Could tutoring be the best tool for fighting learning loss in US students?

n-person tutoring is expensive, requiring close coordination with the classroom and a large supply of tutors. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – While scrolling through Instagram, Ms Joi Mitchell saw an advertisement for Saga Education, a non-profit organisation that provides high-impact tutoring in schools, and clicked on it.

“I was running away from teaching because my whole family are teachers,” she said. “But I always wanted to work with kids.”

She signed on and started tutoring students at two Washington public high schools in 2021.

At first, it was heavy lifting. With one student especially, she said, it felt “like I was falling on a brick wall – he was always trying to ditch Saga”.

So she spoke to him one on one, explaining how tutoring could help him. He began showing up and making progress.

“The most fulfilling part of tutoring is that ‘aha’ moment when students finally believe in themselves too,” said Ms Mitchell.

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores – often called the nation’s report card – came out on Sept 1 and the results were not just a wake-up call, but also a fire alarm.

The test, taken by nine-year-olds nationwide, showed mathematics scores plunging by seven points from pre-pandemic levels, and reading scores by five, erasing roughly two decades of academic progress.

As schools confront this massive learning loss, in-school tutoring may be one of the most effective tools they have to get students back on track, many experts said. The federal government is confident enough about the evidence behind tutoring that it is investing heavily in such programmes.

While tutoring during Covid-19 conjures reports of teachers hired away to lead private pandemic pods, or families with means paying generously for tutoring outside school, the kind of tutoring Ms Mitchell did – high-dosage, in-school learning in small groups – is one of the most powerful interventions the public education system has, with a large body of research showing benefits such as higher graduation rates, reduced absenteeism and the ability to close half a year’s gap in learning.

Research from The University of Chicago on Saga Education’s model shows an even greater potential impact: the ability to close a gap of up to 2½ years of maths in a single school year.

In April, the US Education Department announced more than US$220 million (S$310 million) of funding – US$160 million in federal grants from the American Rescue Plan, along with additional funding from philanthropic sources – to help districts build evidence-based tutoring and enrichment programmes to assist with academic recovery.

This is in addition to the US$122 billion in rescue plan funding, passed in March 2021, which was allocated for school support over three years.

The national report card results “show the historic disruption in schooling the president has been sounding the alarm on”, said Ms Maureen Tracey-Mooney, special assistant to the president for education policy. The American Rescue Plan funding, she said, is a multi-year response to that. Research from Georgetown University suggests that many districts are spending some of funds on tutoring.

The biggest challenge to implementing these programmes is cost. In-person tutoring is expensive, requiring close coordination with the classroom and a large supply of tutors. But advocates argue that it is worth the effort.

Ms Joi Mitchell, an in-school tutor, at Cardozo High School in Washington. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Dr Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and a co-author of a paper on how to build a national tutoring programme, said that in more than a decade of research, he has yet to see a body of evidence “as broad and compelling as the evidence for high-cost, intensive long-term tutoring” in public schools.

He estimates the cost of universal K-12 public school tutoring at about US$50 billion a year.

Still, while the current rescue plan funding is not enough to support every public school student experiencing learning loss – “and that’s a hard truth to swallow”, he said – the initiative presents a real opportunity to help students.

As long as it is done right.

Mr Alan Safran, chief executive and co-founder of Saga Education, which has provided tutoring guidance to the Education Department and is Ms Mitchell’s employer, explained that high-impact tutoring “has to be built into the school day, not as an after-school afterthought”.

Students also need to meet consistently the same tutor, in groups of two or three, two to three times a week.

Since 2018, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – one of the philanthropic investors providing funding for in-school tutoring – has worked with Saga to significantly bring down the cost of in-person tutoring to US$1,300 a pupil from US$3,400 a pupil.

That accomplishment represents the kind of innovation the new funding is designed to support.

Mr Bob Hughes, director of K-12 Education for the foundation, hopes that, through research, schools can eventually understand which students need a US$500 tutoring model, versus US$1,200 or US$3,400, making these programmes more sustainable with public dollars.

Mr Safran believes a national tutoring programme would be effective if schools focus most aggressively on third grade literacy and algebra, as research shows students who are at grade level in these subjects are four times as likely to graduate high school. He puts the price tag at US$3 billion a year and said – between federal Title 1 funding for highest-need students and the American Rescue Plan – he believes it is possible.

The Education Department will track programmes’ effectiveness through its School Pulse Panel survey, with the specific goal that students close a four-month gap in learning.

One of the most urgent, and potentially transformative, areas for research is online tutoring, which could greatly expand the pool of trained tutors available to schools. First, though, it would have to overcome the wariness left by Zoom school among many parents and districts. NYTIMES

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