Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Hillsborough County, Fla., district’s relationship with Paper. It did not cancel its contract with the tutoring provider.
That’s been the message for schools and educators since before the COVID-19 pandemic, with lots of research to back it up. But pervasive staffing problems have gotten in the way.
That is, until online tutoring came along. For decades, companies like Varsity Tutors and FEV Tutor have been offering online and virtual tutoring services to school districts. Startups like Paper, which began offering on-demand tutoring in the 2018-19 school year, seized the pandemic moment and ramped up services.
For many districts, the online tutoring services have been a logical investment, a way to reap its benefits while avoiding the logistical complications of finding in-person help, especially as federal ESSER funds rolled in.
But it hasn’t been that simple.
Researchers say tutoring works best if it’s high dosage (offered three or more days of the week), consistent, and personalized to the student. The on-demand chat box version of tutoring that many have come to associate with the online world doesn’t often meet those qualifications. It requires students to show up on their own accord and be self-aware of the areas in which they may need help. Often, students don’t get the same tutor at every session.
Such pitfalls have led districts in Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Ana, Calif., to cancel contracts with Paper, which offers exclusively on-demand tutoring, after not enough students utilized the service, according to Chalkbeat.
“High-impact tutoring is a relationship-based tutoring,” said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which produces research on effective education practices. “It relies on an adult to understand a student, understand their needs, be there to celebrate successes with them, be there to support them.”
Most districts initially went for on-demand tutoring and since haven’t seen the benefits, said Anthony Salcito, the chief institution business officer at Varsity Tutors.
“The thing that’s happened in this country is [on-demand tutoring has] been the bulk of what schools have opted for initially,” Salcito said. “[We all have] sort of put what I would consider the supplemental support as the foundation as opposed to actually putting tutoring front and center.”
Now, some companies and district leaders have found themselves altering their virtual tutoring strategy so that it is most effective for students.
The most popular strategy in town
Since the start of the pandemic through March 15 of this year, school districts across the country had spent $1.7 billion, or $199 per student, of their COVID-19 federal relief funding on tutoring, both online and in person, according to data from FutureEd, a Georgetown University research center that has been analyzing COVID-19 relief spending.
There’s a federal stamp of approval, too: The Biden administration has made it clear that tutoring should be one of the top priorities for the pandemic funds. It launched its National Partnership for Student Success, an initiative to bring 250,000 tutors and academic mentors to schools through partnerships with education nonprofits and AmeriCorps.
The support behind tutoring makes sense—it’s a strategy with significant evidence backing it. On average, tutoring can increase student achievement by around three to 15 months of learning across grade levels, according to a research review from the Annenberg Institute. It’s also one of the most effective strategies to increase achievement for lower-income students, the report says.
“When you look at the research, what’s interesting is that tutoring stands out above everything else,” Loeb said. “We know that things are important for schools: good teachers, good curriculum, all sorts of things like that. But if you’re thinking about a student and how to make sure that student really does better over time, tutoring is the only thing that we found with evidence—and it has substantial evidence.”
Online tutoring itself is also not new. Not long after use of the internet broadened, tutoring companies have popped up offering students and educators online services.
But the pandemic pushed online tutoring into a new arena. More districts invested in devices and internet services so students could access schooling at home. That shift toward technology, coupled with increased funding from the federal government, made online tutoring a more alluring investment for district leaders.
“The pandemic didn’t really change the demand for academic support,” Paper CEO Philip Cutler said. “I think what really changed was the use of technology more broadly in schools.”
Not a simple fix
In December 2020, the Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Ky., entered into a contract with FEV Tutor to offer about five hours of tutoring per week to around 7,000 3rd through 12th graders.
“We, like every other district in the nation, are experiencing staffing shortages,” said Dena Dossett, the district’s chief of research. “What this online tutoring allows us to do is provide that additional support that would be very challenging to do in person.”
