This article originally ran in THE Journal and is reprinted here in full.
There’s no shortage of alarming statistics about the state of K–12 education these days. Research from NWEA found that students still need, on average, an additional 4.5 and 4.1 months of math and reading instruction, respectively, to catch up to where they would have been prior to the pandemic, which was too low even then. A third of all students struggle to make it to school regularly, and when they are there, less than half feel a sense of belonging.
Looking at these numbers, there’s no denying that the status quo classroom instruction is failing to meet the needs of students, and the billions of dollars spent on solutions new and old to address COVID-related learning loss have not yet had the impact they were meant to have. This is why high-impact tutoring deserves our continued attention.
Research consistently demonstrates that high-impact tutoring can yield substantial gains in student achievement. Saga Education, which receives funding from Overdeck Family Foundation, has shown that its model can double or triple the amount of math high school students learn each year, increase student grades, and reduce math and non-math course failures. The real-world benefits of high-impact tutoring can be seen throughout the country. In Texas, Ector County Independent School District began offering high-impact tutoring in 2019 in both reading and math. Three years later, 18 schools showed double-digit increases on state assessments.
High-impact tutoring also has clear social-emotional benefits: An external evaluation of the New Jersey Tutoring Corps, launched in 2021 out of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and supported by Overdeck Family Foundation, found that 84% of students reported enjoying learning more now than they did before 2022–2023 school-year tutoring started. This is a critical benefit at a time when students need it most.
But not all tutoring is created equal, and the best tutoring is often the hardest to implement, a truth that has caused some schools and districts to pause existing efforts or hesitate to jump in at all. In New Mexico, for instance, the Department of Education canceled its contract with a virtual tutoring provider because the program fell short of expectations. Meanwhile, some districts are reluctant to invest in rigorous tutoring altogether, with close to one in five schools offering no tutoring whatsoever. According to a recent McKinsey survey, while more than 50% of district leaders hope to dedicate remaining ESSER funds to pandemic learning recovery, only 30% plan to invest in supports like high-dosage tutoring and intervention curricula.
To the educators who are navigating these real-time decisions about what’s best for students: Don’t give up on tutoring — but make sure you’re investing in what works. There is evidence available to help you understand what kind of tutoring can best accelerate learning, and, importantly, there are new innovations underway to make effective tutoring easier to implement and more cost-efficient.
To the educators who are navigating these real-time decisions about what's best for students: Don't give up on tutoring — but make sure you're investing in what works.
What makes high-impact tutoring work
We know tutoring is more likely to have a compelling impact when it is grounded in several key elements: embedded into the school day, aligned to classroom instruction, and delivered by highly trained tutors who stay consistent throughout the tutoring duration. Additionally, tutoring is most impactful when students attend sessions at least three times per week for more than 10 weeks.
These elements mean that impactful tutoring isn’t an off-the-shelf solution. Specifically, effective implementation — from finding and training tutors to rethinking the school day schedule and securing funding — requires dedicated staffing to manage the program and strong relationships with providers, both of which can be a challenge for districts given resource and funding constraints.
Recognizing these challenges, organizations like Accelerate, funded by Overdeck Family Foundation, are working to build a stronger ecosystem to develop and scale high-impact tutoring, by investing in research, scaling promising practices, and supporting federal and state policy agendas that allow tutoring to occur at scale.
There are also a number of exciting innovations underway to lessen the implementation burden without sacrificing effectiveness, by adjusting the high-impact tutoring “formula.”
Innovations on the horizon
When it comes to cost, opportunities exist to make in-person, high-impact tutoring more affordable. Research from the University of Chicago, funded by Overdeck Family Foundation and Arnold Ventures, shows that blended tutoring models where students receive instruction from trained tutors on some days and engage with high-quality, supplemental, online learning platforms on others can be impactful at a fraction of the cost of human-only tutoring.
Artificial intelligence is also unlocking the potential to train and provide ongoing support to tutors. Saga Education and the University of Colorado Boulder are working together to understand how generative AI tools can review tutoring sessions and provide feedback to tutors, which, if effective, can more efficiently increase tutors’ efficacy. In Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University’s PLUS initiative is leveraging AI to increase the ratio of students to tutors through a dashboard that offers real-time individualized suggestions, helping tutors identify which students need what kind of help, and when.
And new approaches to finding and training tutors are underway. Pre-service teaching programs are growing pipelines of tutors while providing much-needed experience to the next generation of teachers. Meanwhile, Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is designing undergraduate roles that help them secure paid positions, such as tutoring, while pursuing an education degree.
These continuing efforts not only show the potential to expand the reach of high-impact tutoring; they lay the groundwork for a future in education that is better positioned to provide each student the support they need. To get there, high-impact tutoring will need to become more integrated into the day-to-day of classrooms, a scenario made more possible by tech-enabled innovation and rethinking the teaching workforce. This transformation will not happen overnight, and will not be easy. But it’s important to recognize that many states, districts, schools, and providers are already walking the walk — after only a few years, high-impact tutoring is reaching 10% of K–8 students nationwide.
For those who have not yet committed to tutoring or have not found success at the first implementation, I urge you to not give up. Help is available, innovation to make tutoring more cost-effective and easier to implement is forthcoming, and the opportunity to create truly student-centered learning environments is within grasp.
Header image courtesy of Saga Education