With Millions of Kids on the Line, Can Schools Make Tutoring Work?

Tutoring is on the brink of a national inflection point. School districts are channeling big chunks of their federal COVID-relief money into tutoring programs, relying on research that shows that the strategy can be a powerful ally in completing unfinished learning. Billions of dollars—and millions of children—are on the line.

With the stakes so high, experts are urging districts to reframe their thinking about tutoring. Please, they say: Imagine it not as a quick fix in a crisis, but as a long-range investment strategy to improve instruction.

Tutoring has soared on districts’ radars as pressure mounts to help students recover from two years of pandemic-driven learning disruptions. In a survey by the EdWeek Research Center in April and May of 2021, 97 percent of district leaders said tutoring was already being offered—or soon would be—to about one-third of their students. That’s 17 million of the country’s 51 million K-12 students.

In November, 62 percent of the nation’s 100 biggest school districts said they planned to offer tutoring, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been tracking districts’ responses to COVID-19. By February, that number rose to 72 percent. On April 5, a group of heavy-hitting funders unveiled a $100 million project to scale up tutoring nationally. Districts can draw on billions in federal COVID-relief money to support learning-recovery programs.

What’s still unclear in the flurry of activity is how well districts can translate the promise of research on tutoring—which can deliver months of additional learning time—into good-quality programs. Studies are clear on what matters, but it’s far from easy to do.

Effective tutoring, often shorthanded as “high-dosage” or “high-impact” tutoring, should happen several times a week for 30 to 60 minutes, in very small groups, with the same tutor, ideally during the school day. Tutors should be well-trained, work closely with their tutees’ teachers, be armed with good, standards-aligned instructional materials, and monitor student progress with data.

“Districts are onto something with tutoring, but the question is whether it’s possible to pull it off in this moment,” with so many challenges already on their plates, said Bree Dusseault, who leads the district-tracking work at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

A critical juncture: Doing it not just quickly, but right

The idea that this is an important moment cuts both ways for tutoring’s future. If schools imagine tutoring as a quick fix, and pay little attention to design and scale, their programs are unlikely to take root and show positive results, experts say. But tutoring planned carefully, and embedded in districts’ inner workings, could help rebuild learning post-pandemic and improve it for the long haul.

“We’re talking about something that has the power to be transformative,” said Michael Duffy, the president of the GO Foundation, which is working with eight schools to build tutoring programs. Good programs, he said, can be permanent fixtures of school life that support all children, from those struggling academically to those who need more-challenging work.

Even though district leaders are under pressure to help thousands of children immediately, they might want to consider starting tutoring programs small, and scaling up slowly, said Matthew Kraft, who studies tutoring as an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University.

Many districts are trying to implement tutoring on scales that are “multiple orders of magnitude” larger than the programs that have shown promise in research studies, he said. Starting with a focus on subsets of students, or specific grades or subject areas, can help districts work out the kinks as they expand their capacity, Kraft said.

But they need to go deep, too, and recognize that top-quality tutoring programs require changes in the way schools operate. Daily schedules might need to change. New partnerships need to grow: between teachers and tutors, districts and outside organizations like AmeriCorps. New systems must emerge to hire, train, pay, and support tutors, and to follow students’ progress.

Without this kind of “organizational commitment,” Kraft said, tutoring risks being a “one-off or add-on” that risks falling apart a year or two after it begins.

Aiming for long-term change in North Carolina

Guilford County Schools, in North Carolina, is building a tutoring program that’s drawn notice for its attention to research-based design and practice. The district has restructured fundamental operations to make a home for the program, setting up a special department devoted to hiring, training and supporting its tutors, and tracking students’ participation and progress.

The district started small, hiring eight college students in the fall of 2020 and focusing on math tutoring in its Title I middle and high schools, since that’s where research suggested the biggest academic impacts of COVID had landed, said Faith Freeman, who oversees Guilford’s tutoring program.

This spring, the program has grown to 500 paid tutors—a blend of high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, community members, and teachers—who work with 4,000 of its 70,000 students. They’re working on math K-12, literacy and science K-8, and middle-school social studies, Freeman said.

To choose students, the district uses an algorithm that blends risk factors such as grades, test data, course failures, and absenteeism. Students are “highly recommended,” though not required, to attend tutoring sessions, Freeman said. Schools must hold sessions at least weekly, but are encouraged to hold them two to three times per week, she said.

Choosing who gets tutoring is still hotly debated. Some favor providing tutoring to all students, to destigmatize being “chosen,” and to ensure that no one falls through the cracks. Others, like Guilford, intentionally target high-need groups, since scarce resources must be used sparingly.

Most of Guilford’s 126 schools have clusters of students who are being tutored. Each school can schedule programs in ways that suit them best. Some have dedicated tutoring blocks in their schedules, while others have tutors work with students, off to the side, during regular class time.

Ninety-two percent of the district’s tutoring occurs in-person, during the regular school day, but some happens after school or virtually, Freeman said. (Much is still unknown about the effectiveness of online tutoring, but promising studies are starting to emerge.)

There is less flexibility in other aspects of Guilford’s program. Tutors must work with the same group of students over time, which research shows boosts effectiveness, since it builds relationships that support instruction. Tutors must also work weekly with teachers, observing instruction, debriefing on students’ needs and progress, and planning next steps, Freeman said.

A long-term commitment, with long-term questions

Guilford’s program is currently supported largely with federal COVID-relief money, which runs out in 2024, a timeline that has made many districts gun-shy about making multiyear instructional investments. But Freeman said the district sees tutoring as a long-haul commitment and instructional-support strategy, even though its leaders are not yet sure how they’ll pay for it two years from now.

Families tell teachers and district leaders about the positive effects tutoring has had on their students, Freeman said. (The district doesn’t yet have complete data on its impact on achievement.) The program is creating jobs in its community, and making tutoring available for many who can’t afford it privately, she said.

The district’s program also supports graduate students at local universities, since it funds those positions for students who are paid to tutor in Guilford. It also sees its program as an investment in the teacher pipeline. It chose North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution and a prodigious producer of Black engineers, as one of its tutoring partners, both to mirror the diversity of its own student population, and, hopefully, channel more teachers of color into its classrooms.

As districts around the country consider and plan their own tutoring programs, they’ll probably need to draw on a variety of tutors, Kraft said: certified teachers, who carry the highest price tag, as well as paraprofessionals, college students, and outside tutoring organizations.

Because so many are launching big programs so quickly, their impact might be disappointing, sparking a backlash, Kraft said. He urged districts to plan carefully, think long-term, and resist quick conclusions.

“It would be premature to decide whether or not to stay the course on tutoring based on the experience of trying to scale it up over one to two years in the midst of a pandemic,” he said. “It’s a human-intensive endeavor, and hard to standardize with fidelity in a top-down kind of way. It’s going to take time and dedication, and commitment to iteration and improvement.”