Tutoring Research Can Aid in Academic Recovery

Well before the pandemic, researchers were zeroing in on tutoring as a way to help children who were significantly behind grade level. Tutoring research shows remedial classes had generally been a failure, and researchers often saw disappointing results from after-school and summer school programs because students didn’t show up or didn’t want to go to school during vacation. But evidence for tutoring has been building for more than 30 years, as tutoring organizations designed reading and math programs, partnered with schools and invited in tutoring research.

The results have been striking. In almost 100 randomized controlled trials, where students were randomly assigned to receive tutoring, the average gains were equivalent to moving an average child from the 50th percentile to the 66th percentile. In education, that’s a giant jump. One estimate equated the jump from tutoring to five months of learning beyond a student’s ordinary progress in a school year. There are no magic bullets in education, but tutoring comes as close to one as you get.

What tutoring research practitioners mean when they say “tutoring,” however, is not what many people might imagine. It’s not provided by the kind of tutors that well-to-do families might hire for their children at home. Studies have found that sessions once or twice a week haven’t boosted achievement much, nor has frequent after-school homework help. Instead, tutoring produces outsized gains in reading and math when it takes place daily, using paid, well-trained tutors who are following a proven curriculum or lesson plans that are linked to what the student is learning in class. Effective tutoring sessions are scheduled during the school day, when attendance is mandatory, not after school. Researchers call it “high-dosage” or “high-impact” tutoring.

Think of it as the difference between outpatient visits and intensive care at a hospital. High-dosage tutoring is more like the latter. It’s expensive to hire and train tutors and this type of tutoring can cost schools $4,000 or more per student annually. (Surprisingly, the tutoring doesn’t have to be one-to-one; researchers have found that well-designed tutoring programs can be very effective when tutors work with two or three students.)

So far we have spotty data on how many schools have actually implemented tutoring. Among those who have, it’s unclear how many have launched good high-dosage programs and which students are getting it. In many cases, tutoring this year is taking place virtually over screens instead of in person. Often, students are texting with tutors and not hearing or seeing one another – akin to a customer service chat session. But there are also tutoring companies that are trying to recreate an in-person tutoring experience through live video and audio. It feels more like a Zoom meeting with a shared whiteboard that both student and teacher can write on.

It remains to be seen if the outsized academic gains from in-person tutoring can be replicated online. A study of low-income middle schoolers in Chicago was disappointing. The program was riddled with problems: poor attendance, technical glitches and slow recruitment of college student volunteers to serve as tutors. Students who were assigned tutoring didn’t catch up more than those who didn’t get that extra help. But there were some signs of hope, too. Kids who started the tutoring sooner made larger academic gains.

School administrators have told me that it is hard to squeeze in three or more tutoring sessions a week, or make sure that students log in when sessions are scheduled. No-shows are common. Even though there’s good evidence for the effectiveness of intensive tutoring, districts are struggling to build functional programs. The for-profit tutoring services many schools are buying in the meantime don’t make the grade.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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