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Tens of millions of students may now be months or, in some cases, even a full year behind because they couldn’t attend school in person during the pandemic.

Significant setbacks are especially likely for the most vulnerable students — kids with disabilities and those living in poverty, who didn’t have a computer, a reliable internet connection or a workspace to learn at home. Educators will have to do something different for the 2021-22 school year to make up for those losses.

Schools are already spending big chunks of their approximately $190 billion in pandemic relief money on a range of strategies from after-school programs to cutting class size. But research shows that many of these ideas have had a spotty track record in the past and that schools will have to pay close attention to what’s worked—and what hasn’t—to maximize their odds for success with just about any strategy. There’s no silver bullet. And the pandemic’s fits and starts in instruction are unprecedented in the history of American public education and have affected students unevenly.

No catch-up strategy can possibly benefit all students. But studies do point toward which strategies are most effective, how they can best be implemented — and what approaches might be a waste of time and money. Here’s a rundown of the most relevant research.

TUTORING

Research points to intensive daily tutoring as one of the most effective ways to help academically struggling children catch up. A seminal 2016 study sorted through almost 200 well-designed experiments on improving education, from expanding preschool to reducing class size, and found that frequent one-to-one tutoring was especially effective in increasing learning rates for low-performing students.

Education researchers have a particular kind of tutoring in mind, what they call “high-dosage” tutoring. Studies show it has produced big achievement gains for students when the tutoring occurs every day or almost every day. Less frequent tutoring, by contrast, was not as helpful as many other types of educational interventions. In the research literature, the tutors are specially trained and coached and adhere to a detailed curriculum with clear steps on how to work with one or two students at a time. The best results occur when tutoring takes place at school during the regular day.

“It’s not once-a-week homework help.”

Jonathan Guryan, Northwestern University

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

Related: PROOF POINTS: Research evidence increases for intensive tutoring

A 2020 review of 100 tutoring programs found that intensive tutoring is particularly helpful at improving students’ reading skills during the early elementary years, and most effective in math for slightly older children. One 2021 study found tutoring led to strong math gains for even high school students, enabling those who started two years behind grade level to catch up.

Not all tutoring has 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 and there wasn’t a clear curriculum. Often when tutoring was scheduled after school, many students didn’t 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.

Not all tutoring programs have been successful but, across hundreds of research studies, daily tutoring rises to the top as one of the most effective interventions in helping struggling students. Credit: Amadou Diallo for The Hechinger Report

In effective math programs, for example, tutors don’t simply reteach the previous year’s lessons. Instead, tutors know what is being taught in the students’ regular classes that week and give their students extra practice on those topics or review prerequisite concepts. Much as corporate America relies on just-in-time deliveries, several effective tutoring programs rely on just-in-time review. Determining what those key underlying concepts are isn’t obvious; curriculum experts need to be involved to create materials that guide tutors on how to diagnose each student’s knowledge gaps and what to teach each student.

In a successful algebra tutoring program in Chicago, researchers highlighted how effective it was for tutors to be able to pull different practice problems to match each student’s weaknesses.

To accomplish this, the tutors themselves don’t need to be highly trained educators, but they do need training, coaching and monitoring. The late Robert Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, calculated that college-educated teaching assistants produced learning gains that were at least as high as those produced by certified teachers and sometimes larger. Even paid volunteers, such as AmeriCorps members working as tutors, were able to produce strong results, Slavin found.

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.

AFTERSCHOOL

After-school programs might seem like a good idea because they give teachers extra time to cover material that students missed last year. But getting students to attend faithfully is a chronic problem. For students who attend regularly, high quality after-school programs sometimes produce reading or math gains, but many programs operate with poorly trained teachers and lessons that are disconnected from what students are learning in class. When researchers look across studies, they usually don’t see meaningful gains in reading or math achievement.

Summer school programs don’t fare well in evaluations either. Kids don’t want to miss out on outdoor fun with their friends and often don’t show up.

