Early data on ‘high-dose’ tutoring show that schools are sometimes finding it

It’s possible that the 50,000 struggling students who received tutoring last year would do worse without additional instruction. Or, schools are taking some time to set up new tutoring programs, and it’s still not showing big results. Brown University’s Matthew Craft is studying tutoring efforts in Nashville to help answer that question, but systematic research is slow.

“We have to be prepared for adverse outcomes from tutoring activities,” said Kraft, who believes it will take time for schools to figure this out. “It’s hard to change education systems at scale.”

Meanwhile, tutoring companies are reporting impressive but unproven gains from students receiving frequent tutoring sessions. It may be unclear whether students show day after day that they are more motivated and would have done just as well without tutoring. As we await more rigorous results that compare students who did and did not receive tutoring – apples to apples – a troubling issue is already emerging: low participation or attendance rates.

In one large city, Amplify contracted to provide tutoring sessions to about 1,200 students three times a week, with one tutor delivering the sessions via Zoom-like video calls. More than 100 kids have not logged in to connect with a teacher online. Only 200 students – less than 20 per cent – received at least two sessions a week throughout the school term. More than 80 percent received less, often much less.

I spoke with a school administrator in another school district south of Fort Worth, Texas, who assigned 375 third graders in his 15 elementary schools to use Amplify Tutor during the spring term. The Crowley School District especially wants its lowest-achieving third-graders to receive tutoring because their first- and second-grade years were so disrupted by the pandemic when they were just learning to read.

Tutoring sessions were supposed to take place during the school day, during a special half-hour class dedicated to extra catch-up instruction, but it was up to teachers to decide whether students had to pull out the computers to connect with their remote tutor. Overall, students attended only 46 percent of the sessions that were supposed to take place.

“Attendance was a challenge,” said Nicholas Keith, Crowley’s chief academic officer. “Some campuses have bought into it. But for some it was difficult to find time for the tutoring component.”

Teachers may be hesitant to put their students in front of screens, Keith explained, and want to work directly with students. At the same time, the district was plagued with many teacher absences as strains of the virus surged through their communities, and substitute teachers often didn’t know they were supposed to set up computers for tutoring.

Next year, Keith said he plans to continue offering online tutoring only to schools that are making good use of it. At some schools, more than 60 percent of students attended regularly, and teachers noticed progress in students’ reading abilities, Keith said.

Meanwhile, SAGA, which tutored more than 6,000 ninth-graders in math in the 2021-22 year, reported that students attended two-thirds of their in-person daily sessions, with average attendance rates as high as 87 percent in Washington, D.C., Providence, Road. Less than 49 percent in the islands. Of its 62 percent of students who received at least 80 hours of tutoring, 87 percent passed their math classes this past spring.

Saga’s tutoring is a scheduled course during the school day called “Math Lab,” without other competing instructional activities at the same time. “The attendance rate is the same as a student’s school attendance rate,” said AJ Gutierrez, a co-founder of Saga.

An outside research firm, Mathematica, is currently studying Saga’s tutoring results during the pandemic, analyzing tradeoffs between larger tutoring groups and how much students benefit from tutoring. Larger groups are more economical and reach more students.

The Tennessee Department of Education says they are seeing much lower attendance rates for tutoring sessions scheduled before and after school. Most schools, however, chose to provide tutoring during the regular school day, the department said. A department spokeswoman explained via email that teachers often pull students out of their classrooms to ensure that students in school get their tutoring sessions.

Sagar Gutierrez said she has heard stories of after-school and summer programs that failed to lure students to tutoring sessions with gift cards, movie passes and meals. “I know a principal in North Carolina who went above and beyond (ie added extra curricular activities) to get 100 students to attend summer tutoring at his school, but ended up with only 21,” said via email.

Tutoring was a major component of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 aimed at raising the achievement of low-income children. But between poorly trained tutors and outright embezzlement scandals, it did not succeed. At this time, many schools are trying to improve tutoring standards. But attendance is uneven.

One tip to help deliver on the promise of tutoring comes from Bert Epstein, president of the EdTech Evidence Exchange, a nonprofit organization that aims to help schools make better decisions about purchasing educational technology. He is also a former executive of tutor.com, a tutoring company. “No school district should be paying for tutoring if kids don’t show up,” Epstein said. “This is ridiculous and wrong for many reasons. Anyone who negotiates a contract that results in a tutoring company paying for services for 1,100 students while only 200 receive services should be ashamed of themselves.”

“If you want tutoring companies to show kids,” Epstein said, “structure their contracts in such a way that they have an incentive to make it happen, even if the tutoring companies have to hire caseworkers and social media people and customer service people to call parents and see kids. Find out what they need.

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