Student Achievement

What Would a National Tutoring Program Look Like? Can We Afford It?

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 16, 2020 5 min read
Tutoring cost rising
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A “pay it forward” system of tutoring—recent college graduates who tutor high school students, college students who tutor middle school students, and so on down to elementary school—could be the linch pin behind a federally funded effort to expand tutoring programs.

The cost? Perhaps about $5 billion to $15 billion annually, concludes a new research paper that sketches out a blueprint to make a 100-hour tutoring program embedded in the school day a reality for thousands of students.

In the past six months, researchers have coalesced around the idea of a national tutoring corps as a way to address what’s expected to be widespread regression in learning due to the widely variable quality of remote instruction and sporadic attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research on small one-to-one or one-to-small group (no more than three students) tutoring consistently finds robust effects in both reading and math, even when using paraprofessionals or trained college students.

A Johns Hopkins researcher recently proposed a Marshall Plan for tutoring funded partly through federal Title I funding for needy students. A recently announced project out of Brown University is using a network of pilot sites to study tutoring protocols to improve training and resources. Philanthropies have funded some local demonstration programs. Nations, including Great Britain and the Netherlands, have plowed some state funding into tutoring programs.

What’s been largely missing from the conversation is this: What mechanics would need to be in place to make such a program work?

“We have very little understanding of even what it would look like to scale tutoring, let alone what it would cost. And without that information, it’s really hard to have a constructive conversation or debate about whether we can—or whether it’s even possible,” said Matthew Kraft, one of two authors on the paper.

Scaling, in particular, is a huge concern here. The K-12 landscape is chock full of efforts that had strong effects in small-scale studies, but lighter impacts after rapid growth. (Class-size reduction in the 1990s, Head Start, and some of the recent federal Investing in Innovation grantees come to mind.) The reasons for that fall-off in effectiveness probably run the gamut from publication bias to less fidelity to implementation.

The paper from Kraft and Grace T. Falken amounts to a sophisticated thought experiment to try to avoid some of those pitfalls.

Getting an idea like this funded is, admittedly, a long shot. Congress has had trouble getting a second coronavirus economic-stimulus package off the ground. And any major new education program of this nature would surely stimulate a lot of conversation on Capitol Hill.

“In terms of this actually happening, I’m not super hopeful on that,” said Sarah Cohodes, an associate professor of economics and education who did not contribute to the paper but supports the idea of expanding tutoring programs. “But I also think it can be a blueprint for school districts and a local partnership for a college, or a state willing to adopt this as a strategy, or making it part of a teacher-training program.

“While I do think that federal funding would be the most important way to to do it, there are other ways,” she said.

How much would such a program cost? The blueprint’s estimated cost, ranging at $5 billion to $15 billion, would probably depend on program uptake and expansion, which could take decades.

How much is $15 billion, anyway? It helps to consider this figure within what the federal government currently puts into education. If funded at that amount, such a program would immediately become one of the largest federally funded K-12 initiatives. Currently, the Education Department’s single largest program, Title I, clocks in at about $16 billion, while special education state grants are funded at about $14 billion.

That seems like a lot, and it is. But it’s also dwarfed by the generally much higher cost of higher education aid programs. Federal student assistance programs currently cost about $33 billion annually; direct student loans are funded at $77 billion.

And it’s necessary, added Cohodes, to consider alternatives that could end up to be just as costly, or potentially more so.

“What would it cost if for the next three years we had two additional months of schooling? What would it cost if we extended the school day from 9 to 5?” she said.

And there’s the counterfactual, too, of long-term costs if an investment is not made: “What are the long-term impacts if we let children drop out or not complete their educations?”

Would it be mandatory? No. The blueprint conceives of this as a voluntary program for teachers, schools, and students. Schools serving Title I students, or those in the bottom quartile of performance, would get the chance to participate. Importantly, the paper suggests districts would not have to provide a “match” to participate or only a minimal amount.

“We don’t think if we’re going to take an equity lens that it’s fair to ask those districts that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and had lower levels of per-pupil funding before it to match a grant one to one,” Kraft said. “There is some value to asking districts to chip in, but I would say that should be a very lower percentage, maybe a sliding scale between 10 percent and 15 percent.”

Who would do the tutoring? The paper suggests that high school students could work with elementary students, perhaps as part of an optional elective. College students would tutor middle school-aged students as part of work-study requirements, while freshly minted college graduates could work with high-school aged students, perhaps funded by an expansion of the Americorps program. (Various proposals to that end have been floating on Capitol Hill.)

How flexible would the program be? Pretty flexible. While curriculum alignment to students’ needs and district priorities is important, the blueprint doesn’t envision requiring any particular approach. (Drama over curriculum ended up weakening both the federal Reading First program and, much later, the Common Core State Standards.) Plus, districts could choose how to select, shape, and train providers; those districts in rural areas could potentially use online tutoring.

Administering such a program could be tricky, and the paper sketches out what kind of staff would be needed to make this work—generally, a district coordinator and another to address issues at the school site. There’d be a new Education Department office to help out, too, and networking to help schools and districts iterate, adapt, and improve quality control on their programs.

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