Schools are spending big chunks of their approximately $190 billion in pandemic relief money on a range of catch-up strategies from after-school programs to tutoring. Credit: Gretchen Ertl for The Hechinger Report

After-school programs appear to be better at improving students’ social wellbeing. A meta-analysis of 68 studies of after-school programs by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning found that students participating in an after-school program improved their school-day attendance and were less likely to engage in drug use or problem behavior.

Another option is to make after-school hours mandatory by extending the school day for everyone. That has worked well when the extra time is used for tutoring. But research evaluations have also shown longer school days can be an academic bust. Schools don’t always use the extra time effectively with well-designed classes targeted at students’ specific academic gaps. And learning is taxing; students’ brains might need a break after almost seven hours of classes.

Back to Class: How schools can rebound

This series of stories — produced in partnership with the Christian Science Monitor and the Ed Labs at AL.com, the Dallas Morning News, the Fresno Bee and the Seattle Times — explores how schools and districts have embraced best practices for back to school.

Read the series

RETENTION

Repeating a grade, what educators call retention, might make intuitive sense, especially for students who missed most of the past year at school and weren’t able to engage with online instruction. Before the pandemic, research outcomes for retention were generally miserable. Having students do the same thing twice didn’t help. A successful exception was shown in a study of a Florida program in which the most commonly repeated year, third grade, was accompanied by tutoring and extra support. It’s possible that these students would have fared just as well, or better, if they had received tutoring and proceeded to fourth grade. We don’t have a study to test that.

It’s not clear if the retention research is a good guide right now. We don’t really know how students will fare if they repeat a year in-person that they effectively missed because they were learning remotely. However, educators point out that being held back is demoralizing and many students lose their enthusiasm for school. Even if students are told that it’s not their fault that they are repeating, they may be discouraged to see classmates move on while they are being left behind. And a discouraged child isn’t going to be open to learning.

REMEDIAL CLASSES

Historically, remedial classes have been a bust. The argument for them is that teachers can give lower-achieving students the correct level of instruction so that the students aren’t overwhelmed in classes that are too challenging for them. But in practice, students often don’t progress in remedial classes. Instead, they get stuck at the bottom, learning less each year and falling further and further behind the rest of their classmates.

Online credit recovery classes, which allow students to retake classes that they have failed, have been popular with high school administrators in recent years. Studies show that students are more likely to pass a course when they can click their way through it, and such classes are helping more students graduate from high school, but students do not seem to improve their academic skills as much as they would in face-to-face classes.

Students often don’t catch up in studies of remedial classes and fall further behind their classmates. Credit: Terrell Clark for The Hechinger Report

One promising approach is to assign students who are far behind to both a remedial class and a grade-level class simultaneously. This double-dosing strategy has spread rapidly at community colleges but hasn’t been studied as much in elementary, middle or high schools. One evaluation of double-dosing in algebra found that it worked in Chicago high schools but not in middle school math in Miami. Refinement and further study are warranted.

ACCELERATION

Teachers know that students in remedial classes get discouraged and lose their motivation to learn. This year, an anti-remediation sentiment has spread quickly among educators, who’ve adopted a mantra: “Accelerate, don’t remediate.” What they mean by acceleration is fuzzy. Teachers at one elementary school in Washington state described it as promoting kids to grade-level material with extra support, such as a preprinted multiplication table to help them follow along in class, while also asking teachers to somehow find time to do catch-up review when breaking the class into small groups. A charter school network recently described acceleration as interweaving review material with grade-level content.

Though called acceleration, in practice, it can mean teaching less and slowing down the pace.

A May 2021 report by a nonprofit online math provider, Zearn, found that students learned more math during the 2020-21 school year when truncated review material was woven into grade-level lessons than when they were retaught many of the previous year’s lessons. This comparison of the two approaches using education technology is promising, but more research is needed.

The extra review material can push out some topics that would traditionally be taught this coming year. Though called acceleration, in practice, it can mean teaching less and slowing down the pace.

LOOKING AHEAD

Educators have a lot of work ahead of them.

