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A March 2021 study found that high school students learned two to three times as much math as their peers from a daily dose of tutoring at school. Credit: Michael Dougherty for The Hechinger Report

This week marks a full year since many school buildings around the country closed and the pandemic changed the way our children learn. I believe it’s safe to say that most students haven’t thrived online. Everyone is worried about the year of lost learning but there’s less consensus among politicians and policymakers on what to do about it. Proposals are circulating for summer school, afterschool, remedial instruction, giving students an extra year of school and a somewhat fuzzy concept of “acceleration.” 

Yet some of the strongest research evidence points to an intensive type of tutoring as a way to help children catch up. Education researchers call it “high-dosage” tutoring and it has produced big achievement gains for students in studies when the tutoring occurs every day or almost every day. In the research literature, the tutors are specially trained and coached, adhere to a detailed curriculum and work with one or two students at a time. The best results occur when the tutoring takes place at school during the ordinary school day.

“It’s not once-a-week homework help,” said Jonathan Guryan, an economist at Northwestern University who has evaluated tutoring programs at schools. 

Tutoring programs for elementary school children rise to the top within this body of research, which was conducted well before the pandemic and targeted to students who were considerably behind grade level. In a July 2020 review of almost 100 high-quality studies on tutoring, reading tutoring tended to be relatively more effective for students in preschool through first grade, giving them extra help with phonics, while math tutoring tended to be more effective for students in second through fifth grade, as they tackle multiplication, division and fractions. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University found similar results in his earlier 2018 reviews of math and reading interventions, explaining that elementary school students can gain an extra five months of education from the extra one-to-one or very small group help. 

Far fewer studies find tutoring to be effective for older students in middle school and high school. But now a large study, published in March 2021, concludes that high school students can learn two to three times as much math as their peers from a daily dose of tutoring at school. That’s enough to bring a ninth grader, who entered high school with only a seventh grade math level, back up to grade level.

“It is not too late or too difficult to substantially change the academic outcomes of children who are struggling academically even once they have reached adolescence,” the authors concluded. The paper, “Not Too Late: Improving Academic Outcomes Among Adolescents,” was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research on March 8, 2021. 

In the study conducted during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, more than 2,000 ninth and tenth grade students in Chicago public schools were randomly selected to receive an entire class period of math tutoring every day in addition to their regular algebra class.  Called “Math Lab,” it was run by an outside tutoring organization, Saga Education

About 10 tutors typically sat at separate tables in an ordinary classroom, each working with two students. The daily 45-minute period was largely spent doing practice problems together. Tutors sometimes gave their students extra practice on the topics being taught in their regular algebra class that week. But tutors also gave their students worksheets on earlier math concepts that needed reinforcing.  In the great debate over whether to keep struggling students on grade-level or give them remedial instruction, these tutors did both. 

“If you do math problems for 45 minutes a day for an entire year, people learn math,” said Guryan, who was also one of the researchers on the 11-person research team that conducted this study.  

The ability of the tutors to pull different practice problems from the Saga curriculum to match their students’ weaknesses was especially powerful, the researchers concluded. One student might be weak in fractions, another in division. Their work during math lab would be different. 

Not all efforts at tutoring have been successful. When the No Child Left Behind law was first passed in 2001, schools got extra money to tutor students who were behind. But there were many reports of tutoring fraud and fiascos. Sometimes tutors weren’t properly trained nor was there a clear curriculum. Often the tutoring was scheduled after school, when students don’t always show up.

Even thoughtfully designed tutoring programs can fail. A randomized control trial of math tutoring for fourth through eighth grade students in Minnesota was a flop. There have been other disappointments too. 

In the Chicago study, the tutoring replaced an elective class, such as art or physical education, and students earned a grade and high school credit for the tutoring. The tutoring cost less than $4,000 per student because the tutors were recent college graduates rather than certified teachers. Many were idealistic young adults who were considering whether to go into teaching or who wanted to spend a post-college year in public service. They were paid relatively small stipends of less than $20,000 for the school year. 

The question, of course, is whether we can recruit and train enough tutors to meet the need right now. That’s ambitious. But at least there’s evidence for this approach.

This story about high school tutoring was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletters.

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Jill Barshay writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data, covering a range of topics from early childhood to higher education. She taught algebra to ninth-graders for...

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