Learning loss has not been as significant as feared within the North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois, although COVID disruption has still been felt. Prior to March 2020, the district, in which 25 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, was making positive strides toward closing the achievement gap, but those have not continued through the pandemic year.
“We are very concerned that we're not making progress this year,” says Superintendent Michael Lubelfeld.
To get students gaining ground again, the district has launched a pilot online high-dosage tutoring program at two of its Title I schools. About 70 students from third through fifth grade will be tutored in reading and math twice per week for 90 minutes total using FEV Tutor, a tutoring company that offers live, one-to-one tutoring online.
If the program is as successful as expected, Lubelfeld says it will be expanded to more students as early as this summer.
The North Shore School District is one of many throughout the country looking to utilize high-dosage online tutoring as a tool to get students back on track. It’s a strategy the research seems to support, though online tutoring could use further study experts say.
A July 2020 review of 100 studies conducted by Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, North America at MIT, found “that tutoring programs yield consistent and substantial positive impacts on learning outcomes, with an overall pooled effect size estimate of 0.37 SD.” Vincent Quan, one of the study’s co-authors, says that 0.37 standard deviation “translates to a student moving from the 50th percentile and a distribution to nearly the 66th percentile.”
Quan, the associate director of policy for Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, North America, adds that most of the study he and his co-authors looked at showed tutoring had a positive impact. “That's actually quite rare in education research, especially with randomized control trials. There's a common critique that randomized control trials of education interventions tend to find things that do not work but are less good at finding things that do work.”
Other recent research has painted a similarly positive picture of in-person tutoring.
But not all tutoring is equal. Quan’s review found that programs led by teachers or paraprofessionals, including school staff members and college students, tended to be more effective than volunteer or parent tutors. Tutoring was also most effective for students at younger grade levels, though older students also saw some benefits. Finally, tutoring was most effective when conducted during school hours rather than after hours.
“Web-based video conferencing platforms and other types of technology have expanded the opportunity for tutoring,” says Matthew Kraft, associate professor of Education & Economics, at Brown University. “There's a much wider supply of potential tutors for a given kid because they can access tutors from all over the country and all over the world.”
However, “We still don't know a lot about the efficacy of tutoring, when it's placed in an online remote context,” says Kraft. “There's some emerging evidence that suggests it can be effective, and certainly there's been a rapidly growing private sector of online tutoring over the last number of years that suggests that parents are willing to pay a lot of money for it, so it must be meaningful for those students and parents in some way. So I'm optimistic about the potential value of that.”
A recent randomized control study of online tutoring during the pandemic looked at 1,059 middle school students in Italy. The 530 students who received online tutoring outperformed the control group who did not receive tutoring. Another randomized control study of 144 students at four low-income schools found students who received online tutoring outperformed those who did not.
But more research is still needed to determine whether online tutoring can be scaled up and what the best practices are. “We still need to know a lot more about if tutors and students can develop strong relationships in that context,” Kraft says. “What are the ways in which you might be able to have a more integrated hybrid approach with some tutoring in person, some at a distance.”
The Future of Tutoring
Federal and local education leaders should be aware of the potential of high-dosage tutoring to help students, says Quan. “In a field like education, where there is often so little consensus around what works, we actually do have a fair degree of confidence that tutoring, if implemented well and in adherence to some high-level design principles, can really move the needle in combating a lot of the learning loss that has been precipitated by COVID-19 and these widespread school closures,” he says.
Federal funds are now available for tutoring, but Kraft worries that funding won’t lead to sustainable tutoring programs.
“There's both a huge opportunity with the stimulus package and the funding that's coming to districts and a challenge,” he says. “I'm arguing the tutoring should be an approach to integrating individualized instruction in the public school day, and on a long-term and permanent basis, not a one-time ancillary, remedial approach to targeted support during the pandemic. But the funding we have has to be spent in a couple of years and it's gonna run out. And so how do you build a program that then you might not be able to fund and support through the long haul?”
In a paper published in January, Kraft and co-author Grace Falken conducted a thought experiment to look at what scaling up tutoring might look like in the U.S. They estimated that a targeted approach to scaling school-wide tutoring nationally could focus on K-8 Title I schools and be accomplished for an annual cost of between $5 and $15 billion annually.
Short of that lofty goal, Kraft hopes school districts will look to implement sustainable tutoring programs, while being aware of what tutoring can and cannot accomplish.
“We're emerging from this crisis year, and I think we're hoping to find quick fixes. There are no quick fixes to the trauma and inequitable learning opportunities that have happened during the pandemic,” Kraft says. “Tutoring is a promising idea to integrate into a portfolio of approaches to support kids, but it's not a silver bullet. We need to frame tutoring much more about caring relationships between adults and kids that you add academics on top of, then just narrowly about academic acceleration. We need to meet the kids where they are, address their social and emotional learning needs, and then build on that.”