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Tutoring May Be Key to Regaining Learning Loss

School districts are coalescing around tutoring as pandemic panacea. New efforts should be guided by research.

Teacher wearing mask stands at front of classroom with students sitting at desks.
Third grade literacy instructor Katelyn Battinelli talks with students about their pandemic-related fears on the first day of in-person learning at Stark Elementary School on March 10, 2021 in Stamford, Connecticut. Pandemic-related disruptions in learning have caused many students to fall behind, and tutoring is emerging as a strategy to address academic gaps. But without the proper steps and research, there is a real risk that ineffective programs will be implemented on a broad scale. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Even as many have returned to school in-person, students appear to have fallen further behind grade-level standards because of pandemic-related disruptions. Tutoring has emerged as a popular and highly promising strategy to both accelerate academic growth and address disparities in learning. 

The need is urgent and immense, and school districts are eager to meet this need with the best intentions. But without the proper steps and research, we face a real risk that ineffective programs will be implemented on a broad scale, which means we’ll fail to meet students’ current needs and have no way of learning what worked and what didn’t — leaving us equally unprepared to meet students’ needs in the years to come.

The focus on tutoring is a promising development. Rigorous research shows that “high-dosage” tutoring programs in particular — where students receive regular, sustained support in one-on-one or small group settings — have the potential to increase academic achievement and other important outcomes for students. Programs such as Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) and Tutoring with Lindamood Phonemic Sequencing have been shown to produce sizable gains in critical skills like reading comprehension, when evaluated in well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) — the widely-regarded “gold standard” for program evaluation.

However, there is still much to learn about which specific tutoring programs are truly effective, under which conditions, and for whom. Despite best efforts, not all tutoring programs will ultimately be found to produce the hoped-for impacts. In fact, even programs that are built from the promising component parts (e.g., 1:1 or small group, daily or 2-4 times weekly tutoring, over four months or longer per school year) can’t be expected to universally produce meaningful gains. It is challenging to find interventions that make a real difference in people’s lives.

A few weeks ago, the research firm RAND published results from the Third American School District Panel Survey, a nationally representative sample of school district leaders taken during the summer of 2021, that found that 84% of school districts reported planning to offer tutoring in the 2021-2022 school year — a 10 percentage point increase compared to the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 school year. At the same time, school districts are asking: Which students should be prioritized if we can’t afford to offer tutoring to everyone? Which grades benefit most from tutoring? Can we use technology to tutor students, and if so, which programs?

Unfortunately, we still lack sufficient evidence to answer policymakers’ questions about which programs to offer. To identify what works, what can we do now to meet the growing need for student support and academic acceleration? We propose a pragmatic, humble reckoning of what we know and what we must learn to best help students catch up and thrive, coupled with a plan of action.

84%

Proportion of school districts that report planning to offer tutoring in the 2021-2022 school year — a 10 percentage point increase compared to the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 school year

For our respective philanthropic organizations — Arnold Ventures and Overdeck Family Foundation — that means supporting the expansion of high-dosage tutoring, given the promising evidence for this approach as established by decades of rigorous research. At the same time, we’re investing in program evaluation — and experimenting with program design and delivery — in an effort to identify the most effective, high-quality tutoring programs and make them available to even more districts and states.

For example, based on the impressive positive impacts on ninth-grade math achievement from a prior RCT of Saga Education’s math tutoring program, we’re jointly funding Saga’s expansion to serve more students, along with a rigorous replication RCT to determine whether the earlier positive findings can be replicated at scale in two major school districts, New York City Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools. The study is also designed to help us learn whether it’s possible to use technology to supplement in-person tutoring to effectively — and cost-effectively — serve more students.

Additionally, we’re making strategic program expansion and research investments in the tutoring space to help identify other proven-effective programs. We’ve invested in RCTs of literacy tutoring for at-risk readers in elementary school (e.g., Literacy First, Saga Education) and math tutoring for fourth- to eighth-graders (e.g., Minnesota Math Corps), and in a high-dosage summer tutoring program for New Jersey elementary school students who’ve experienced pandemic-related learning loss. We’ve made multi-million dollar investments in new initiatives that seek to accelerate tutoring research, implementation, and dissemination, such as a new effort spearheaded by evidence-oriented America Achieves. And we’re eager to support new efforts to identify what works, through Arnold Ventures’ Evidence-Based Policy team’s open Request for Proposals to conduct RCTs of promising social interventions, and Overdeck Family Foundation’s continued focus on validation research.

By helping organizations test and validate their programs to establish an evidence base, and assessing prior evidence before supporting program expansion, we hope to efficiently grow the number of programs that have been proven to reliably support students, so school districts can have confidence that the services they offer to students will be effective. And we’re supporting program providers and researchers to identify ways to reduce the cost of high-quality tutoring programs, so districts can meaningfully expand the number of students served. This approach will ensure that students are able to access educational tools and approaches that truly improve learning outcomes, pandemic or not.

This is why funding innovation, validation, and evidence is so important. Prioritizing effective, scalable tutoring programs already backed by prior evidence, embedding rigorous evaluation into the rollout of services where feasible, and learning (as fast as we can) about what works as we go, will give us the best chance of meeting the moment and supporting today’s students on their learning trajectory.

Kim Cassel is the Director of Evidence-Based Policy at Arnold Ventures, where she is responsible for developing and managing strategic investments to build the body of social programs found to produce meaningful improvements in people’s lives. Melanie Dukes is the Senior Program Officer of the Innovative Schools portfolio at Overdeck Family Foundation, which aims to scale innovative solutions within K-9 learning environments.

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