Student Achievement

Millions Toward Tutoring: Funders Bank on the Recovery Strategy Despite Big Challenges

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 05, 2022 | Updated: April 06, 2022 5 min read
First grade teacher Ashley Sides helps Emily Hernandez with a worksheet during a tutoring class after school at Roy Clark Elementary school in Tulsa, Okla. on Oct. 21, 2021.
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A new multimillion-dollar effort will fund K-12 tutoring projects, experiment with new models, and bring more clarity to what works and what doesn’t—and create a tutoring network connecting dozens of districts and some states.

Unveiled April 5, the venture will be run by a newly created organization, Accelerate, and will receive its initial funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Overdeck Family Foundation, and Kenneth C. Griffin, who leads Citadel, an investment firm. So far, the partners have raised $65 million out of a target of $100 million.

The effort will be led by CEO Kevin Huffman, formerly a Tennessee state superintendent of education. Janice Jackson, the former leader of the Chicago Public schools will serve as executive chair.

“The goal, if we’re successful 10 years from now is that high-quality tutoring will be a part of what students can expect to get in a school system. That can only happen if we figure out how to do it well, if we figure out some of these staffing challenges,” Jackson said. “And it can’t cost $3,000 per student.”

Students need intensive help, but the blueprint for how is unclear

The organization will immediately begin to seek districts, tutoring providers, and states to join its network. It envisions working with about a dozen districts and two to three states.

The need for tutoring programs that work at scale is clear. Study after study finds that students’ learning growth slowed during the pandemic exacerbating already-yawning opportunity gaps among students. And the final of three rounds of federal pandemic relief funding for schools directed districts to put at least a fifth of their cut of the funding into tutoring and other evidence-based ways of catching students up.

As recently as his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called on districts to prioritize tutoring, and for others to volunteer to tutor.

“We can all play a part: Sign up to be a tutor or a mentor,” he said.

But nearly two years after the pandemic first hit schools, several big challenges with tutoring at scale have become readily apparent.

  • Staffing. Many districts have reported challenges finding tutors, although the shortage is not as severe as bus drivers, substitutes, and other positions. Still, the same forces that have caused widespread disruption to the labor market are complicating districts’ ability to hire and adequately compensate tutors.
  • Capacity. Earlier this year, providers have struggled to begin programs as the rapid spread of the omicron variant led to massive staff outages. And some state initiatives, like the New Jersey Tutoring Corps, have relied extensively on outside partners in part because school districts often simply did not have the bandwidth to oversee programs with fidelity.
  • Uptake. As with extended learning and summer school options, many tutoring programs are voluntary, and it’s not always clear that the students who most need additional help are getting it. For logistical reasons and flexibility, tutoring is often offered as an voluntary add-on rather than integrated into the regular school schedule.
  • Lack of research on online tutoring. Most of the research on tutoring doesn’t reflect the constraints that school districts face to get programs up and running now. And very little of it specifically looks at online tutoring, which is increasingly being considered by districts.

The online-tutoring landscape is particularly variable. Some of the biggest online providers are effectively offering on-demand homework help with a tutor, not the kind of sustained mentorship much of the prior research has pointed to as a successful practice. And other providers that built their reputations on in-person tutoring are now experimenting with hybrids, like ed-tech software that draws on artificial intelligence or other forms of computer learning, to supplement traditional modes.

Partly because of the multitude of options, the new organization’s leaders say they will work with partners that are launching both in-person and online tutoring models.

“Some kids, in some subject areas, in some settings need small, in-person, high-dosage tutoring. Some may do really well with hybrid where they’re some bit online, and some bit reinforced in person,” said Huffman. “Some students might do really well with tech-enabled tutoring if there’s a program that’s well researched and works for them.”

A research—and philanthropic—agenda

But the end goal, the leaders say, is shaping the marketplace to support effectiveness and taking the burden of quality control off overtaxed school and district leaders.

“There all these actors out there with no incentive to research their programs and see how effective they are,” Jackson noted. “We need to bring some parameters into this space. If I hear one more [online tutoring company] saying, ‘We went from X to Y million of students signed up’ as a marker of success, I’ll be ready to jump out the window. We need to make sure they’re closing these gaps.”

There’s already a subtext that schools and districts aren’t spending their relief funds quickly enough or wisely, she noted; the project could help counteract that narrative.

“One of my concerns is that public school systems were struggling with finances before the pandemic, and I don’t want this infusion of cash to be seen as wasted. I want to be able to do things to show its effectiveness,” Jackson said.

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Conceptual Illustration of computer, books, school supplies and a shovel
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The new project will contain a significant research component: The University of Chicago will work with the new organization to conduct a random-experiment study as part of the project, though details about how that will work aren’t yet available. Accelerate will also work with the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which has launched its own tutoring-research initiative.

Accelerate’s supporters have a long history of K-12 education philanthropy. The Gates Foundation has supported hundreds of millions of dollars in projects to boost teacher quality, use of effective curriculum, and learning. Arnold Ventures, formerly the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, has supported blended-learning initiatives in schools. (Education Week currently receives operating support from the Gates Foundation.)

The Overdeck Family Foundation, meanwhile, has helped fund statewide tutoring programs in Tennessee and New Jersey, among other investments.

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