PROOF POINTS: Four lessons from post-pandemic tutoring research

Research points to intensive daily tutoring as one of the most effective ways to help academically struggling children catch up. There have been a hundred randomized control trials, but one of the most cited is of a tutoring program in Chicago high schools, where ninth and 10th graders learned an extra year or two of math from a daily dose of tutoring. That’s the kind of result that could offset pandemic learning losses, which have remained devastating and stubborn nearly four years after Covid first erupted, and it’s why the Biden Administration  has recommended that schools use their $190 billion in federal recovery funds on tutoring.

This tutoring evidence, however, was generated before the pandemic, and I was curious about what post-pandemic research says about how tutoring is going now that almost 40 percent of U.S. public schools say they’re offering high-dosage tutoring and more than one out of 10 students (11 percent) are receiving it this 2023-24 school year. Here are four lessons. 

  1. Why timing matters

Scheduling tutoring time during normal school hours and finding classroom space to conduct it are huge challenges for school leaders. The schedule is already packed with other classes and there aren’t enough empty classrooms. The easiest option is to tack tutoring on to the end of the school day as an after-school program.

New Mexico did just that and offered high school students free 45-minute online video sessions three times a week in the evenings and weekends. The tutors were from Saga Education, the same tutoring organization that had produced spectacular results in Chicago. Only about 500 students signed up out of more than 34,000 who were eligible, according to a June 2023 report from MDRC, an outside research organization. Researchers concluded that after-school tutoring wasn’t a “viable solution for making a sizable and lasting impact.” The state has since switched to scheduling tutoring during the school day.

Attendance is spotty too. Many after-school tutoring programs around the country report that even students who sign up don’t attend regularly.

  1. A hiring dilemma 

The job of tutor is now the fastest-growing position in the K–12 sector, but 40 percent of schools say they’re struggling to hire tutors. That’s not surprising in a red-hot job market, where many companies say it’s tough to find employees. 

Researchers at MDRC in a December 2023 report wrote about different hiring strategies that schools around the country are using. I was flabbergasted to read that New Mexico was paying online tutors $50 an hour to tutor from their homes. Hourly rates of $20 to $30 are fairly common in my reporting. But at least the state was able to offer tutoring to students in remote, rural areas where it would otherwise be impossible to find qualified tutors.

Tutoring companies are a booming business. Schools are using them because they take away the burden of hiring, training and supervising tutors. However, Fulton County, Georgia, which includes Atlanta, found that a tutoring company’s curriculum might have nothing to do with what children are learning in their classrooms and that there’s too little communication between tutors and classroom teachers. Tutors were quitting at high rates and replaced with new ones; students weren’t able to form long-term relationships with their tutors, which researchers say is critical to the success of tutoring. 

When Fulton County schools hired tutors directly, they were more integrated into the school community. However, schools considered them to be “paraprofessionals” and felt there were more urgent duties than tutoring that they needed to do, from substitute teaching and covering lunch duty to assisting teachers. 

Chicago took the burden off schools and hired the tutors from the central office. But schools preferred tutors who were from the neighborhood because they could potentially become future teachers. The MDRC report described a sort of catch-22. Schools don’t have the capacity to hire and train tutors, but the tutors that are sent to them from outside vendors or a central office aren’t ideal either. 

Oakland, Calif., experienced many of the obstacles that schools are facing when trying to deliver tutoring at a large scale to thousands of students. The district attempted to give kindergarten through second grade students a half hour of reading tutoring a day. As described by a December 2023 case study of tutoring by researchers at the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Oakland struggled with hiring, scheduling and real estate. It hired an outside tutoring organization to help, but it too had trouble recruiting tutors, who complained of low pay. Finding space was difficult. Some tutors had to work in the hallways with children. 

The good news is that students who worked with trained tutors made the same gains in reading as those who were given extra reading help by teachers. But the reading gains for students were inconsistent. Some students progressed less in reading than students typically do in a year without tutoring. Others gained almost an additional year’s worth of reading instruction – 88 percent more.

  1. The effectiveness of video tutoring

Bringing armies of tutors into school buildings is a logistical and security nightmare. Online tutoring solves that problem. Many vendors have been trying to mimic the model of successful high dosage tutoring by scheduling video conferencing sessions many times a week with the same well-trained tutor, who is using a good curriculum with step-by-step methods. But it remains a question whether students are as motivated to work as hard with video tutoring as they are in person. Everyone knows that 30 hours of Zoom instruction during school closures was a disaster. It’s unclear whether small, regular doses of video tutoring can be effective. 

In 2020 and 2021, there were two studies of online video tutoring. A randomized control trial in Italy produced good results, especially when the students received tutoring four times a week. The tutoring was less than half as potent when the sessions fell to twice a week, according to a paper published in September 2023. Another study in Chicago found zero results from video tutoring. But the tutors were unpaid volunteers and many students missed out on sessions. Both tutors and tutees often failed to show up.

