When considering how schools can best support middle and high schoolers struggling with either the foundational skills of reading or reading comprehension, experts point to a research-backed strategy that can help close academic gaps: high-impact tutoring.
The term refers to an intensive form of tutoring that is offered through a school, is informed by data on individual students’ needs, aligns to classroom work, and can be effective in getting students to grade level faster. Yet few districts have been able to implement that kind of programming prior to the pandemic because of such challenges as cost and staff shortages. New federal relief funds are helping more districts explore the possibility.
High-quality individualized tutoring has traditionally been something families have bought outside of school, said Susanna Loeb, the founder and executive director of the National Student Support Accelerator, which researches high-impact tutoring.
You’re not changing all of schooling to get high-impact tutoring in there, you’re really getting it in there to reduce the inequalities ...
As researchers and school districts look to close opportunity gaps in part by ensuring students with the most need have access to high-quality tutoring regardless of their families’ financials, they hope schools are able to find creative ways to invest in high-impact tutoring. That includes using federal relief funds tied to the pandemic that further exacerbated tutoring needs.
“In those instances where a student might need extra support for whatever the reason, then the school should be able to provide that,” said Tanji Reed Marshall, the director of P-12 practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for students from low-income families and students of color. “It should not have to be weighted on whether a family has the resources themselves.”
How high-impact tutoring can work for older readers
The high-impact tutoring researchers point to goes well beyond after-school homework help. Sessions are often held three or more times a week in groups of three or fewer students for the whole year with the same tutor so they really get to know each other at school or immediately before or after school, said Loeb.
Because it’s tailored to individual students’ needs, Loeb added, high-impact tutoring is a good match for older students who need reading support, especially since those students have less time left in K-12 education.
If a middle or high school student hasn’t mastered learning how to read, a tutor can work directly with them on foundational skills, such as phonics. If a student needs help building reading comprehension in a subject like earth sciences, a tutor can focus on how that student can succeed in that specific class, reading for knowledge, as well as improving their overall reading comprehension.
Schools that are considering high-impact tutoring programs need to look at empirical evidence that shows the program is viable, and they also need to be sure they use data to identify which students need this extra support and what exact support they need, said Reed Marshall with the Education Trust. In working with older students, it’s important, for instance, that tutors use grade-level material to help reduce any stigma around the need for support.
“You need to know what it is you’re trying to get done so that you avoid just tutoring students who you believe need the tutoring versus tutoring students who actually do,” Reed Marshall said.
Take the Metro Nashville public schools for example. In the summer of 2020, the Tennessee district piloted a tutoring program connecting recent high school graduates with more-experienced college students to help their transition in the middle of the pandemic, said Keri Randolph, the chief strategy officer for the district.
The positive experience led to the district creating a high-impact tutoring program for 1st through 3rd grade literacy and 8th and 9th grade math, which began during the current school year. Research found those areas to be most in need of extra support and where high-impact tutoring could help most, Randolph said.
The district created its own tutoring curriculum and provided training for the variety of tutors it has, including community volunteers, educator-preparation-program students, existing classroom teachers, retired educators, and more.
As of December, about 1,000 students are part of the program across 46 schools, with both academic progress and social-emotional gains measured regularly, Randolph said.
Ensuring equitable access to quality tutoring
While the Nashville district is an outlier in terms of actually having a fleshed-out high-impact tutoring program in place, private top-notch tutoring has been a long-standing go-to for some families.
Private tutoring can add to the opportunity gap in districts where only some families can afford it and where the core curriculum doesn’t properly serve all its students, Reed Marshall said.
The demand for private tutoring, as well as inequitable access to the resource, has stretched back for years. There have been efforts, namely in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide tutoring through schools rather than relying on family finances, Loeb said. But much of that resulted in less-intensive programs with mixed results.
At Metro Nashville, demand for in-house high-impact tutoring exceeds capacity as schools are already seeing how the program can benefit a variety of students, including older readers, Randolph said. The intention for its inaugural year, however, was to serve the students most in need based on district academic data.
The challenges and opportunities ahead
Hope in scaling up the tutoring program in Nashville now lies in its sustainable design, Randolph said. Building it in-house, for instance, means the district is spending about $800 a year per student, saving thousands in what it would cost to buy a program. By spring, the district hopes to offer the program across 90 schools with about 7,000 students participating.
High price tags are a deterrent to many districts looking into high-impact tutoring, Loeb said. Really intensive programs can go for $2,500 per year per student, though often it can come out to about $1,000. There’s also the current labor shortages across the country that make it difficult to hire and retain trained tutors.
And whether it’s building a program from scratch or purchasing one, implementing high-impact tutoring across a district is a complicated process when many educators are stretched thin as it is, Loeb added.
At Cherokee Heights Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., investing in a partnership with the nonprofit Minnesota Reading Corps to offer high-impact tutoring in K-3 has paid off, said Principal Heidi Koury. The program began in 2020, and already, she’s seen students get on track in terms of grade-level reading skills. She sees this early intervention as a means to help students no longer need extra support later on.
Koury and Randolph both see federal pandemic-relief funds as a resource schools and districts can turn to for investing in these programs. Nashville, for instance, used philanthropic funds to jump-start the program but will rely on federal funds to continue with the program, budgeting for its future while knowing those funds won’t last forever.
The federal funds can help districts explore whether high-impact tutoring is the right fit for their students’ needs, especially as the academic effects of the pandemic and how to address them are still being deciphered, Loeb said. What’s more, if implemented effectively, the tutoring could double as an equity initiative and a form of intervention.
“You’re not changing all of schooling to get high-impact tutoring in there, you’re really getting it in there to reduce the inequalities, to give the students who need these extra supports the extra support,” Loeb said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2022 edition of Education Week as Intensive Tutoring Can Be Crucial for Older Readers Who Need Literacy Help