The pandemic left plummeting test scores in its wake, especially in math.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results from last year returned historically big declines in scores for fourth and eighth graders in math, leading to fears that catching students up would prove difficult.
The good news is that this particular malady has a prescription for treatment: “high-dose” tutoring — a concentrated form of small-group study that meets multiple times per week.
Just this spring, researchers from the University of Chicago published results in the journal American Economic Review from two randomized controlled trials of Saga Education’s tutoring in Chicago Public Schools under the slightly disquieting title “Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes among Adolescents.”
The trials showed that for low-income ninth and 10th graders, high-dose tutoring led to a “sizeable” improvement (0.18 to 0.40 standard deviations) in math scores but also an improvement in scores for other subjects. What’s better, the improvements lasted: One-to-two years after tutoring, the bump was still there.
It’s a notch for Saga Education, a nonprofit that specializes in high-impact tutoring. Stripped down to its essence, the organization focuses on “deeply integrating” tutoring into the regular school day, and making sure that tutoring has high-quality instructional content that aligns with grade-level standards and is designed to support classroom teachers, says Saga cofounder AJ Gutierrez. Schools pay Saga, often through grants, for access to its design and tutoring support services, like the nonprofit’s tutoring “fellows.”
That high-dose tutoring can be effective was already known, but this study suggests that the improvements are replicable using state metrics, says Jon Baron, a former chair of the National Board for Education Sciences and former vice president of evidence-based policy for Arnold Ventures. The larger lesson of the literature around high-dose tutoring, he says, is that it’s highly sensitive to the details like who’s giving the tutoring and what the curriculum is, and Saga is a standout in this area.
Another study of Saga’s work is inspecting a tutoring model that blended tech with in-person tutoring, something that Saga believes will be necessary to make tutoring a structural feature of the education system. Preliminary results have reportedly suggested that the model is effective.
So far, the rush to provide quality tutoring to K-12 students across the country has snagged.
Thirty-seven percent of schools say that they offer high-dose tutoring, according to a federal survey from last December. But it’s not clear that the billions in federal funding spent to procure tutoring in schools was enough to effectively counter learning declines.
And the number of students actually receiving tutoring is much lower than may appear at first blush. For example: In Philadelphia, less than 1 percent of students are getting tutored, even though the district has pledged $3 million to tutoring providers.
Whether groups like Saga Education would endorse what schools think is evidence-based tutoring also isn’t clear. The term is not always understood by districts, creating a “land grab” where some in the industry pass unproven models off as high-dose, Gutierrez has previously argued. When the evidence came out in favor of high-dose tutoring, a lot of people were trying to water down what that phrase means, Gutierrez said in a recent interview with EdSurge. While that’s improved, there’s still ambiguity in how the term is used and understood, he argues.
It’s led to a situation where outsourced, on-demand tutoring options proliferate. These programs often rely on optional tutoring for students that often occurs outside of the normal school day.
Critics of these offerings claim that they’re nowhere near as effective as true high-dose tutoring and that they are rarely used by students, while members of the industry, such as Paper CEO Philip Cutler, have told Edsurge that on-demand options — which, in theory, make it easier to reach more students — are the only way to provide tutoring at the scale necessary to get students back on track academically after the pandemic.
Filling the Pool
And that’s a challenge facing the tutoring industry.
An obstacle limiting high-dose tutoring is schools’ ability to hire staff, since high-dose tutors work with a limited number of students during intensive sessions. The federal tutoring data from December reports that half of schools say that a lack of funding limited their attempts to roll out the more proven high-dose tutoring.
It’s why some districts prefer to leave sourcing tutors to the companies that offer tutoring. In the studies of Saga’s program in Chicago, researchers noted that one “innovation” was “to use paraprofessional tutors to hold down cost, thereby increasing scalability.”
For Saga, this limitation doesn’t mean that districts should abandon evidence-based tutoring. The nonprofit has looked to use tech to increase the number of students a tutor can work with, while still conforming to high-dose standards. It is experimenting with ways to teach districts to run these programs themselves, along with the low-dosage alternative that blends in math software, Gutierrez says.
Can the promising results from in-person, high-dose tutoring replicate online? Saga aims to find out. Looking to the future, Gutierrez says, Saga is interested in exploring “live online tutoring,” which uses digital tutoring platforms. This form of tutoring expands the pool of people who can qualify to become tutors, he adds. Gutierrez even argues that there are some ways it may be more effective than in-person tutoring, because it allows tutors to observe students anonymously, which can give the tutor greater insight into how students are engaging with a problem they may be struggling with.