Of all academic interventions, so-called “high-dosage” tutoring has shown the most evidence of helping students gain academic ground quickly.
Susanna Loeb, the founder and executive director of the National Student Support Accelerator, studies how schools can use and scale up intensive tutoring, which involves one-on-one situations or very small groups meeting at least 30 minutes, three or more times a week.
Loeb, who is also a professor and the director of the education policy initiative at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, spoke with Education Week about what goes into effective tutoring.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What makes tutoring effective?
I do think it is really the one-on-one, one-on-two kind of small-group instruction that’s well targeted to what the student needs, that’s relationship-based so that there is trust, and a willingness by the student to take risks and really try to learn all the things that go along with that kind of close relationship.
What do we know about what makes a good tutor?
Actually, one thing that is surprising in the literature is that lots of people can be high-impact tutors. So it does not have to be a certified teacher, [though] there is some evidence that certified teachers are great at this. But paraprofessionals, or college students, lots and lots of people can be good tutors, if they’re well-supported, if they get data on what the student needs, and if they get supports for what they should do to address those needs.
Really, what good tutoring is is a positive relationship between a student and a tutor that targets the student’s needs, using high-quality instruction. You can get that in a number of different ways. The skills that the tutor has to bring, on top of just getting the good data and the instructional materials, is they have to be able to create a good relationship with the students. Sometimes, that takes some training upfront, and sometimes, some coaching on that is really useful.
What is the classroom teacher’s role, if the teacher is not also acting as a student’s tutor?
In the most ideal situation, there’s a really high-quality curriculum in school, and the tutoring just builds on that with the same kind of materials. There’s a relationship between the tutor and the teacher, so the teacher can give the tutor ideas of what they should be working on, and then the feedback can go back to the teacher about what’s going on.
That’s a really nice ideal, but there are also a number of schools that don’t necessarily have high-quality materials or where the student needs help that isn’t on the range of things that they’re doing in class, and the teacher doesn’t have time for the tutor. Schools vary, particularly right now, after the pandemic, when things may be a little hectic with lots of teachers.
What’s the role for peer tutoring among students?
What people call peer tutors can vary. So sometimes, they call them peer tutors when it’s high school students tutoring elementary school students or even college students [tutoring younger kids]. They’re not actually peer tutors. We haven’t been looking at some kids in the classroom tutoring other kids in the [same] classroom. I worry that their dynamics—the power that is created in those situations—that would not be positive, but I don’t have strong evidence one way or the other.
What are the most important structural pieces of an effective tutoring program?
You want to make sure there’s enough time devoted to it, that it’s a program that has a consistent tutor for each student, that it’s giving oversight to the tutors so that there are ways of checking to see whether the tutor is doing it well. There should be some kind of data collection, where you can get feedback on the program from the student and from the tutor, what the attendance is for the tutor and the student. Collecting that kind of information is really important. And then having a person that’s overseeing the program—allof those things are important to have it run.
Tutoring is time-intensive. How should it be integrated into the school schedule?
It is supplementing, not supplanting, class time. It is sometimes done in block periods, where it could be part of a rotation or something like that. That said, while it’s separate, often from the traditional class period, the effects are much bigger when the programs have been delivered in schools, rather than outside of school time. That may be because that’s when the kids actually show up for the tutoring. It’s possible that you could get good programs outside of school, right before or right after school, [if you assure] the students are there regularly.
There’s been a huge increase in online tutoring and virtual tutoring. What do we know about how effective it is in that format?
There is evidence, actually. The general thought is yes, it can be actually quite effective, because students have gotten really used to [virtual] interactions where it is personal. You can have that relationship-based part of tutoring online. The trick about it, again, is that it can be online, but the student should be in school as much as possible, because there is still that issue of, if you do it online and not in school, it’s hard to get the students to show up.
There are some potential drawbacks and some potential advantages to being online. [In virtual tutoring], you have platforms that have been developed to allow for really easy communication, where you can write something on a screen, and they can go back and forth on that, and then it saves it, and you’ve got it next time. And also your supply of tutors expands, so if you have a high-demand area, like for high school math or for speaking a language other than English, you can get tutors from a broader range.
The difficulty is that there isn’t the tutor there to make sure that the student is there and go find them if they don’t show up. That’s why it’s important to have that person assigned at the school to make sure the students are there. And it probably is true that the relationships aren’t quite as strong when it’s virtual versus in person.
The No Child Left Behind Act included a wide-scale tutoring program called “supplemental education services,” which showed very mixed success. What do you see as different in this tutoring push and how schools could avoid some of the pitfalls that happened in the last run?
During the No Child Left Behind era, if schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress for more than two years, parents would have the ability to choose to do what we’re calling opt-in tutoring. The school would pay for the parents to choose tutors for their students. However, there was no quality control, none of the kinds of discussions about high-dosage or curricular materials or data or the training for the tutors or anything like that.
We’ve learned a lot since then about what effective tutoring is. And there’s actually a really big difference between what we’ve been calling high-impact tutoring and what is more like opt-in homework help where you choose a tutor, but the student is responsible to go to that tutor with questions, and the tutor then responds to the student’s questions. They may be very good at that, but it tends to have low uptake, which is what happened with No Child Left Behind. More recent evidence is that the ones who take it up tend to be the more engaged students, the higher-achieving students, so it’s really not getting at what we need.
High-impact tutoring is a great way to kind of engage students in school who are less engaged, because they and their tutor together can see all the success that they’re having academically by working really at that zone of proximal development.
So I think what’s different between that time and this time is that there is this clear evidence and widespread agreement that these two kinds of tutoring are different.
How can school leaders support high-impact tutoring in their buildings?
School leaders, of course, have a big role in this. Many districts are choosing to do high-impact tutoring, then leave a lot of the choices to school leaders. It’s really helpful for them to be informed about what are the characteristics of high-impact tutoring. It is important to know the difference between the opt-in and the [tutoring programs] that are three to five times a week for at least 30 to 45 minutes, that have good oversight of tutors, good supports for tutors, just the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about.
They should also realize that it’s not that easy to do. And so if they want to do it, they have to really work to get it done. You need to schedule it, you need to find a time for students, and you need those students to show up.