4 proof points and pitfalls: Lessons from a year of K-12 tutoring

Serving all students well and equitably means baking tutoring into the school schedule.
Anthony Salcito
Anthony Salcitohttps://www.nerdy.com/
Anthony Salcito is the chief institution business officer at Nerdy, the parent company of Varsity Tutors.

With good reason, district leaders are asking tough questions about the returns on their tutoring investments. Over the last 24 months, districts spent millions in federal funds, first to stem gaps in the wake of pandemic closures, and more recently as a tool to provide extra help for students and teachers working to redress the implications of unprecedented learning loss. A recent report from FutureEd at Georgetown University estimates that up to 40% of districts are planning to allocate federal funds toward tutoring.

Increased investment in tutoring is backed by a growing body of research that suggests it can play a critical role in helping students catch up. While some may simply benefit from the quick untangling of a problem, many need consistent tutoring rooted in a trusted relationship. Face-to-face interactions with the same tutor, even online, can mean the difference in terms of improved academic performance.

That has, in turn, led to questions about how to define tutoring. The term “high-dosage” has become more of a marketing slogan than a clinical descriptor, and the quality of such programs varies wildly. District leaders know that not all tutoring is created equal. And like the students they serve, schools and districts embody a multitude of unique challenges and variables.

Context matters. What works in one district may not work in another. Outcomes often belie the claims of even the best-intentioned providers.

Writing an article on what isn’t working or needs to improve may seem an odd undertaking for a tutoring company executive. But there is learning to be had from the last 18 months as schools are quickly implementing tutoring initiatives as part of their learning strategy. My hope is that by examining not just the proof points but the pitfalls, we can help districts and providers forge more purposeful partnerships.

1. Teachers connect tutoring to classrooms

As teachers grapple with unprecedented challenges across the classroom, we’re seeing record levels of burnout. Tutoring initiatives should be in direct service of teachers. There’s an opportunity for “teacher-assigned tutoring”—tapping teachers-as-experts to identify who needs support and when, and then directing that remediation in collaboration with tutors.

The model leverages the expertise and intentionality of teachers, who understand their students’ academic progress well enough to recognize specific needs and challenges, rather than delivering tutoring in a vacuum or putting an additional burden on educators. The best programs model instruction not on a separate curriculum but based on what the students are learning from their teachers in the moment, and do so in a way that aligns with state and district standards.

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When tutoring is assigned by the teacher to a group of tutors familiar with the school, the experience can be connected to the classroom curriculum. The National Student Support Accelerator explains that tutoring can be especially beneficial if your target isn’t universal (you’re not serving all students in a given population) and it directly supports what students are doing in school to reach grade-level benchmarks.

2. When and where tutoring happens matters

Schedule it. Consistency is critical. Just because a district builds an engaging personalized tutoring initiative doesn’t mean all students will show up on their own.

As I’ve spoken to district leaders across the country, they’ve said they launched ambitious programs only to find low participation. When I dig in, I learn they’re often opt-in, unscheduled programs—meaning, that students raise their hand for help when they think they need it. These kinds of offerings tend to best support students who already possess: the confidence to reach out to external resources, the clarity on what help is needed, and the motivation to seek help. This is often not true of students who need support the most.

Many districts have told us that left unchecked, the bulk of tutoring time is consumed by high-performing students looking for a leg-up in STEM or an advanced class. While that can be valuable and important, serving all students well and equitably means baking tutoring into the school schedule.

Research confirms that in-school tutoring programs have larger impacts than those conducted after school. Students benefit from having a set time and day, week after week. The research also supports that when students are meeting with the same tutor, the growing relationship increases confidence and participation, especially when tutoring is part of their school day.

3. Chat-based tutoring has limits

Not all tutoring programs are equal—or even similar. As districts work to identify the right approach, we need to talk openly about the benefits of different modalities, and what works best, when. For example, chat-based services (one of several modalities my own company offers) can offer an affordable solution that allows districts to provide all students with some level of support and reliable troubleshooting. But the format is far from optimal for learners who may be grappling with reading comprehension, an algebra program, or other serious and specific challenges.

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Regular instruction helps students become more comfortable and gain self-confidence. A spate of recent studies suggests that high-dosage tutoring—defined as more than three days per week or at a rate of at least 50 hours over 36 weeks—is one of the few school-based interventions that demonstrates positive effects on both math and reading achievement.

4. Keep families in the loop

Since the era of remote learning, more families are looking for supplemental learning resources and they are demanding that district leaders provide their students with tutoring, a service many have never received before. In one of our nation’s biggest districts, parents are pushing schools for more access to tutoring and looking to understand how it will be implemented for their children. They want to understand their role in keeping kids on track and making up for unfinished learning. It’s critical that districts build a mechanism into tutoring programs that engage everyone around the child—from teachers and tutors to students and families—from day one.

With virtual tutoring, parents can often access sessions online to play a role in not just monitoring but understanding and reinforcing key concepts. Kimberly Guerin, assistant superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified School District, says recording sessions enable students and parents to rewatch together to see how to work that algebra problem, for example.

The rise of school-based tutoring programs is part of an evolution in K-12 education and one that is well overdue. It’s no longer seen as a short-term solution to an unforeseen event (like a global health crisis) or a service reserved for the neediest learners. Instead, leaders recognize that tutoring should be part of a student’s long-term learning journey and a strategy to deliver more personalized instruction.

We know that students can benefit from tutoring—and providing the service at scale is more affordable for districts than ever—but not all solutions are the same. The trick is making it easier for districts to find the most effective, most equitable, and most accessible option for their teachers and students.

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