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'Time for innovation': How tutoring could be a key to lifting kids out of 'COVID slide'

Zachary Carr hadn’t known Victor for long. Carr, 21, began tutoring the rising fifth grader in mid-June, shortly after wrapping up his junior year at Middle Tennessee State University. But Carr had spent enough one-on-one time with Victor to discern that the boy was unusually fidgety during their latest morning session. 

Victor had made lots of progress in math since he began meeting twice a week with Carr at a Nashville-area Boys & Girls Club through an ad hoc, statewide tutoring initiative. The more Victor improved in arithmetic, the more he engaged with the tutoring sessions. Yet this session was “a little rocky,” Carr said later. Victor was antsy, regularly losing focus; he often tripped up on equations the two had rehearsed seconds prior.  

Realizing something was off, Carr playfully asked Victor, “Why are you so hyper today, man?” Turns out Victor had gotten his hands on some coffee. He had the caffeine jitters. 

The rest of the morning, the two would chuckle from behind their masks whenever Victor hit a roadblock. “I got you — we’re friends,” Carr said as the boy stumbled through his five times table. Frustrated, Victor asked for help. “Can we do the box thing?” he asked, referring to a multiplication technique Carr had taught him earlier. Carr nodded, saying they could return to rote exercises after. 

Later, as they packed up their things, Carr pointed to a sheet of problem sets for the following week. “You think you can do this by yourself?” he asked. Victor nodded. “Cool. Awesome work, man,” Carr responded, high-fiving the boy from a distance. “And no coffee next time!”

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Tutoring is one of the oldest forms of education. A growing body of research shows that, when done right, it’s also one of the most effective means of lifting student achievement. And yet, while broad swaths of U.S. students participate in tutoring, it has historically been reserved for the moneyed elite and is often cost-prohibitive for children like Victor, who attends an elementary school where three in four students receive discounted meals. 

The value of mass tutoring initiatives, whether in-person or virtual, in addressing the academic problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic remains untested. But experts say making tutors available to more kids — especially those least able to afford to hire one themselves — could be vital to combating learning losses that resulted when the coronavirus forced schools to shut down and transition to online-only instruction. The toll on students’ attainment and engagement has been dire; it will almost certainly be compounded by the usual slide in learning many kids experience over summer vacation. The challenges are bound to be especially pronounced among disadvantaged children.

Various proposals making their way through Congress would dramatically expand AmeriCorps, a federal program that enlists adults in public service work, with an eye toward both equipping students with tutors and providing jobs to recent college graduates. 

Grassroots advocates and political leaders are also taking matters into their own hands. Carr is tutoring through a program launched in May by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife. Through their foundation, the couple is paying some 600 college students to tutor K-6 children who were falling behind.

But such initiatives are limited in their ability to reach all of the country’s struggling students. Frequent, one-to-one or small-group tutoring — which research suggests is far more effective than other formats — is expensive, requiring lots of people and, ideally, physical space.

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But the tutoring doesn’t need to be airtight for it to pay dividends, experts say; it doesn’t need a perfect structure, a particular pedagogical approach, or even a certified teacher. 

“If we had waited to make this the most perfect program, we still would not be serving kids this summer,” Jayme Simmons, the executive director of the Bill & Crissy Haslam Foundation, said about the organization’s rush to roll out a tutoring program in Tennessee. “The need for this outweighs having something perfect that is rolled out … months from now.”

A growing demand

Federal law allows high-poverty schools to use a small percentage of their Title I funding for individualized education supports such as tutoring. But this investment, estimated at about $425 million only if every state were to take advantage of it, pales in comparison to the amount Americans, especially those who are more affluent, spend on commercial tutoring services. That market includes roughly $630 million in online tutoring services alone. As the competition for college admissions has grown, so, too, has the number of high- and middle-income families seeking out enrichment activities to give their kids — some of them as young as 3 — a leg up. 

For example, enrollment in Kumon, a private tutoring company that charges up to $160 a month per subject, has grown by nearly 230% in the past 15 years, according to a Kumon spokesperson.

Demand for commercial tutoring has continued to soar in recent months, according to Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College. Dhingra, author of the new book “Hyper Education: Why Good Schools, Good Grades, and Good Behavior Are Not Enough,” said many companies today are actively marketing their services as a means of offsetting the so-called COVID slide. “These places are advertising themselves as solutions to the COVID-19 problem,” Dhingra said. “They’re tapping into an anxiety among parents."

The trends are understandable given the undeniable toll disruptions to schooling take on kids’ learning, especially if that learning is interrupted at key points of development. 

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Some countries are rolling out national tutoring programs to prevent already-floundering students from falling further behind. In June, the Netherlands became the first country to implement such a program, aimed primarily at students identified as struggling. The country is spending the equivalent of $278 million on interventions, a significant chunk of it on tutoring, according to a blog post by Robert Slavin, who oversees Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education. The United Kingdom in mid-June announced the launch of a national tutoring program, too. The country will be spending the equivalent of roughly $440 million in “catch-up support” for public school students of all ages whose learning took a hit thanks to campus closures, according to a government press release.

