Student Achievement Q&A

3 Must-Haves for Effective Tutoring

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 22, 2023 3 min read
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An effective tutoring program requires more than just small group sizes and frequent sessions. It requires school structures that encourage tutors to meet the day-to-day learning needs of struggling students.

The most recent federal tutoring data suggest that as of the 2022-23 school year, more than 8 in 10 public schools are providing some sort of tutoring for their students, but only 37 percent offer high-dosage tutoring, considered the most intensive but also the most effective type.

“A lot of districts really want to provide additional support for their students. They want to do it in an equitable way and they want to do it in a sustainable way. One of the things that we’ve seen is that starting big and not being able to do [tutoring implementation] smoothly sometimes backfires,” said Nancy Waymack, director of research partnerships and policy for the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University, which studies K-12 tutoring trends. “Starting by focusing on a smaller group of students, and really making sure that they have the full support of a consistent tutor, on a very frequent basis, in a data-driven way that’s really aligned with the curriculum is a way that’s going to work really well.”

At an Education Week virtual forum Nov. 16, Waymack said there’s no consensus yet on how much high-dose tutoring should cost per student—programs can range from less than $500 per student a year to several times that—but there are three key elements in district programs that make them more effective and sustainable.

1. Coherence

Tutoring should not be a stand-alone intervention, Waymack said. The most effective programs are “integrated into the school day, and a cohesive program that’s built with equity at the center and the safety of students and their data in mind.”

Students improve more in tutoring programs that take place during the school day rather than before or after school—in part because students show up more often to in-school sessions.

Tutoring should also focus on grade-level skills needed in class at that time, rather than a separate curriculum, she said.

The key to integrating tutoring into the school day, Waymack said, is “planning ahead, making sure when you’re building your master schedule, you’ve got tutoring in mind for those students who need it.”

2. Consistency

Relationships with students are as important for tutors as they are for teachers generally. That means schools should ensure their students meet with the same tutors over the course of a term or year, which allows them to get to know each other and work toward long-term learning goals.

Federal data show 56 percent of public schools that offered high-dosage tutoring in 2022-23 used teachers who had received additional training in effective tutoring practices. By contrast, 41 percent of schools offering standard tutoring—which may involve larger student groups and fewer sessions— during the same time used teachers with additional training.

While teachers trained to tutor have shown the most gains for students, Waymack said studies find all sorts of tutors, including college students, retired educators, and live online instructors, can also benefit students if they sustain their tutoring with the students over time.

For example, a few districts are piloting programs to train existing paraprofessionals to tutor with scripted lessons and coaching. “With that support, the paraprofessionals that may already have a link and key relationship with the students in their school are able to deliver tutoring in a really effective way,” she said.

However, Waymack offered one caveat: Students who already receive special, intensive services, such as special education support or English-language learning, should not work with a less-experienced tutor.

3. Coordination

To the extent possible, tutors should work with classroom teachers to focus on the skills students most need each week. At minimum, Waymack said, this means teachers and tutors should share data on how students are doing with one another.

Schools can nurture more substantive collaboration, though, by giving staff planning time and ensuring tutoring sessions occur close to classrooms.

“If a tutor and teacher run into each other in the hall [they can] have those passing moments where they have a quick word about how well Sarah’s doing in her reading,” Waymack said.
Watch the full interview with Waymack below.

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