Intensive tutoring is considered one of the most effective ways to help students quickly make up lost academic ground. That’s why the intervention has drawn millions in private funding and become a keystone of many federal and state plans to counter pandemic-related learning loss in math and reading.
Yet new national data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest students may not yet be receiving the kind and intensity of tutoring to really get them back on track academically.
“Tutor and then tutor again,” said Peggy Carr, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. Her remarks came last week as she unveiled national assessment results that showed the pandemic had taken a huge bite out of students’ academic progress, with student scores in math dropping back to levels not seen in decades.
“You can’t just give lip service to high-dose tutoring or double-dose tutoring,” Carr continued, “you have to know what you’re doing. So the training needs to be there.”
Prior research suggests that to be most effective, tutoring should be “high-dose,” or multiple sessions per week, and involve 1-to-1 or very small groups of students. The tutor also should assess and support the skill each student needs to develop in order to access and keep up with grade-level content in a particular subject.
Surveys conducted in spring 2019, before the start of the pandemic, and in spring 2022, with the latest NAEP administration, asked both whether students attended schools that offer teacher-led tutoring during the school day, and how often students participate in tutoring outside of the school day, such as in after-school programs. The 2022 survey finds significantly fewer 4th and 8th graders now attend schools that offer teacher-led tutoring in math. For example, 5 percentage points fewer 4th and 8th graders attend schools that offer teacher-led tutoring in math during the school day.
And fewer students in either grade said they participate in intensive tutoring in math outside of the normal school day in 2022, compared to 2019. For example, 14 percent of 4th graders in 2022 said they receive math tutoring outside of school time at least once or twice a week—down from 16 percent in 2019. And the share of 4th graders who never got math tutoring rose from 60 percent to 62 percent during the same time. Reading was a bit better: the share of 4th graders receiving at least weekly tutoring rose since 2019, while the share at 8th grade held flat.
Prior to the pandemic, intensive tutoring had been largely a voluntary activity outside the school day, often offered in partnership with community groups or paid privately by parents. But researchers and policymakers have been pushing for more tutoring to be done within the school day and aligned more directly with school curriculum and student needs.
For example, President Biden pledged to leverage the AmeriCorps to bring in an additional 250,000 new tutors and mentors to U.S. schools during the next three years, and a coalition of education foundations called Accelerate has raised more than $65 million to build tutoring capacity and training in school districts.
Amanda Neitzel, assistant professor for the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, which studies tutoring interventions in schools, said that while many tutoring initiatives nationwide happen outside of the school day, these rely on family support and engagement, and, “participation in these initiatives can be shockingly low and inconsistent,” Neitzel said.
CRRE and other research groups launched the Proven Tutoring initiative during the pandemic, which works with districts to identify evidence-based tutoring programs and train teachers to incorporate intensive tutoring into the school day.
“Tutoring outside the school day can also exacerbate inequities because anything outside of school is voluntary, and the students who need it the most may have barriers to participation,” said Neitzel and Jen Krajewski, director of outreach and engagement at Proven Tutoring, in an email.
There are challenges to scaling high-quality, school-day tutoring, Neitzel said. Small-group and 1-to-1 pullout tutoring sessions can be difficult to schedule around whole-class instruction in the core subjects. Space also becomes tight when a third or more of students perform below even basic level in math and reading.
Neitzel and Carr both voiced concern that, with schools already fighting to hire enough teachers for regular math and reading classes, hiring, training, and retaining qualified tutors has become tough for schools and outside providers alike.
Even in schools offering tutoring through the school or partner organizations, families often don’t know about the resources available for their children—or don’t realize how far behind their children are, said Anna King, the president of the National Parent Teacher Association. In a survey earlier this year, National PTA found only 46 percent of parents reported that their child’s teacher had talked with them about a plan to correct their child’s learning loss. And, she said, most parents don’t know that federal recovery funding can be used to support intensive tutoring for students who are behind academically.
“We can’t live in our silos and think that everything is going to be OK. We actually have to have honest, tough discussions, and we have to empower and engage our families, our parents, and our guardians,” King said. “Parents and teachers need the space to have a direct conversation about student performance, what that looks like.”
Sandi White, a senior vice president of institutional partnerships at the for-profit Tutor.com/The Princeton Review, said online tutoring demand doubled from 2020 to 2021, and increased by 2.5 times from 2021 to this year. The company now holds webinars for teachers and principals and trains teachers in how to model for students connecting and working with tutors.
“We know that seeking help is hard, so facilitating easy access to tutoring is key for getting students to connect for support,” White said in an email.
Neitzel and Krajewski recommended that districts create a structure for high-dose tutoring in and out of school, including:Use an evidence-based model for the tutoring intervention.Ensure teachers or outside tutors are trained to implement a tutoring program and align it to the school’s curriculum.Where possible, embed tutors into a school’s daily schedule rather than asking students to be tutored outside of school.Partner with outside groups to help disseminate information and deliver tutoring sessions.Monitor students’ progress, including having a “tutoring team” to serve as a liaison between teachers and outside tutors.