Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series on the practical takeaways from research.
Districts will soon start receiving about $123 billion set aside for schools in the American Rescue Plan. This legislation provides money to help districts bring back students during (what I hope is) the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds can also purchase programs that meet the needs of the hardest-hit students, hire additional educators to address learning loss, and underwrite summer, after-school, and extended-day and -year learning programs. With so many choices, how should schools spend this money in ways that most boost student outcomes?
To answer this question, I reviewed syntheses of research that look at ways to catch students up academically. Overall, high-dosage tutoring programs had the best track record. Other promising possibilities include extended learning time and highly structured home summer-reading programs for elementary students. Where possible, I compare program outcomes by using the average impact of high-dosage-tutoring programs as a benchmark. While such comparisons are imperfect, they give educators a rough sense for how to prioritize programs with the same aims.
If districts are particularly targeting struggling students and can find the means to do high-dosage tutoring well, the research suggests that is the top choice. To qualify as high dosage, the program must provide each student roughly 75 minutes per week of small-group or individual instruction over a 36-week period. Low-dosage tutoring programs, on the other hand, do not on average show positive impacts.
The success of tutoring makes sense—tutors can tailor material specifically to student needs and pace material to match student progress. Many tutoring programs operate during the school day, with certified teachers pulling students out of their regular classroom for 1-to-1 or small-group instruction. Reviews of the literature show that after-school programs that feature tutoring can likewise improve outcomes in English/language arts.
Another approach to regaining lost learning is an extended school year. While tutoring may be directed just to some students, an extended school year is intended to move all students closer to where they would have been without the pandemic.
Highly structured home-based reading programs over the summer appear as effective on average as summer school in improving elementary-grade reading outcomes.
Several sources of evidence point to a longer school year as promising. First, economists have shown a relationship between the number of instructional days and student performance: When schools gain instructional days as a result of fewer snow days or changes in state testing windows, standardized-test scores improve. Second, policies and programs that add days to the school calendar are often (though not always) positively associated with improved student outcomes. In some cases, these programs can also accelerate the learning of students with lower levels of prior knowledge or who come from low-income or other historically marginalized communities.
Still, the extension has to be significant. A back-of-the-envelope estimate based on a study by Benjamin Hansen suggests that adding between two to six weeks of instruction would be needed to achieve the same effects as 36 weeks of high-dosage tutoring per year per student. In line with this estimate, successful programs extending the school year added between two and six weeks of instruction to the calendar.
Districts might also think about an extended school day. However, the evidence as a whole provides only weak support for extended days as a means of academic catch-up. It may be that how the time is used accounts for most of the difference. For instance, researcher Matt Kraft described how the Match Charter Public High School in Boston used a two-hour extension of the school day to incorporate individual tutoring; ELA test scores rose similarly to the effects seen in the average high-dosage-tutoring program, and math scores rose among the lowest-performing students.
The recovery plan specifically sets aside funds for summer school or other summer experiences for children. Several scholars have examined the body of literature on summer school and find that summer school programs that include reading and math work boost those skills, though the effects are roughly just a half to a third the size of those produced by the average high-dosage tutoring program.
Critics point out that academically focused summer schools may have a downside, depriving students of other kinds of summer benefits, like those gained in summer camp, informal care, or neighborhood settings. There, students may develop self-regulation and self-efficacy, enhance their creativity, or explore interests like art or engineering. Summer school may also be a relatively inefficient way of recovering lost learning because the material and pedagogical methods used in summer settings may not align well with students’ school year classroom experiences.
Perhaps surprisingly, highly structured home-based reading programs over the summer appear as effective on average as summer school in improving elementary-grade reading outcomes. One review of the literature also suggests that these home-based programs may be particularly effective for low-income children. Such programs provide students books or other texts to read, and many programs encourage reading the materials with family members. Particularly effective programs, like READS, also match texts with student interests and reading levels as well as involve classroom teachers in the program’s rollout and conclusion.
After-school programs are also popular for improving achievement. Unfortunately, after-school programs without tutoring have shown on average either small or no effects on student academic outcomes. That said, after-school programs with strong youth-staff relationships and an explicit focus on building social-emotional skills may help students build those skills and develop a more positive attitude toward school. Like many summertime activities, they can be valuable, but they don’t seem very good at helping students acquire academic skills they are missing.
With the exception of extended-day and after-school programs without tutoring, all the options above provide a pathway to recovering at least some of the academic learning lost to the pandemic. Districts choosing among them will want to compare costs and prospective benefits in order to spend their federal recovery money wisely.
Districts will also want to pay close attention to the implementation of the program(s) they choose. Effect sizes produced in academic studies are often not reproduced in the real world. I’ll write more about that in a forthcoming essay.