Assessing tutoring strategies as LEAs continue learning recovery efforts

While tutoring has become a popular tool for academic recovery post-pandemic, not all tutoring programs are created equal and the strategy alone will likely not be enough to catch students up, experts said during a recent Education Week webinar, “Tutoring: What the Evidence Says About What’s Working and What Isn’t.”

Across the nation, declines in performance on state assessments have been reported. Thomas Kane, an economist and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, said that on average, school districts in the U.S. lost about a half year in math proficiency and roughly a quarter of a year in reading in grades 3-8 during the height of the public health crisis with some local educational agencies suffering even more severe learning loss.

The situation is made worse by an increase in educational inequality.

Tyrone Howard, a professor at University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Education & Information Studies, said that learning gaps are present across socio-economic and racial lines.

Closing those gaps will require disaggregating data to determine which student groups need additional support, according to Howard, and customizing tutoring efforts to meet learners’ needs.

To be most impactful, tutoring should be connected to a sustained effort to provide high quality support, preferably one-on-one or in a small group one to two times a week for between 30-45 minutes. Being relational, with students forming connections with their tutors, has also proven effective, Howard stated.

Tutoring that is unstructured, inconsistent, lacking academic focus or that has higher student-to-tutor ratios is common but not as helpful.

Cristal Moore, an elementary school principal in Los Angeles, shared that her school is offering before- and after-school tutoring with a focus on English learners. One group, for example, meets before school four days a week for 30 minutes. There are about seven students with an instructional assistant in a support role to the tutor.

Moore’s school labels its tutoring as clubs as she feels it makes a difference with students and prioritizes their strengths over perceived deficits.

Though she feels fortunate to have many highly qualified teachers, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been worn down by recent events too. “A factor that makes it hard for teachers to extend their day is that they are exhausted,” Moore said, as student needs have widened. Educators say they’re constantly playing catch up.

Evaluating offerings

Prior to the pandemic, as a result of high dosage tutoring (sessions happening at least three times a week in groups of four or less students over the course of a school year), a year’s worth of learning growth could be generated, Kane said. That equates to just over 100 sessions a year.

However, districts have been struggling to even reach that goal for various reasons.

Kane advised districts to determine the number of tutoring hours they’re providing and to how many students and compare it to the magnitude of learning losses from the past few years. He added that districts aren’t on track to get students where they were before the pandemic and need to start to evaluate what they’re delivering.

He also asked districts to consider adjusting their scheduling for next year to create more opportunities for tutoring during school hours. As Howard pointed out, some students aren’t able to participate in services before- or after-school due to transportation needs, work schedules or family responsibilities. As students who need tutoring the least are oftentimes the ones most likely to show up, LEAs can explore ways to incentivize other student groups to take advantage of offerings.

Schools are increasingly partnering with external providers to offer tutoring, avoiding logistical challenges that many administrators face in planning intervention programming.

According to Kane, it’s critical to ensure LEAs are working with a reputable provider and also to include a performance-based component in the contract.

Research around tutoring has found efficacy with paid tutors who are using a curriculum that is aligned with what students are getting at school. Though some LEAs have utilized volunteer-based tutoring programs, “many of the volunteer tutoring programs don’t have that sort of structured curriculum,” Kane said. They could, however, improve student outcomes if they include components such as consistent curriculum, thorough training and incentives for tutors.

Howard concurred that volunteer programs can be ineffective and even harmful if not standards based, pedagogically sound and linguistically consistent, especially if students are being taken out of class to participate.

Getting as many students as possible involved in summer learning opportunities and extending the academic year for the next few years are other strategies Kane offered. He added that communicating to parents the severity of the learning loss children have experienced will be key to finding success on any front.