Schools Push for More Tutoring

Schools Push for More Tutoring

During the two years that COVID-19 has upended school for millions of families, education leaders have increasingly touted one tool as a means of compensating for lost learning: personalized tutors. As a growing number of state and federal authorities pledge to make high-quality tutoring available to struggling students, tutoring demonstrates positive, if modest, results from an experimental pilot that launched last spring. 

That program’s effects suggest more exposure to supplemental instruction could yield still greater benefits. But design limitations, particularly those stemming from a pronounced shortage of qualified tutor candidates, also raise the question of whether it can be offered on the scale that some advocates envision. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona declared, in a speech laying out his department’s priorities for the coming year, that every student who has lost ground during the pandemic should receive 90 minutes of tutoring each week. A number of states and large districts have already established tutoring initiatives over the last year, typically underwritten by emergency relief funds from Washington.

That push has been backed by a flood of research indicating that high-quality, high-dosage tutoring can help children realize almost unheard-of learning progress. The bulk of that literature focused on instruction that was delivered in-person, though online tutoring programs have also shown significant academic gains.

To further investigate the virtual approach, researchers at the University of Chicago, Brown University, and the University of California San Diego helped organize a pilot in Chicago Heights, Illinois, a city roughly 30 miles south of downtown Chicago. Partnering with a nonprofit mentorship organization founded by college students in 2020, the research team recruited 230 volunteer instructors and paired them with local middle schoolers for regular, one-on-one sessions held over Zoom. Students enrolled in the Chicago Heights school district are overwhelmingly poor and non-white, and only about one-quarter were meeting grade-level standards in math and reading before the pandemic.

Partly owing to the challenge of recruiting volunteers, participating students were organized into three waves that began accessing their tutoring at different times over a 12-week period. On average, students in the first wave received about four hours of total tutoring, while those in the following waves received a little over two hours. In keeping with prior research findings, students in the first wave saw more learning growth (as measured by performance on standardized tests) than those who were tutored less. The results were not large enough to be classified as statistically significant, but they provide further evidence that the achievement gains from tutoring will accelerate when delivered in higher dosages.

Both the study’s potential and its constraints are notable at a moment when states and districts are laboring mightily to establish their own tutoring interventions.

But the start-up phase necessitates filling hundreds, or even thousands, of new positions; that kind of hiring blitz would be a daunting prospect in the best of times, but it has become especially thorny under the current economic conditions. While they would undoubtedly prefer to use current or former teachers to staff their programs, a historically tight labor market has already led to shortages in core instructional positions. 

The struggle to recruit qualified tutors is “no different in kind from the staffing challenge they are experiencing for every job within a school system right now,” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change. “The same market forces are impacting staffing in tutoring as are impacting staffing in teaching and bus drivers, etc. It does make scaling promising efforts significantly more difficult.”

Magee argued that whatever the pitfalls faced by school systems abruptly setting up their tutoring initiatives, the learning emergency presented by COVID necessitated rapid action. While some of the programs in the field may not adhere to the ideal held up in research, they can play a critical role in stemming further learning loss now.

“In a crisis like the one we’re experiencing, which is generational in its negative impact on students, you might well want to move faster and accept some amount of downsides in order to reach as many students as possible,” he said.

But one expert cautioned that “we might be better off starting off with a small program and building it over time, in a sustainable way — rather than cutting corners or changing the model.”

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