As states and school districts grapple with how to recover following nearly two years of disrupted learning during the pandemic, many are launching tutoring programs to support learning recovery. The trend seems likely to accelerate following Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s recent call for states and districts to use some of the federal COVID relief funds to offer every struggling student at least 90 minutes a week of targeted support from a trained tutor.
Tutoring offers enormous promise to help students get back on track and close opportunity gaps. Indeed, there’s ample evidence that strong tutoring initiatives allow students to double the amount of learning they would gain during a typical school year. But tutoring has never been attempted at the scale currently being planned; we shouldn’t pretend a proven roadmap for this moment exists. It’s a moment that demands bold thinking — and one that could easily be squandered if it ends up with watered-down or mediocre initiatives.
At Zearn, in our mission to make every kid a math kid, we’ve scaled in just 10 years to now provide a math curriculum and digital lessons to a quarter of elementary school students in this country. In the process we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to accelerate learning for millions of kids, much of it applicable to tutoring. Here are four things we believe will make tutoring a game changer, rather than just another failed fad in education.
1. Focus on impact
“Tutoring” today is being used as a catch-all term to describe very different interventions of varying efficacy. Research on smaller-scale tutoring programs has shown strong results when they offer one-on-one or small group tutoring at least 3 times a week, a model known as “high-impact” or “high-dosage” tutoring, so the issue is less that we don’t know what works for kids, and more that districts, states, and individual schools will have to figure out how to offer this kind of intensive support to more students. New Mexico is a great example of a state not only encouraging districts to implement high-impact tutoring, but also offering guidance on best practices.
2. Use high-quality instructional materials that focus on the big ideas
As of last July, McKinsey & Company estimates, the average K-12 student had fallen five months behind in math, with students of color and low-income students from low-income households falling woefully further behind. Getting students caught up will require not just filling the gaps on a few lessons, but also tailoring instruction to walk them coherently through the big ideas that will lay the foundation of their math education for the rest of their lives. To realize that goal, teachers and tutors will need instructional materials that meet individual students where they are, make grade level work accessible, and connect what they’re learning in class to what they’re doing during tutoring time. The rise of Omicron this winter made it clear that COVID-19 is not done disrupting student learning. Part of that disruption is staffing shortages that may make it challenging for districts and states to quickly hire thousands of new tutors and more likely that those who are hired will not have a teaching background. In this event, it will be critical for instructional materials to be easy to understand and implement effectively. Strong independent learning activities that provide flexibility will also be key if tutors are in short supply or in-person instruction is once-again disrupted. Texas is off to a strong start on this front, both vetting tutoring instructional materials and subsidizing districts’ access to them.
Leveraging what we already know works, getting creative to better reach kids, and adjusting programs in real time is our best bet to ensure school disruptions today aren’t still impacting students years from now.
3. Get creative to destigmatize extra help to reach more kids
Perhaps the most exciting thing about large-scale tutoring programs is that they have the potential to give millions of students a real opportunity to make up for lost time during the pandemic with the kind of individualized support that wealthier students have had access to all along. Louisiana’s program is particularly ambitious, making tutoring available to all students in the state. But it’s not enough just to offer access. To ensure all students who need tutoring participate, it will be vital to eradicate the stigma that so often surrounds the need for extra help and to create a culture of tutoring for all. Guilford County in North Carolina, has embraced this approach, offering “learning hubs” that make opportunities to catch up fun and convenient, and focus on the whole student — their academic, social and emotional needs.
4. Commit to cycles of learning and improvement
Too often, our field can rush to implement new ideas, but if they don't work right away, we move on to the next flash-in-the-pan idea. Few, if any, tutoring programs are going to be perfect on day one, but we can’t fall into this trap. With students needing to make up for two years of missed learning, states and districts will need to make a real, sustained effort to get this right. That means investing in tutor training and in collecting, analyzing, and sharing tutoring data so programs can innovate, get stronger over time, and begin establishing large-scale best practices. They’ll need not only to correctly identify which students need which supports today, but to continuously monitor student progress over time, so students are getting the help they need when they need it, not what they may have needed at the outset of the program. Tennessee has signaled that it’s serious about making tutoring work by mapping out a plan this fall to provide 250-500 additional hours of academic instruction over the next three years and two summers and to closely monitor the students’ progress throughout their participation in the program.
We may not yet have a set roadmap for how to build tutoring programs that will accelerate learning recovery, but leveraging what we already know works, getting creative to better reach kids, and adjusting programs in real time is our best bet to ensure school disruptions today aren’t still impacting students years from now.