High-Dosage Tutoring Is Effective, But Expensive. Ideas for Making It Work

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One-on-one tutoring is the original “personalized learning,” dating back centuries. Along with the Socratic seminar, it may be among the oldest pedagogies still in existence. And as it turns out, it is probably the single most powerful strategy for responding to learning loss. 

Increasingly, top education researchers agree that tutoring programs for students who lost ground over the last six months should be a top priority for federal investment. There is potential, they say, for such a program to help ease unemployment. After all, the economic downturn means there’s a glut of talented college graduates and other degree holders who might be interested in tutoring part or full-time in exchange for a stipend or salary.

These advocates stress the realities of basic equity for the nation’s most underserved children. Tutoring, after all, is what advantaged parents routinely seek out for their children—and will continue to do as the pandemic continues. (In fact, some well-heeled parents are already putting together “learning pods”—essentially small tutoring groups—with other families.) Why should it be any different for other children?

Why is tutoring so effective?

The research on high-dosage tutoring—generally defined as one-on-one tutoring or tutoring in very small groups at least three times a week, or for about 50 hours over a semester—is robust, and it is convincing. On average, the effect sizes are among the largest of all interventions seen in education.                          

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

And tutoring seems to work for a range of subjects. Two recent meta-analyses looking specifically at tutoring within the context of struggling readers in the elementary grades and elementary math programs found evidence of success for both content areas.

Which is why any district that can afford to begin robust tutoring programs should, researchers say.     

“For the level of problems districts are likely to be seeing coming into their doors with the minimum of six months of learning at home, I think it would be malpractice to do anything less than tutoring,” said Robert Slavin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education, who has studied the topic extensively.

Just why tutoring seems to be so effective is harder to pinpoint empirically. But the theory of action is clear: In such small groups, teachers can better customize teaching to the specific content gaps a student has missed or the prerequisite skills they need to practice. And it’s easier for a student to develop a relationship with a tutor they see at dedicated hours several times a week

“The magic of tutoring of course seems to be this individualized ability to both diagnose, and hover, in ways that just lead to real progress,” noted Emily Freitag, the CEO of Instruction Partners, a nonprofit working with districts in several states to develop COVID-19 instructional plans. 

Plus, it boosts students’ confidence as they begin to make progress. “The lowest-performing kids tend to sit quietly in school and hope no one will notice them. With tutoring, there's an adult who gets to know them and cares about them deeply and gives them loads of opportunity to let them show that they can succeed,” noted Slavin. 

How much does tutoring cost?

The wrinkle is that tutoring comes with a high price tag, primarily in the form of hiring and training tutors, especially in a one-on-one setting. One study of a Chicago high-dosage math tutoring program found that it cost on the order of $3,800 a student over a school year, though economies of scale could potentially bring that figure down if it’s expanded.

Such is the strength of the research on tutoring that other countries are underwriting tutoring as a core strategy to put kids back on track. 

In Britain, the Parliament has set aside 1 billion pounds (about $1.27 billion) for extra pupil services, of which £350 (about $442 million) will be specifically reserved for tutoring programs in primary and secondary schools. The funding will help schools procure tutoring at a reduced price, with the government giving a stamp of approval to those providers with evidence that their approach works. (A secondary tier will identify programs that lack effectiveness data but use features associated with better learning outcomes, said Robbie Coleman, the acting director of the National Tutoring Programme.)

The Netherlands also approved new funding for interventions, though it will be up to schools to decide whether to use the funding for tutoring or other pupil services.    

Many U.S. researchers are pressing Congress to follow suit. So far, it has not approved funding beyond the CARES Act for specific interventions.

The AmeriCorps program, for example, has long supported tutoring among other types of community service, staffed by young volunteers who are paid a stipend. But its reach is limited by the annual federal budgeting process, and while there have been proposals to expand it as part of a national pandemic response, so far none of them have advanced.  

Among states, Maryland appears to be the only one to earmark some of its CARES funding for tutoring; officials there said $100 million would be allocated, but the state has not made available any additional details. A Tennessee summer tutoring program, privately funded by former Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife, was administered through the Boys and Girls Clubs using college students. Theoretically, districts could use some Title I funding for tutoring, though districts often have already allocated that money into other continuing costs like salaries for classroom aides. 

