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Tutoring is more effective than other measures. But can it be expanded to support the kids who need it most?
Zachary Carr hadn’t known Victor for long. Carr, 21, began tutoring the rising fifth grader in mid-June, shortly after wrapping up his junior year at Middle Tennessee State University. But Carr had spent enough one-on-one time with Victor to discern that the boy was unusually fidgety during their latest morning session.
Victor had made lots of progress in math since he began meeting twice a week with Carr at a Nashville-area Boys & Girls Club through an ad hoc, statewide tutoring initiative. The more Victor improved in arithmetic, the more he engaged with the tutoring sessions. Yet this session was “a little rocky,” Carr later told me. Victor was antsy, regularly losing focus; he often tripped up on equations the two had rehearsed seconds prior.
Realizing early on that something was off, Carr asked Victor, in a playful tone, “Why are you so hyper today, man?” Turns out Victor had gotten his hands on some coffee. He had the caffeine jitters.
The rest of the morning, the two would chuckle from behind their masks whenever Victor hit a roadblock. “I got you — we’re friends,” Carr said as the boy stumbled through his five times table. Frustrated, Victor asked for help. “Can we do the box thing?” he asked, referring to a multiplication technique Carr had taught him earlier. Carr nodded, saying they could return to rote exercises after.
Later, as they packed up their things, Carr pointed to a sheet of problem sets for the following week. “You think you can do this by yourself?” he asked. Victor nodded. “Cool. Awesome work, man,” Carr responded, high-fiving the boy from a distance. “And no coffee next time!”
Tutoring is one of the oldest forms of education. A growing body of research shows that, when done right, it’s also one of the most effective means of lifting student achievement. And yet, while broad swathes of the U.S. student population today participate in tutoring, it has historically been reserved for the monied elite and is often cost-prohibitive for children like Victor, who attends an elementary school where three in four students receive discounted meals.
15 — percent of U.S. households with school-age children that lack high-speed internet, including one in three households with an annual income less than $30,000.
The value of mass tutoring initiatives, whether in-person or virtual, in addressing the academic problems posed by the Covid-19 pandemic remains untested. But experts say making tutors available to more kids — especially those least able to afford to hire one themselves — could be vital to combating learning losses that resulted when the coronavirus forced schools to shut down and transition to online-only instruction. The toll on students’ attainment and engagement has been dire; it will almost certainly be compounded by the usual slide in learning many kids experience over summer vacation — and made even worse for students in places like Southern California that face prospective fall closures. The challenges are bound to be especially pronounced among disadvantaged children.
Various proposals making their way through Congress would dramatically expand AmeriCorps, a federal program that enlists adults in public service work, with an eye toward both equipping students with tutors and providing jobs to recent college graduates. Grassroots advocates and political leaders are also taking matters into their own hands. Carr is tutoring through an ad hoc program launched in May by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife. Through their foundation, the couple is paying some 600 college students to tutor K-6 children who were falling behind.
But the grassroots initiatives, so far, are limited in their ability to reach all of the country’s struggling students. Frequent, one-to-one or small-group tutoring — which research suggests is far more effective than other formats — is expensive, requiring lots of people and, ideally, physical space. Can such academic lifelines be extended to every student who needs one before it’s too late?
“The need for this outweighs having something perfect that is rolled out … months from now,”
Jayme Simmons, the Bill & Crissy Haslam Foundation
Many low-income children lack the technology, physical environment, and moral support remote instruction has necessitated. A 2018 report by the Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children lack high-speed internet, including one in three households with an annual income of less than $30,000. Some studies suggest that students who lack access to a computer at home are less likely than their more privileged peers to graduate from high school. Meanwhile, as The New York Times reported in May, well-funded schools — including private institutions — have seen more success than poorer ones in their transition to remote platforms.
At the same time, the pandemic itself has exposed students like Victor, who are already disadvantaged by socioeconomic circumstances, to pronounced, compounded traumas that will also undoubtedly have a major impact on their ability to succeed in school. Victor, whose favorite subject is math even though he struggles with it, said his school’s closure made him mad. Before he began meeting with Carr, whom he described as “funny,” he was spending his days playing video games.
