Student Achievement

Clearing the Hurdles to Effective School Tutoring Programs

By Evie Blad — March 14, 2023 3 min read
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While tutoring programs can be a key component of schools’ academic recovery efforts, the scale of students’ needs demand strategies that are carefully designed to meet the challenge, panelists said at an Education Week virtual event.

“Things were unequal before the pandemic, but they’ve become much more unequal post-pandemic,” said Thomas Kane, an economist and the faculty director of the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research. “It’s up to us to try to close those gaps over the next few years.”

Kane spoke at Education Week’s March 8 edition of a Seat at the Table, a live web video series, alongside host Peter DeWitt, University of California Los Angeles education professor Tyrone Howard, and Cristal Moore, a Los Angeles elementary school principal who has experience putting academic recovery efforts into place.

While tutoring is a frequently mentioned recovery strategy, logistical and design hurdles are making some schools’ efforts ineffective, speakers said.

Here are three key issues they identified.

Tutoring programs don’t always attract students with the most need

Results for the spring 2022 edition of the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the first administration of the test for 4th and 8th grade students since the pandemic began—showed the largest drop in math performance among those students since the testing program began in 1990.

And declines are even sharper for students in poverty and Black and Latino students, Howard said.

But students who could benefit the most from tutoring programs don’t always participate—often because of the same life and family factors that led to inequality before the pandemic, he said, listing factors like transportation, language barriers, and family schedules as concerns.

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Moore, the principal, said her school’s program, which is designed to target recovery needs for English learners, is called “clubs,” rather than “tutoring,” to help focus on students’ potential, rather than weaknesses. Thatstrategy, combined with tutors who have strong relationships with students, can boost participation and make tutoring more effective, she said.

“Are you seeing students as a deficit? Or do you know who they are?” Moore said. “Do you see the worth in them, the possibility of who they are?”

Parents aren’t aware of their children’s academic needs

Another big concern: Parents aren’t always aware of the urgency of their children’s academic needs, Kane said. And that may mean some don’t recognize the value of opting them into voluntary after-school programs.

Most parents—92 percent according to one survey by Learning Heroes—believe their children are at grade level and doing just fine in the classroom, Education Week reported in November.

Some schools have addressed this “perception gap” by holding parent meetings and regularly sharing data to help families understand students’ level of need.

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More broadly, some schools have expanded school days or rearranged classes to build tutoring into the bell schedule so parents don’t have to opt their children in, Kane said. But some researchers have said extended school days or integrated tutoring are underused strategies.

Built-in tutoring “was hard to do last year because people were adding these tutoring programs after schedules had already been set, but it should be possible for next school year, for districts to create time during the regular school day,” Kane said.

The ‘dosage’ of tutoring is too low to make a dent

Pre-pandemic research found that tutoring programs are most effective when students are paired one-on-one with a trained tutor for frequent, well coordinated sessions that align with academic needs, Howard said.

Students should receive three to five tutoring sessions a week that are 30 to 60 minutes each, Kane said. But many schools’ programs offer much less tutoring time. And students who are chronically absent or otherwise not engaged with school may miss out on some sessions.

Schools dealing with staffing shortages, teacher burnout, and scheduling challenges may also struggle to meet the threshold of a “high-dosage” program, speakers said.

Moore, the Los Angeles principal, said her school has addressed those concerns by matching highly qualified teachers with trained paraprofessionals who help reduce the number of students per adult.

“Tutoring is a multi-layer problem,” she said. “A teacher can have five students struggling with the same [academic] concept, but every student needs something different.”

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