Slavin, who has proposed a “Marshall Plan for education” in response to the pandemic, is one of several prominent education researchers who have called on the U.S. to follow suit by dramatically expanding AmeriCorps. The program each year places 75,000 “paid volunteers” — most of them younger than 24 — in service roles through nonprofits such as City Year and Saga Education, both of which embed tutors in high-needs schools. 

Saga in particular has produced remarkable results. The nonprofit, which works in a handful of large, urban districts, pairs each of its tutors with two struggling ninth graders. In a study published several years ago, a group of researchers found significant GPA increases in both math and other subjects among students using a tutoring system modeled on that provided through AmeriCorps, along with reduced likelihood of course failures. 

The knowledge gaps kids will bring with them to school after the coronavirus pandemic could be exactly the sort that Saga-style tutoring can address, experts suggest. The nonprofit’s work shows that tutoring can help even older kids get back on track when they fall behind.

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“There’s this common narrative that (high school) is too late to intervene, that we should put all of our money into early childhood,” said Monica Bhatt, who oversees the University of Chicago’s Education Lab. But she and her colleagues have found that “it’s certainly not too late, you just need the right program.” 

The right program, as Bhatt put it, “meets kids where they are.” If children are several grade levels behind the content being taught in their classroom, they will invariably struggle to catch up. But if those children meet with a tutor who walks them through the content for an hour a day — or even every other day — they’re bound to develop the tools needed to understand the classroom instruction. The right program also engages students in a lot more content, enabling them to absorb more information than they would otherwise. 

Simply put: Practice makes perfect.

A growing body of research shows that intensive tutoring is generally more effective than other types of interventions at boosting student achievement, such as after-school programming and computer-assisted instruction.

Which is why experts such as Slavin have advocated for what they call “high-dosage tutoring,” or HDT for short. According to a Harvard analysis, HDT was 20 times more effective than less-frequent tutoring in math and 15 times more effective in reading. 

‘A time for innovation’

Many people want to tutor — whether because they’re interested in pursuing careers in education or just enjoy being around kids. Carr, who had casually tutored some of his friends in high school, wasn’t sure what kind of work, if any, he’d find over the summer; the internships he’d lined up were canceled. He heard about the Tennessee Tutoring Corps initiative in May and immediately applied.

“I like helping people,” Carr said, adding that he enjoys working with kids. “I felt like this was a good fit.” (Carr, who’s been riding out the pandemic at his parents’ house, has since landed an internship and is doing that in addition to tutoring Victor and five other students.)

Carr's experience hints at a basic but essential component of tutoring during the pandemic: Given the limitations of online-only schooling and the complications that accompany it, a tutor’s most immediate impact may be the role as a liaison and friend. 

After all, tutoring isn’t — or shouldn’t — serve just as homework help. A tutor is “someone who hears and listens to you, is empathetic … knows your birthday, your mom, your dad,” said Antonio Gutierrez, one of Saga Education’s co-founders. These qualities may prove especially crucial in the social-distancing era, when opportunities to build relationships are few. “There’s something about that that’s so important to the success of students, and it’s not quantifiable,” he said.

Slavin stressed the value of relationships, too. “The idea that you have somebody who is working with you, (helping you) to succeed at something that you’re very embarrassed about having failed at in the past, who supports you and knows you and your parents and is invested in you — that can be really transformative for kids,” Slavin said. 

For the U.S. to match the Netherlands’s tutoring commitment, it would need to set aside some $5.3 billion, according to Slavin. That would fund roughly 150,000 tutors and — if each tutor were to work with 50 students per year — serve one in seven American children. Such an investment, Slavin wrote in his blog post, would be “a good start.” But it would hardly suffice to support every kid who needs it. 

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Slavin and others highlighted strategies that could significantly cut costs without sacrificing quality. One strategy: increasing the number of pupils in a given tutoring session. Another: incorporating tutoring into the school day. A third: tapping non-certified teachers for the job. A soon-to-be-published study by Slavin shows that teachers-in-training — along with trained, stipend-funded volunteers such as those working through AmeriCorps — are just as good at tutoring as certified educators. 

These graduates don’t need to have studied education or have specialized in the subjects they’re teaching. “First and foremost,” Slavin suggested, they need to be “people who are crazy about kids,” such as babysitters or camp counselors or Sunday school teachers. 

The challenge will be retaining the human connection: For tutors to have real impact, they need to be able to detect students’ social cues, to understand how kids interpret the purpose of their schooling. 

“Right now is a time for innovation,” the University of Chicago’s Bhatt said. “We should be looking to the evidence base for ideas on what has been working and think critically about whether that will translate into a remote learning environment.”

This story about tutoring was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.  

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