Some evidence indicates the toll is especially pronounced when the disruption, like that associated with a pandemic, is extended and far-reaching. A series of recent studies underscores the negative impact the current public health and economic catastrophe has inflicted — and will continue to inflict — on students. One concluded that by September, some children will have lost the equivalent of an entire school year of academic gains.
A recent survey by the nonprofit YouthTruth of more than 20,000 students in fifth through 12th grade found that most of the kids who responded struggled to motivate themselves to do schoolwork after campuses shut down. And just 43 percent of the survey’s respondents said many or all of their teachers make an effort to understand what their lives are like outside of school. Black and Latinx students, according to the survey, faced more obstacles to virtual learning than their white and Asian counterparts.
43 — percent of the students said most or all of their teachers make an effort to understand what their lives are like outside of school, according to a YouthTruth survey.
Tutoring will prove critical to helping to ameliorate the academic and social harm students have experienced after losing nearly four months of learning in the switch to virtual instruction. Such supports will not only keep kids abreast of content but also provide them a touchpoint with people who, like Carr, can read into and recalibrate their instruction based on each child’s quirks. Experts suggest that these resources will be especially crucial for students whose school districts are planning for a virtual-only fall.
The tutoring doesn’t need to be airtight for it to pay dividends, experts say; it doesn’t need a perfect structure, a particular pedagogical approach, or even a certified teacher.
“If we had waited to make this the most perfect program, we still would not be serving kids this summer,” said Jayme Simmons, the executive director of the Bill & Crissy Haslam Foundation, about the organization’s rush to roll out a tutoring program in Tennessee. “The need for this outweighs having something perfect that is rolled out … months from now.”
Federal law, through the Every Student Succeeds Act, allows high-poverty schools to use a small percentage of their Title I funding for individualized education supports such as tutoring. But this investment, estimated at about $425 million only if every state were to take advantage of it, pales in comparison to the amount Americans, especially those who are more affluent, spend on commercial tutoring services. That market includes roughly $630 million in online tutoring services alone. As the competition for college admissions has grown, so, too, has the number of high- and middle-income families seeking out enrichment activities to give their kids — some of them as young as 3 — a leg up.
$630 million — Amount American families spend on online tutoring services annually.
Enrollment in Kumon, a private tutoring company that charges up to $160 a month per subject, for example, has grown by nearly 230 percent in the last 15 years, according to a Kumon spokesperson. Demand for commercial tutoring has continued to soar in recent months, according to Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College. Dhingra, author of the new book “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough,” said many companies today are actively marketing their services as a means of offsetting so-called Covid slide. “These places are advertising themselves as solutions to the Covid-19 problem,” Dhingra said. “They’re tapping into an anxiety among parents.”
The trends are understandable given the undeniable toll disruptions to schooling take on kids’ learning, especially if that learning is interrupted at key points of development.
Perhaps in part to offset the gaps, some countries are already rolling out national tutoring programs to prevent already-floundering students from falling further behind. In June, the Netherlands became the first country to implement such a program, aimed primarily at students identified as struggling. The country is spending the equivalent of $278 million on interventions, a significant chunk of it on tutoring, according to a blog post by Robert Slavin, who oversees Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education. The United Kingdom in mid-June announced the launch of a national tutoring program, too. The country will be spending the equivalent of roughly $440 million in “catch-up support” for public school students of all ages whose learning took a hit thanks to campus closures, according to a government press release.
Slavin, who has proposed a “Marshall Plan for education” in response to the pandemic, is one of several prominent education researchers who have called on the U.S. government to follow suit by dramatically expanding AmeriCorps. The program each year places 75,000 “paid volunteers” — most of them younger than 24 — in service roles through nonprofits such as City Year and Saga Education, both of which embed tutors in high-needs schools. Some members of Congress have taken these calls to scale up such programs to heart. In March, 30 U.S. representatives signed a letter asking House leaders to expand federal community service programs including AmeriCorps. The following month, a pair of Democratic senators introduced a bill, the Undertaking National Initiatives to Tackle Epidemic (UNITE) Act, that would swell the network to 500,000 members and double the stipend tutors receive.