Still, there are some ways to lower the price tag of tutoring. Paraprofessionals and paid volunteers appear to be generally as good as certified classroom teachers in providing tutoring, and they are much less costly to hire, according to several studies.

(One way to think about this apparent contradiction: It can take years to learn how to effectively teach a class of 25 or more students. But many people can be trained in a relatively short time to be a good one-on-one tutor.)

There is one catch in the research, though: Unpaid volunteers are generally much less effective tutors than paid ones. 

How would tutoring work in a remote environment?

Far less is known, researchers acknowledge, about the best way to make tutoring translate into a remote-learning session.

Engagement is among the core challenges, both in terms of building a relationship with each student and keeping the tutoring interactive in the absence of traditional materials like white boards, or when circumstances dictate telephone tutoring rather than a video format, said Christine SySantos Levy, special projects coordinator for Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Research and Reform. (She helped administer a pilot online tutoring program in eight Baltimore schools over the summer.) 

City Year, a nonprofit organization that provides tutoring to approximately 38,000 students in 29 cities, is already planning to offer updated training to its corps of tutors. Those will include both core community engagement skills and pedagogical ones, like how to “check for understanding” in an online setting, rather than in a classroom. 

“We want [tutors] to see themselves as a practitioner in both spaces,” said Stephanie Wu, the organization’s chief impact officer. “The skills are really different, and the content needs to be prepared differently.” 

Putting It All Together

Consider cost-effectiveness.

One-on-one tutoring has the strongest evidence of effectiveness, but costs the most and reaches the fewest students. Some studies show that larger tutoring groups of two to four students, while less effective than one-to-one arrangements, still pay dividends for learning. At least one study on one-to-four afterschool tutoring found learning benefits for only Black students who participated, however.

Thus, this is a significant gray area in the literature. Districts will need to weigh their priorities and, potentially, test and modify their approaches. One idea is to begin tutoring with larger groups of students needing extra help—perhaps four at a time--and monitor carefully to see if their learning responds. If they don’t appear to be making progress, then it may be time to move them into one-on-one settings, suggested Slavin of Johns Hopkins University. 

“I would keep careful track of how students are progressing,” he said. “A lot of kids will be successful at one-to-four [groups] but there may be kids who are not, and I would reserve one-to-one for those who are not.” 

Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, favors a different approach: Keeping the group size down to two students per tutor, but holding costs down by employing college students or paid volunteers and keeping the focus on strong program leadership, design, and curriculum.

The details matter.

Quality matters. The research on tutoring indicates that it needs to be sustained, regular, and woven into the fabric of the school day, rather than once a week or exclusively after school. Repeated contact of at least three times a week, or 50 hours over four months, should be the baseline.

Many districts have attempted to do tutoring on their own, in afterschool programs and homework tables, or as part of federally required interventions under the former No Child Left Behind Act. But these low-dosage tutoring efforts generally don’t have the same impact as high-dosage tutoring. Typically, they have fewer quality-control parameters in place, are not sustained, or have variable attendance rates.

Districts can be flexible about the source of tutors—using a mix of classroom teachers, teaching assistants, and paid volunteers—but they should hold their tutors to regular attendance and give them some training on foundations in their subject, the curriculum they’ll be expected to use, and engagement strategies.

Coordinate teaching and tutoring to the extent possible. 

Reading and Math, Inc., a nonprofit that deploys about 1,500 tutors nationally through AmeriCorps in more than a dozen states, includes a robust support system for tutors. They’re paired with an internal coach at the school site, usually a content expert, as well as a master coach from the organization.     

“They get really high-quality initial and follow-up training to help them be the best that they can be. We know that training one time does not help educators implement evidence-based practices,” said Anne Sinclair, the chief learning officer for the organization. 

Together, the internal coach and master coach participate in monthly meetings to examine data and share results with classroom teachers, so teachers know which content and skill gaps kids are working on. It is also a way to ensure that what’s happening in core instruction and in tutoring dovetail rather than conflict.

Britain’s National Tutoring Programme is taking a similar approach. 

“Something that's really important to us is that the tutoring is well- coordinated with the classroom teaching,” Coleman said. “The worst thing that can happen from a teacher’s perspective, and an impact perspective, is when you have teaching and tutoring that collides.”

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