To Combat Learning Loss, New Project Hopes to Test and Scale ‘High Impact’ Tutoring

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 10, 2020 4 min read
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There is widespread agreement that of all the ways to help students struggling academically due to the COVID-19 pandemic,"high-impact” tutoring is the most promising: It’s personalized. It’s an approach that’s been used for centuries by the well-heeled. And it has a lot of research behind it.

All this has led to a consensus—at least among think-tank types—that the United States needs a significant investment to expand high-quality tutoring programs.

(High-impact tutoring, also called high-dosage tutoring, is sustained and regular contact between a tutor and a student over several months, rather than incidentally called up by a student only on occasion.)

The problem of doing this at scale is one of cost, of course, but also of logistics. Research is less clear what elements matter most to a high-quality program: Is it training the tutors? Curriculum alignment with districts’ needs? How the tutoring is integrated into the regular school day?

Into this breach has stepped the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which late last week announced the launch of its National School Support Accelerator. Partly a hands-on tutoring initiative and partly a research project, the accelerator is funding a variety of demonstration tutoring sites throughout the United States to study and refine what we know about tutoring. Eventually, Annenberg staff want to spin off the project into its own organization.

“The trick, I think, is that when you scale something it’s not as good as it is initially,” said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute. “How can we be careful so it scales at quality? What kind of resources are available so we know that it’s quality, and they’re doing it in a way that the research shows is most effective? That’s really what this organization is aiming to do.”

So far the project is still in its design phase, but it has a deep bench of researchers and providers who are advising it. It’s also created a definition for what it means by high-impact tutoring, which would cover very small tutor-pupil ratios, but does not include pullout programs or “pod” learning. And it’s developing a set of tools to help new organizations set up programs: How to select the materials needed for training and overseeing tutors, options for curriculum and platforms, and so on. For districts, it will create a checklist of things they consult as they work to establish or partner with tutoring organizations.

Annenberg will be testing these tools in pilot tutoring sites; there are six so far, which are located in districts in California, Texas, Rhode Island, and Colorado.

“We hope when this gets going it will be a place where tutoring organizations can see what other tutoring organizations are doing, where school systems see what is working, and where we can encourage continuous learning,” Loeb said. “We want to know how it can be really supportive of teachers and supplement what they’re doing, and not conflict with what teachers are doing. And we really want to make sure that when it scales up, it scales up with quality.”

A Chance for Funding?

So far, the Annenberg project is being funded mainly by education philanthropies, including the Walton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, online-meeting organization Zoom, and private donors. (The Walton and Gates foundations also support Education Week’s journalism but do not exercise any editorial control over the content.)

Each of the six pilot sites is supported by a $100,000 grant that the district has matched, and supports about 150 to 1,000 students.

To have nationwide impact, of course, a project like this will ultimately need some self-sustaining funding. With the transition to a new administration, there’s a palpable sense that another stimulus package could include more K-12 funding, potentially including a tutoring program. (This likely depends on the composition of the Senate, which will not be resolved until a January runoff election in Georgia for both of the state’s seats.)

Already, some researchers have outlined how they’d like to see it look. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University, who has also studied tutoring, recently laid out what he called a Tutoring Marshall Plan. His proposal would, among other things, providing funding, support research into tutoring programs that haven’t been evaluated, and help Title I schools hire and train some 300,000 recent graduates as tutors.

There are also a few existing programs out there that could provide helpful guidelines. England has created a National Tutoring Programme, which will put some 335 million pounds into tutoring (around $450 milliion). While that will cover only a fraction of students, it is much more extensive than anything that’s been tried here in the United States.

Loeb said her organization is planning for two possibilities: the status quo, with the current fractured tutoring landscape, in which case, it would aim to smooth the road for districts that want to begin tutoring programs, and a second possibility, in which tutoring could be part of a federal works program.

Correction: This post originally misstated the role of the nonprofit accelerator Tides. It facilitated Zoom’s donation.

Photo: English Language Arts teacher Rebecca Ain, right, helps a student in her class at the Social Justice Public Charter School, in Washington.—AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.