The first randomized controlled trial of a virtual tutoring program for reading was conducted during the 2022-23 school year at a large charter school network in Texas. Kindergarten, first and second graders received 20 minutes of video tutoring four times a week, from September through May, with an early reading tutoring organization called OnYourMark. Despite the logistical challenges of setting up little children on computers with headphones, the tutored children ended the year with higher DIBELS scores, a measure of reading proficiency for young children, than students who didn’t receive the tutoring. One-to-one video tutoring sometimes produced double the reading gains as video tutoring in pairs, demonstrating a difference between online and in-person tutoring, where larger groups of two and three students can be very effective too. That study was published in October 2023. 

Video tutoring hasn’t always been a success. A tutoring program by Intervene K-12, a tutoring company, received high marks from reviewers at Johns Hopkins University, but outside evaluators didn’t find benefits when it was tested on students in Texas. In an unpublished study, the National Student Support Accelerator, a Stanford University organization that is promoting and studying tutoring, found no difference in year-end state test scores between students who received the tutoring and those who received other small group support. Study results can depend greatly on whether the comparison control group is getting nothing or another extra-help alternative.

Matthew Kraft, a Brown University economist who studies tutoring, says there hasn’t been an ideal study that pits online video tutoring directly against in-person tutoring to measure the difference between the two. Existing studies, he said, show some “encouraging signs.” 

The most important thing for researchers to sort out is how many students a tutor can work with online at once. It’s unclear if groups of three or four, which can be effective in person, are as effective online. “The comments we’re getting from tutors are that it’s significantly different to tutor three students online than it is to tutor three students in person,” Kraft said.

In my observations of video tutoring, I have seen several students in groups of three angle their computers away from their faces. I’ve watched tutors call students’ names over and over again, trying to get their attention. To me, students appear far more focused and energetic in one-to-one video tutoring.

  1. How humans and machines could take turns

A major downside to every kind of tutoring, both in-person and online, is its cost. The tutoring that worked so well in Chicago can run $4,000 per student. It’s expensive because students are getting over a hundred hours of tutoring and schools need to pay the tutors’ hourly wages. Several researchers are studying how to lower the costs of tutoring by combining human tutoring with online practice work. 

In one pre-pandemic study that was described in a March 2023 research brief by the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, students worked in groups of four with an in-person tutor. The tutors worked closely with two students at a time while the other two students worked on practice problems independently on ALEKS, a widely used computerized tutoring system developed by academic researchers and owned by McGraw-Hill. Each day the students switched:  the ALEKS kids worked with the tutor and the tutored kids turned to ALEKS. The tutor sat with all four students together, monitoring the ALEKS kids to make sure they were doing their math on the computer.

The math gains nearly matched what the researchers had found in a prior study of human tutoring alone, where tutors worked with only two students at a time and required twice as many tutors. The cost was $2,000 per student, much less than the usual $3,000-$4,000 per student price tag of the human tutoring program.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have been testing the same model with online video tutoring, instead of in-person, and said they are seeing “encouraging initial indications.” Currently, the research team is studying how many students one tutor can handle at a time, from four to as many as eight students, alternating between humans and ed tech, in order to find out if the sessions are still effective.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a similar study of swapping between human tutoring and practicing math on computers. Instead of ALEKS, this pilot study used Mathia, another computerized tutoring system developed by academic researchers and owned by Carnegie Learning. This was not a randomized control trial, but it did take place during the pandemic in 2020-21. Middle school students doubled the amount of math they learned compared to similar students who didn’t receive the tutoring, according to Ken Koedinger, a Carnegie Mellon professor who was part of the research team. 

“AI tutors work when students use them,” said Koedinger. “But if students aren’t using them, they obviously don’t work.” The human tutors are better at motivating the students to keep practicing, he said. The computer system gives each student personalized practice work, targeted to their needs, instant feedback and hints.

Technology can also guide the tutors. With one early reading program, called Chapter One, in-person tutors work with young elementary school children in the classroom. Chapter One’s website keeps track of every child’s progress. The tutor’s screen indicates which student to work with next and what skills that student needs to work on.  It also suggests phonics lessons and activities that the tutor can use during the session.  A two-year randomized control trial, published in December 2023, found that the tutored children – many of whom received short five-minute bursts of tutoring at a time – outperformed children who didn’t receive the tutoring. 

The next frontier in tutoring, of course, is generative AI, such as Chat GPT. Researchers are studying how students learn directly from Khan Academy’s Khanmigo, which gives step-by-step, personalized guidance, like a tutor, on how to solve problems. Other researchers are using this technology to help coach human tutors so that they can better respond to students’ misunderstandings and confusion. I’ll be looking out for these studies and will share the results with you.

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