The vast majority of school districts have set up tutoring programs to address unfinished learning, but they’re serving only a small slice of the children who need it, a new survey shows.
The EdWeek Research Center study represents the most detailed national picture yet of how districts are using tutoring to bolster learning opportunities lost during the pandemic. Of all interventions, tutoring boasts a particularly strong research base, but it can be tough to put into practice in all the ways that research shows work best. The survey reflects that difficulty.
The survey of 1,287 district and school leaders and teachers was conducted online between April 27 and May 2. Only a small slice of districts said they’re not offering tutoring.
They report that a hefty chunk of their students need tutoring, but only a small subset of those kids are participating.
Districts are focusing their programs heavily on math and reading, perhaps unsurprisingly, since federal accountability rests most heavily on those two subjects. But they’re also structuring their tutoring to cover any subject where a child needs help, and reserving some focus, also, for science and social studies.
Tutoring programs are, by and large, being held face-to-face, but some districts are using online approaches. Most districts report that their in-person programs are held in groups of four or fewer, a key feature researchers say boosts effectiveness. But many districts conduct sessions in groups of five or more.
Districts are struggling to deliver programs with another key feature linked to effectiveness: having students work with the same tutor week after week. Only one-third said all their students study with the same tutor regularly.
Timing can be pivotal for tutoring programs. They tend to get better participation when they happen during the school day, but fewer than half of districts said their programs are held during that time period, possibly because reworking the daily schedule to embed tutoring can be challenging.
Districts’ tutoring programs lean heavily on their own certified teachers. No surprise there: They’ve got the pedagogical chops, and already-established connections with students. But they are also the most expensive option, which raises questions about program sustainability. Research has found that paraprofessionals, college students and others, if properly trained and supported, can also be effective tutors. But few districts are going this route.
Most districts focus their tutoring programs on students with the most academic need, but fully half make them available to anyone. A large minority requires tutoring for struggling students, but for most, it’s optional.
Few districts are weaving tutoring into the school day for everyone, even though some experts encourage this approach as a good way to improve instruction for all.
District and school leaders and teachers agree that tutoring is an effective intervention, although that picture gets more nuanced under the surface. While three-quarters said tutoring was effective, only one third agreed completely with that description. Four in 10 “somewhat” agreed.
Even though districts rely heavily on the most expensive option—their own teachers—to run their tutoring programs, cost was not among the challenges they cited most often. High on the list are students’ and families’ willingness to participate, and difficulty getting enough tutors. Transportation ranked high, too, probably because many districts hold their sessions outside normal school hours.