“(Commercial tutoring companies) are advertising themselves as solutions to the Covid-19 problem. They’re tapping into an anxiety among parents.”
Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College and author of “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough.”
Saga in particular has produced remarkable results. The nonprofit, which works in a handful of large, urban districts, pairs each of its tutors with two struggling ninth graders. (Performance in ninth grade, according to research tracing back to the 1980s, predicts a student’s chances at graduating: Teens who fail more than one course in a single semester in their freshman year are unlikely to get their diplomas.) In a study published several years ago, a group of researchers found significant GPA increases in both math and other subjects among students using a tutoring system modeled on that provided through AmeriCorps, along with reduced likelihood of course failures.
The knowledge gaps kids will bring with them to school after the coronavirus pandemic could be exactly the sort that Saga-style tutoring can address, experts suggest. The nonprofit’s work shows that tutoring can help even older kids get back on track when they fall behind. “There’s this common narrative that (high school) is too late to intervene, that we should put all of our money into early childhood,” said Monica Bhatt, who oversees the University of Chicago’s Education Lab. But she and her colleagues have found that “it’s certainly not too late, you just need the right program.”
The right program, as Bhatt put it, “meets kids where they are.” If children are several grade levels behind the content being taught in their classroom, they will invariably struggle to catch up. But if those children meet with a tutor who walks them through the content for an hour a day — or even every other day — they’re bound to develop the tools needed to understand the classroom instruction. The right program also engages students in a lot more content, enabling them to absorb more information than they would otherwise.
High-dosage tutoring is 20 times more effective than less-frequent tutoring in math and 15 times more effective in reading.
Simply put: Practice makes perfect.
A growing body of research shows that intensive tutoring is generally more effective than other types of interventions at boosting student achievement, such as afterschool programming and computer-assisted instruction. In 2016, a team of Harvard researchers published an analysis examining some 200 experiments aimed at improving education, from pre-kindergarten expansion to class-size reduction. The analysis found that frequent, one-on-one, well-designed tutoring — models that also celebrate students’ progress — had an especially positive impact on underperforming students. In fact, according to one study by Slavin, such tutoring can provide the equivalent of five additional months of school.
Which is why experts such as Slavin have advocated for what they call “high-dosage tutoring,” or HDT for short. According to a Harvard analysis, HDT was 20 times more effective than less-frequent tutoring in math and 15 times more effective in reading.
Many people want to tutor — whether because they’re interested in pursuing careers in education or just enjoy being around kids. Some newly minted tutors simply want a fulfilling, short-term gig. Carr, who had casually tutored some of his friends in high school, wasn’t sure what kind of work, if any, he’d find over the summer; the internships he’d lined up were canceled. He heard about the Tennessee Tutoring Corps initiative in May and immediately applied.
“I like helping people,” Carr said, adding that he enjoys working with kids. “I felt like this was a good fit.” (Carr, who’s been riding out the pandemic at his parents’ house, has since landed an internship and is doing that in addition to tutoring Victor and five other students.)
Kris McKavanagh, a Chicago-area retired teacher and self-described “people person,” also began tutoring out of a desire to help during the pandemic, to engage with others and, as she put it, to simply have “something to do.”
“The idea that you have somebody who is working with you, (helping you) to succeed at something that you’re very embarrassed about having failed at in the past, who supports you and knows you and your parents and is invested in you — that can be really transformative for kids.”
Robert Slavin, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education
When McKavanagh heard that the Illinois Retired Teachers Association was organizing a volunteer tutoring initiative to support K-12 students during the state’s school closures, she immediately stepped forward, joining more than 370 former educators. “When you give,” McKavanagh noted, “you get more back.”
The 70-year-old former family and consumer science teacher didn’t end up tutoring in a traditional sense. Rather, she dedicated much of her volunteer time to helping an overwhelmed mother of three young children navigate the remote-learning expectations imposed on her then-kindergartner son.
McKavanagh realized many parents had trouble with their kids’ transition to virtual instruction. “I didn’t want to be bossy. All you had to do was listen to the news to know that a lot of parents were having a tough time,” she told me. And she opted not to work directly with the kindergarten boy, lest she confuse him. “I wanted to be helpful in a way that this mom was open to,” she continued.
