Based on the latest results from the Nation’s Report Card, the pandemic has wiped out two decades of student progress, with the largest recorded decline in mathematics scores since 1990. In reading, scores sank to 1992 levels.
Significant resources are being mobilized — including $122 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act — to help students catch up. Education leaders are being encouraged to spend Covid-relief dollars on proven research-based programs such as tutoring to improve children’s learning.
If rolled out effectively, such programs are among our best bets to help accelerate student learning.
For example, Virginia’s Fairfax County used federal funds toward implementing an online, optional tutoring program, but saw limited student participation in 2022. Their internal analysis cited the program’s late-year roll-out as one of the biggest adoption challenges.
In other cases, students who would benefit from tutoring are not getting it, either because they were not properly identified as needing help or did not opt-in to the optional tutoring programs.
And even getting new programs into schools and classrooms is proving difficult for districts with reduced overall teaching capacity. The unfortunate reality is that superintendents, members of district leadership and teachers are leaving the profession at unprecedented rates.
Funding and evidence of program effectiveness alone are not enough.
Staffing shortages — including bus drivers, teachers and social workers — are currently making it difficult to operate schools “as usual,” much less roll out and sustain new programs, even if those programs have proven effective.
This underscores an important but often overlooked truth about evidence-based policymaking: Funding and evidence of program effectiveness alone are not enough.
For these Rescue Plan dollars to make a difference, education leaders also need practical support to bring effective programs into their classrooms. Here are three key steps we can take to assist them:
1: Help education leaders understand the unique needs of their districts and choose evidence-based programs they can actually run.
Districts should review data on the nature and extent of their specific learning challenges. They must consider whether a given program effectively addresses the root causes of their specific issues or if they must address the underlying causes with a different policy or practice change.
For example, if poor attendance is the primary driver of poor academic outcomes in a district, tutoring will likely not help, since students probably won’t show up.
Leaders should also conduct honest assessments of their overall capacity before rolling out new programs, making sure they have sufficient staff, expertise and physical space available.
It is crucial that we do not introduce programs haphazardly in the rush to improve, and that we do take time to address the fundamental causes of learning-related challenges.
2: Strengthen districts’ ability to run evidence-based programs by investing in additional resources and staff.
Investments should include the hiring of dedicated personnel and improving coordination among districts, school officials and program administrators.
As one approach, school districts can appoint individuals with relevant experience to support and monitor the rollout of new programs. For example, Guilford County, North Carolina, hired qualified tutoring program administrators to set up an online platform for tutoring session sign-ups and create partnerships with local colleges and universities to recruit tutors.
Many districts have limited in-house capacity to effectively run new programs, which often require the time-consuming work of re-envisioning master schedules, aligning program content with course curriculums and recruiting and training new staff. Organizations that specialize in evidence-based policymaking and implementation can fill critical gaps.
3: Give education leaders time to run programs effectively and opportunities to demonstrate continuous learning and improvement.
There is immense pressure to find solutions quickly, but details matter when it comes to rolling out new programs and getting those details right; it often takes more than one year.
Districts should consider first piloting programs for a year and monitoring progress, including tracking whether students are actually showing up to tutoring sessions. Programs should be scaled only if the pilot results are promising.
If districts run into major challenges during the pilots, they should consider changing course. Continuous monitoring can determine if their programs are being run as planned and can address issues in real time if adjustments need to be made.
The movement to invest in evidence-based programs is a major step in the right direction and holds tremendous promise for addressing lost learning. But to realize the potential of these programs, we must equip our local education leaders with the tools and capacity they need.
Vincent Quan is co-executive director, J-PAL North America at MIT. Bi Vuong is managing director of education agency practice, Project Evident.
This story about evidence-based tutoring programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.