Summit: The four workshops offered a foundation in outcomes-based contracting. School districts and tutoring providers scoped out what an outcomes-based service offering would look like in their organizations. Through case studies, small group discussions, and a take-home toolkit, participants interacted with the many possibilities and decision points for structuring an outcomes contract. 

  • Workshop 1 introduced key questions and concepts in outcomes-based contracting—how it differs from traditional contracting, what it looks like in practice, and which risks and benefits it presents. Districts disaggregated existing math data to narrow down on a population of students who would most benefit from tutoring supports. 
  • Workshop 2 focused on outcomes and milestones in service of student goals. Districts and providers worked together in a fishbowl exercise, developing metrics to measure progress toward and achievement of student learning goals. A panel discussion spotlighted the voices and experiences of participating districts and providers, including their reflections and lessons learned from past outcomes-based contracting projects. 
  • Workshop 3 gave districts and providers an opportunity to go deeper with a specific interest area. Participants opted into sessions ranging from state procurement to evaluation, contracting mechanics, and the case for tutoring. 
  • Workshop 4 was a crash course in payment incentives and performance targets. Districts and providers weighed the pros and cons of different incentive structures, examined case studies in target-setting, and unpacked the nuances of student attendance (for example, who is responsible when students don’t show up?). 

By the end of the Summit, each organization drafted a vision statement with their anticipated goals, target population, data sources, and payment incentive structure for an outcome-based contracting project, creating “shovel-ready” projects to launch. Each organization’s leadership team also walked away with deeper knowledge of outcomes-based contracting.

“This gives us a wonderful opportunity to be strategic in the way we use our limited funds. Outcomes-based funding gives us a chance to focus completely on the goals that we’ve established as a system and partner with entities that have the skill set necessary to drive us forward. It holds us accountable as a school system to meeting the needs of our students, and it also allows us to bring in partners that we can hold accountable and who can hold us accountablea give-and-take relationship that will ultimately benefit kids.” - Dr. Scott Muri, Superintendent of Ector County Independent School District

Early learnings: A few early learnings emerged from workshop discussions that will help to inform pilot projects: 

  • Data abounds, but does it tell us what we need? Both districts and providers shared the many milestones and outcomes that they currently collect and which might be useful both as payment incentives and continuous improvement metrics. Still, there remain open questions about how to measure more abstract student feelings and behaviors that indicate connection with their tutor, a change in self-image, and/or a comfort with math concepts.
  • Timing tension: Districts and providers expressed a tension between a desire to provide students with tutoring resources as soon as possible and the time that it takes to collaboratively build fair outcomes-based contracts that share risk and have been tested for perverse incentives. This tension may inform a phased process of building towards financial incentives through the pilot.
  • Short term vs. long term student gains: Districts want to see long-term outcomes for their students—improved end-of-year math results, future enrollment in challenging math courses, increased graduation rates. But outcomes-based contracts between districts and providers would need to include short-term improvements, both to allow tutors to track students’ progress and adjust course and to ensure timely payment so that providers can pay their operating costs.  Bridging the short-term gains to long-term results requires more learning about which short-term gains are truly predictive of long-term improvement.  

Looking ahead: The Summit confirmed that there is keen interest in outcomes-based contracting on both the district and the provider side. Districts are motivated to pay for outcomes rather than services, linking their spending to improving student results. Even so, they operate in a restrictive purchasing environment. Continued capacity-building will be critical, particularly for school district staff who will shape these contracts. Districts may also consider using an intermediary to navigate contracting regulations. Stay tuned for more exciting updates, as districts and providers pursue a live outcomes-based contract launch—one of the first innovations of this kind in the K-12 space!

ICYMI: You can listen to the official OBC Summit jamlist here.