With the exception of an initial, hour-long phone call, McKavanagh and the mother primarily communicated via email, once a week for the first month and a half or so. The kindergartner was struggling with his writing and math lessons, for example, so McKavanagh suggested he draw letters with shaving cream and go through numbers using muffin tins. “When you’re doing homework on a regular basis with a kid, the direct (approach) is not always the best way to do it right,” she said.
“When you’re doing homework on a regular basis with a kid, the direct (approach) is not always the best way to do it right.”
Kris McKavanagh, a Chicago-area retired teacher who is now a tutor
Research by Slavin and others suggests that volunteer tutoring programs aren’t as effective as those that use salaried or stipend instructors. Still, McKavanagh’s experience hints at a basic but essential component of tutoring during the pandemic: Given the limitations of online-only schooling and the complications that accompany it, a tutor’s most immediate impact may be the role as a liaison and confidant. For example, Ashley Zenzel, managing director of impact for City Year Orlando, described many corps members’ tutoring work over the past few months as a sort of service desk, helping parents track down assignments and navigate online-learning portals.
After all, tutoring isn’t — or shouldn’t — serve just as homework help. A tutor is “someone who hears and listens to you, is empathetic … knows your birthday, your mom, your dad,” said Antonio Gutierrez, one of Saga Education’s co-founders. These qualities may prove especially crucial in the social-distancing era, when opportunities to build relationships are few. “There’s something about that that’s so important to the success of students, and it’s not quantifiable,” he said.
City Year, which partners with AmeriCorps to deploy teams of recent college graduates to roughly 350 chronically under-resourced schools across the U.S., trains its tutors to foster students’ know-how and sense of self, to enable each child “to build their own narrative.” Absent self-awareness and confidence in their ability to grow, students often internalize their struggles and give up on school. “There’s no stigma attached to working with a City Year corps member,” said Stephanie Wu, City Year’s chief impact officer. “It removes the underlying wondering of a student that, ‘Oh, I’m behind; I’m not good.’”
“There’s no stigma attached to working with a City Year corps member. It removes the underlying wondering of a student that, ‘Oh, I’m behind; I’m not good.’”
Stephanie Wu, City Year’s chief impact officer
Slavin stressed the value of relationships, too. “The idea that you have somebody who is working with you, (helping you) to succeed at something that you’re very embarrassed about having failed at in the past, who supports you and knows you and your parents and is invested in you — that can be really transformative for kids,” Slavin said.
For the U.S. to match the Netherlands’s tutoring commitment, it would need to set aside some $5.3 billion, according to Slavin. That would fund roughly 150,000 tutors and — if each tutor were to work with 50 students per year — serve one in seven American children. Such an investment, Slavin wrote in his blog post, would be “a good start.” But it would hardly suffice to support every kid who needs it.
Slavin and others highlighted strategies that could significantly cut costs without sacrificing quality. One strategy: increasing the number of pupils in a given tutoring session. While one-to-one tutoring has the greatest positive impact, programs that assign as many as four students to a tutor could, in aggregate, make just as much of a difference.
$5.3 billion — Amount the U.S. would need to set aside to match the Netherlands’s tutoring commitment.
Another: incorporating tutoring into the school day, a la Saga and City Year. A third: tapping non-certified teachers for the job. A soon-to-be-published study by Slavin shows that teachers-in-training — along with trained, stipend-funded volunteers such as those working through AmeriCorps — are just as good at tutoring as certified educators.
These graduates don’t need to have studied education or have specialized in the subjects they’re teaching. “First and foremost,” Slavin suggested, they need to be “people who are crazy about kids,” such as babysitters or camp counselors or Sunday school teachers.
The challenge will be retaining the human connection: For tutors to have real impact, they need to be able to detect students’ social cues, to understand how kids interpret the purpose of their schooling. “Right now is a time for innovation,” the University of Chicago’s Bhatt said. “We should be looking to the evidence base for ideas on what has been working and think critically about whether that will translate into a remote learning environment.”
This story about tutoring was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.