Student Achievement

3 Studies for District Leaders to Read as They Plan for Learning Recovery

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 11, 2021 4 min read
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The research on what works in helping students catch up, without holding them back or putting them in remedial classes where they miss out on regular content, can be complex and confusing. Education Week and has picked out three of the most salient studies for district leaders as they begin to plan for this summer and beyond.

Extensive tutoring works, even in the secondary grades

A newly released study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a math tutoring program in the Chicago district had large effects—equivalent to anywhere from about a year of additional learning to more than twice that.

The research was based on two random-assignment studies of 9th and 10th graders who received daily 45-50 minute tutoring sessions provided by trained, recent college graduates using a model developed by Boston’s Match charter high school. (The tutoring program was later spun off into its own nonprofit, now known as Saga Education.)

In addition to boosting math learning, the study found, the tutoring boosted students’ overall GPA and was linked to a decline in math course failures, and the gains persisted into the students’ 11th grade year.

One reason this study matters is because the majority of interventions are prioritized for the earlier grades. (Think of the national push for universal pre-K, for instance.) There’s far less research, in general, about what works for secondary students. But the study shows that the personalized nature of tutoring can yield dividends for older students, too. Plus, it takes place during the regular school day.

“This is not after or before school. It’s not homework help. It’s embedded in the school day and students got credit for the tutoring class,” said Monica Bhatt, a senior research director at the University of Chicago Education Lab and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

The estimated cost of the tutoring program studied here was on the high end—around $3,800—but other researchers suggest that it’s possible to bring down costs by using a one-to-four model, a virtual component, or partnering with teacher colleges to find tutors.

In general, researchers know less about online or virtual tutoring, but the team behind this study is now evaluating a pilot program, also run by Saga Education, that has a larger tutor-pupil ratio and a blended component.

Extended learning academies offer a year-round model

Extended learning time is often thought of as additional time at the end of the school year, but it’s an approach that can work during the school year as well. A 2017 study published in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that a weeklong “acceleration” approach used in Lawrence, Mass., and targeted to students needing extra help, yielded large benefits in math and modest ones in English/language arts.

The weeklong academies, which took place during fall and winter breaks, were part of a bundle of turnaround efforts in that district and appear to have played a large part in overall school improvements. The approach has since been adopted by other Massachusetts districts, including Springfield, which has also expanded it to English-language learners. In that district, it’s coordinated and supported by a central public-private organization set up to help its overall turnaround efforts.

As with other effective interventions, the academies did not simply give students more of the regular curriculum. Instead, they used smaller class sizes and were taught by teachers who passed a competitive application process. Each academy was specially tailored for a specific subject, and used research-based curriculum to deliver it.

Summer learning can work—but attendance is a concern

Summer learning encompasses a lot of different programs, both older-style mandatory “summer school” reserved for students with low grades, and newer models that thoughtfully integrate academics with enrichment, field trips, and activities.

One of the most important new insights comes from a 2016 randomized study by the RAND Corporation looking across five districts that administered five-week or longer elementary summer programs for two consecutive summers. It found that the programs were modestly effective at boosting students’ math scores after the first summer—but, overall, weak student attendance rates seemed to undermine the effort, and there were no effects for the second summer.

The study did find some evidence to suggest that a subset of students who did reliably attend the classes over two consecutive years saw lasting gains, and those gains seemed to appear in English/language arts and in behavior, as well as math.

It’s possible, said Catherine Augustine, a senior research scientist at RAND and lead researcher on the the study, that shorter summer programs that focus on only one subject—rather than both math and reading as in this study—might also be effective.

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