The Jefferson County district made a point to ensure that its tutoring would follow the Annenberg research, Dossett said. That’s why the district went with FEV Tutor for the bulk of its program. The tutoring service helps schools in the district to identify students struggling with core subjects based on their MAP scores, which come from tests administered at several points throughout the year. Those students then participate in live video tutoring with the same tutor five hours a week during class time.
“We anticipated seeing growth because [FEV Tutor is] using the MAP scores to pinpoint what instructional needs the students have,” Dossett said. “It’s individualized one-on-one. So they’re able to dig a little bit deeper and have more time to provide differentiated support.”
The company has offered personalized tutoring to districts since its inception in 2009, said Ryan Patenaude, the executive vice president and co-founder of FEV Tutor. Its goal is to improve learning by strategically working with the district, Patenaude said. The company uses the Annenberg research to guide its tutoring model.
“Everyone thinks tutoring has to be after school, it has to be homework help, it has to be what the status quo tutoring is,” Patenaude said. “There’s so much more that can be done with tutoring.”
So far, it has worked for Jefferson County. Students who used FEV Tutor saw their math scores increase 4.5 points and their reading scores increase 4.2 points in a winter-to-spring 2021-22 analysis of NWEA MAP scores. Students who didn’t use FEV Tutor grew, too, but not as much.
Other tutoring companies are starting to shift their tutoring models to more closely follow the research. Varsity Tutors has expanded its high-dosage tutoring to include on-demand and teacher-assigned tutoring.
The high-dosage tutoring allows districts and schools to provide targeted tutoring to a population of students who might be struggling more in one subject area than another, while the teacher-assigned tutoring allows schools to provide intensive support as needs arise, said Salcito, the Varsity executive. Both options give students access to the same tutor every time they log on.
“It’s giving tremendous power to teachers to help individualize instruction, not only reactively but proactively,” Salcito said. “We think this is going to be not only great for identifying kids at risk of failing but also empowering teachers to help relieve the stress and burden that they have to do this work on their own.”
Where on-demand tutoring fits in
So why does on-demand online tutoring seem to fall so short? For one thing, it requires students themselves to take initiative. Only students who log in three days a week for at least 30 minutes of live tutoring help are going to have significant academic gains, and those students are often already high achievers, Loeb said.
“When you start to get computers involved with online tutoring, it’s easy to move to that opt-in, and you’re really going to miss a lot of kids,” she said. “In general, it’s really hard for students to understand what they need support with. So that’s why a program that uses data to understand students’ needs, has material there to support their development, is really much more beneficial.”
That doesn’t mean on-demand tutoring has no place in schools. Jefferson County uses Paper as an on-demand service for middle and high school students in addition to its tutoring with FEV Tutor. Cutler, the CEO of Paper, sees such services as one piece of the overall academic-recovery puzzle, when used as a tool alongside other academic-recovery strategies—such as after-school programs, mental health supports for students, and extended learning time.
“I don’t think that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution,” Cutler said. “Districts need to know their community; they need to know what works best.”
The Omaha school district in Nebraska recently applied this approach when developing a three-pronged tutoring program for its students. In addition to on-demand online tutoring offered by Paper, the program includes in-person, high-dosage tutoring by teachers, who will be paid extra for working with students after school. Other students in the district’s separate after-school programs will also receive in-person tutoring.
Susanne Cramer, Omaha’s executive director of school improvement, noted that the district has also placed academic-recovery liaisons at each school to oversee both the district’s tutoring and summer learning programs.
“That consistent relationship, alignment to [core classroom] instruction, and that dosing component of 50 hours or 36 weeks, that’s the golden triangle of what we’re trying to achieve,” she said.
Cramer said the district is following the same Annenberg research that shows consistent relationships and high doses of tutoring are most effective. The program is new, so the district doesn’t yet have data to track students’ progress, but it will be assessing students throughout the program to see how well it’s working.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2023 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Spending Big Bucks on Online Tutoring. Here’s What They’ve Learned