As the new school year kicks off, states and districts are launching tutoring programs using federal and state COVID-relief funding. A strong, consistent evidence base shows that rigorous tutoring programs can help students who have fallen behind accelerate their learning.
A key piece of the evidence comes from the work of researchers from the University of Toronto, Northwestern, and Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) North America, who analyzed the results of nearly 100 randomized evaluations of tutoring programs. Their meta-analysis found that most improved student achievement by more than the equivalent of receiving an extra half-year of school. State lawmakers and education leaders are taking notice. Colorado and California have passed laws to create statewide tutoring programs.
But what does the evidence say about how to make these tutoring programs most effective?
First of all, a high-quality tutoring program needs high-quality tutors. The evidence shows that the most effective tutoring programs employ professional or paraprofessional tutors; that is, tutors who are trained and paid for their work. Districts can’t expect volunteer tutors to meet the bar, and must prepare to hire and train thousands of tutors to meet the demand.
Several states are thinking creatively about how to use these new tutor corps to achieve multiple goals. For example, Illinois and New Mexico are steering American Rescue Plan funds to teacher pipeline programs that incorporate targeted, high-dosage tutoring. This will allow these states to build high-quality tutoring programs that effectively address unfinished learning while also helping them increase and diversify their teacher corps for the long term. Other states are working toward similar goals with varying approaches. In California, $460 million will be spent to hire additional paraprofessionals. Arkansas and Tennessee are looking at building tutor corps to employ a wide swath of college students and recent graduates.
Some grade and subject combinations for tutoring were found to be more effective than others. Tutoring in reading benefits the youngest students: in preschool through first grade. Meanwhile, math tutoring tends to be more effective for elementary students, in second through fifth grades.
Tutoring students in these subjects at these points in their school journeys also helps them meet key milestones for lifetime achievement. Tutoring young students in reading helps them achieve proficiency by third grade—an important milestone that increases their chances of graduating from high school and going on to college. Similarly, tutoring elementary students in math with an eye toward preparing them to succeed in algebra as eighth- or ninth-graders will also help put them on a college-bound trajectory. When looking for the greatest returns on tutoring investments, districts should keep these goals in mind.
The influx of funds to accelerate learning in the wake of COVID-19 is providing education agencies with an incredible opportunity to implement evidence-based solutions to address unfinished learning. The evidence shows that tutoring can work when implemented with key strategic priorities in mind.
At the same time, these funds also offer a unique window to test out innovative tutoring programs, including virtual tutoring. Used wisely, Covid-relief funding has the potential to both accelerate learning in the present and inform continuing research on tutoring that can be used to benefit students for years to come.