With the return to in-person learning in sight, K-12 leaders are urgently setting priorities for the coming school year. Each spring, educators are eager to find that “just right” approach to their biggest challenges. As a former middle and high school principal, I know that’s especially true after a tough year—and no year has been tougher than this one.
For many leaders, accelerating student learning is top-of-mind, and one method that has garnered a lot of recent attention is high-impact tutoring. The National Student Support Accelerator, founded this year at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University to promote and support high-impact tutoring, defines it as one-to-one or small-group support that supplements classroom learning and complements existing curriculum by focusing on specific goals in response to individual students’ needs. This kind of tutoring is also known as “high-intensity tutoring” or “high-dosage tutoring.”
Research has shown that frequent in-school tutoring is one of the best ways to support students’ academic progress. In fact, tutoring has had greater impacts on student learning than various forms of teacher training, curriculum, extending the school day, teacher evaluation, and more.
This kind of tutoring is not meant to solely focus on remediating previous learning, although some reteaching may be involved. It might be helpful to think of high-impact tutoring as “accelerated learning” rather than “remediated learning.”
As with any education intervention schools undertake, it is important to first consider a variety of factors and then formulate a program that’s calibrated to address them. In my current role helping leaders of the KIPP network of charter schools shape their academic strategies, I advise that any school looking to design a high-impact tutoring program address these eight key components:
- Format: It can be either online or in person.
- Frequency and length of time: It is recommended that tutoring take place at least three times per week for at least 30 minutes at a time for the full school year.
- Ratio: Ideally, a student-to-tutor ratio should be 1-1 or 2-1 and no greater than 4-1. Any ratio greater than 2-1 runs the risk of “teaching to the middle” and thus being less effective. Larger groups also require the tutor to have greater pedagogical skills and/or classroom-management skills.
- Scheduling: It is recommended that tutoring occur during the school day as a formal part of the schedule, such as a dedicated class period.
- Staffing: If possible, students should have the same tutor(s) for the full year. Research indicates that less-experienced tutors can be effective with consistent training, strong supervision, and structured curricula. Schools might consider staffing with paraprofessionals and/or novice teachers.
- Students: Given that all students benefit from individual attention, tutoring is recommended for all students, not just for those who may be struggling. Tutoring exclusively for struggling students tends to create stigma and may be perceived as punishment.
- Support: For tutors, determine who will provide ongoing training and supervision, including observation and feedback. For content, determine differentiated scope and sequence for each student and determine whether teachers or tutors will be providing it. For outcomes, determine the process for individual goal setting, progress monitoring, and data collection and analysis.
- Tutoring content: Content should be curriculum-based, on grade level, with just-in-time scaffolds to help students over rough spots, and it should be focused on the most critical standards for the grade level. It is most important to tailor content to students’ progress, whether that be pre-teaching, reviewing for an exam, or aiding with homework.
These are all important considerations, but the list comes with a caution, too. In stressful times like these, a recipe feels like a godsend. Yet a recipe can also be dangerous because it does not take local context into consideration. So rather than run with predetermined recommendations, school leaders should first start with defining the student outcomes they are seeking to meet through high-impact tutoring. If schools are looking for one “rule” to follow without exception, it is this: Start small, work with the program until you find success, and then assess whether that success can be maintained at a larger scale.
For example, the KIPP schools in Nashville, Tenn., are currently building their program with these components in mind but in a way that meets their context and constraints. They will be targeting students in specific grades, with primary students focusing on reading and secondary students focusing on math. Their tutoring will be offered for an hour after school, three days a week, and they have partnered with a local tutoring service to provide instruction and oversight.
While KIPP Nashville is not incorporating every single recommendation, they are considering all components in their design, and—most importantly—they are starting small. “We decided to start small and observe results so we could make the appropriate revisions if we decided to scale up,” said Nancy Livingston, the KIPP Nashville chief of schools.
To be as successful as possible, take these eight components into account and thoughtfully design a program that is realistic, sustainable, and rooted in your specific context. Our students don’t need another education initiative to fizzle out partway through the year. They deserve a well-considered plan that places their learning at the center. High-impact tutoring, if done right, can be instrumental in achieving that goal.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as 8 Considerations for Designing High-Impact Tutoring