Student Achievement What the Research Says

Scaling Up Intensive Tutoring: 4 Studies to Know

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 27, 2022 4 min read
High school tutor giving male student one to one tutoring at a desk
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As districts finalize plans to spend federal pandemic relief money, high-intensity tutoring has emerged as one of the most popular approaches for helping students recover academic ground, but scaling up these programs can be costly.

As part of the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness conference in Arlington last week, researchers highlighted issues education leaders should consider, both in scaling up intensive tutoring programs and in leveraging them to improve students’ social-emotional development as well as their academic progress. Here are their takeaways:

1. Build vertical partnerships for tutoring

As part of its pledge to bring 250,000 tutors and mentors to K-12 schools by 2025, the Biden administration has highlighted initiatives like the $10 million tutoring system in Guilford County, N.C., that matches students with tutors based on grades, testing, and absenteeism, among other criteria. But research suggests that while the high-intensity tutoring can be effective, it’s also tough to sustain the staffing and time needed for 1-to-1 or very small group sessions daily or several times a week.

Brown University researchers Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken proposed that federally supported partnerships among K-12 schools and universities could provide both higher-quality tutors and more-stable programs using several different strategies, including:

  • A high school elective class in which students tutor elementary grade children;
  • College work-study credits for students who tutor in middle school and;
  • Full-time AmeriCorps tutors.

To be most effective, Kraft and Falken found, the tutored students should be paired with the same tutor for a full year, meeting three or more times a week in groups of no more than four.

2. Parent outreach is critical

In a forthcoming study of student participation in online tutoring, Carly Robinson of Brown University and her colleagues found general tutoring programs may run the risk of not reaching the students most in need of services. For example, the researchers found that students who had passed all their classes the prior year were twice as likely to take up the offered tutoring, compared to students who had failed a course.

“Just offering education resources is probably not enough. We found that the vast majority of students are just not taking up even what is probably a very high-quality free resource, because student engagement is at such a low baseline,” Robinson said. “That’s important when we think about how we’re offering resources to students, especially in these pandemic recovery efforts.”

For example, the researchers found that when schools reached out to parents and students directly to offer students tutoring, there was more than 120 percent more participation among students who had already failed one class, compared to schools that simply announced that the tutoring was available generally but did not reach out to parents directly.

3. Focus on tutor-pupil compatibility

In a nationwide study of United Kingdom tutoring during the pandemic, researchers led by Lal Chadeesingh, a principal adviser of the Behavioral Insights Team, an international research group that studies “nudge"—or brief, low-cost—interventions in education and other social policy areas, tracked the engagement of students in more than 185,000 online tutoring sessions across the United Kingdom. Using a brief survey, the researchers identified both students’ and tutors’ interests, hobbies, and values and shared areas of common ground.

They found no clear difference in the effectiveness of new versus experienced tutors, but students who were told about their tutor’s common values and interests had more than 4 percentage point better engagement. In a 15-hour tutoring block, that meant well-paired students typically attended a half-session more than poorly paired students.

“There is quite a range of different barriers to engagement, but one that really stood out to us the most is the importance of the relationship between the tutor and pupil. This came through really consistently that where there was a good relationship, pupils were much more likely to engage and get more out of the tutoring.”

He recommended that schools provide background and more time within academic sessions for tutors and their students to get to know each other.

4. Plan for building long-term gains

Intensive, personalized tutoring can be expensive, but research suggests it can also have long-term benefits. In two separate randomized, controlled trials, researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research found tutoring could pay off in long-term gains for students.

Researchers tracked more than 5,000 Chicago students in 9th and 10th grades, half of whom received individual tutoring through the district’s Saga program, which cost $3,500 to $4,300 per student. Across the two studies, students who participated in the tutoring improved their math performance by 6 to 14 percentile points—an increase which other studies have associated with students earning $900 to $2,100 higher income per year by age 27.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Scaling Up Intensive Tutoring: 4 Studies to Know

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