Students will need to be frequently assessed to figure out their individual gaps. Teachers are going to need a lot more planning time for lesson plans. And schools also need strategies to help students move past the trauma of the past two years, including more counselors, because students cannot learn well when they are coping with Covid-19 deaths in the family and struggling with problems at home.

The influx of pandemic money is enticing school systems to spend it on things that they wanted to do long before the pandemic and call it a pandemic response. Reducing class sizes is popular, but it’s very expensive to hire more teachers and build more classrooms, and the research shows that you often don’t get a big academic bang for the buck.

We don’t really know how students will fare if they repeat a year in-person that they effectively missed because they were learning remotely.

Our education system has never been good at helping students who are behind catch up. If schools instead embrace the research — adding tutoring for the students who are most behind and testing promising ideas for others — adversity and crisis could lead to lasting, progressive change.

This story about catching up was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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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...

Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. Just a thought that you cannot ‘review’ what you do not know. So we must distinguish the instances where ‘REVIEW’ of previously learned material is necessary to ‘wake up’ the knowledge that we have and where ‘RETEACHING’ of material that was not previously learned or not learned well is called for. Programs must clearly identify students who can be assisted with one or the other model. Also, while ‘double-dosing’ is mentioned in use at community colleges, I did not see any research citations about its effectiveness.

  2. When it comes to restoring lost learning among teens and young adults, the intensive, team taught and mostly in-person Fast Break program provides several features that together accelerate learning. On average students achieve 2+ grade level gains in reading and math in only 8-12 weeks plus basic computer literacy, work habits, career planning and interpersonal, conflict resolution and teamwork skills. Program designed for out-of-school youth, but high schools might employ to refresh skills and increase emotional readiness of students returning to school after several months of school shutdowns or online learning. Key features:
    1. Intensive immersion so students don’t have time to forget – 5-8 hours a day, 5 days a week + Sat. mornings. Total = 300-320 hours
    2. Teachers from different disciplines work as a team to provide cross-disciplinary lessons and projects. Disciplines include math, English language arts, basic computer literacy and career exploration and planning.
    3. Individually paced yet with team experiences to solve problems and accomplish projects that simulate a high-performance collaborative workplace
    4. Practical training in the soft socio-emotional skills and mindsets so prized by today’s employers
    5. Opportunities to visit workplaces in their chosen industry and talk to workers about their jobs
    6. Placement of graduates into a job, college or paid apprenticeship or internship shortly after completing basic training; people tend to forget newly learned skills not applied soon after training.
    7. Open to all comers who can demonstrate at least 8th grade competence (Level 3 of WorkKeys) in reading and math. Those scoring at 5th-7th grade levels can enroll in Step-Up that uses combination of tutoring, computer-assisted and thinking style-based methods to bring up skills to those required for Fast Break entry.
    8. No limit competency-based advancement. With the help of courseware and instructors who can concurrently teach students at different ability levels, students can progress as fast they can in the 300 hours available, some to the point of doing college-level work.
    9. Cohort system. 3-5 full-time instructors with different specialties collaborate and take responsibility for the same group of 20-50 students for the entire 5-8 hour instructional period. Thus, they model for students the teamwork that is expected in the modern workplace.
    10. Build on strengths. Students identify and practice their strengths as they address their weaknesses. Focusing only on weaknesses or gaps will slow learning, impede integration of knowledge, demoralize students, and thus prove counterproductive.
    11. Curricular integration. English, math and computer skills largely integrated to simulate typical workplace challenges along with employability and career planning skills. These build relationships and relevance, the preconditions for academic rigor, particularly among struggling students.
    For more information, contact Barry Stern, Ph.D., bsels@aol.com.

  3. This article is right that educators have a lot of work ahead as we try to help students recover from the pandemic – and embracing research is always a good idea. But embracing current research, and reviewing it thoroughly, also is important.
    It’s disappointing to see a 2014 study used as justification to question the value of after-school programs for young people. Dozens of studies (http://afterschoolalliance.org/documents/The-Evidence-Base-For-Afterschool-And-Summer-2021.pdf) show that after-school and summer enrichment programs promote academic gains and improve students’ engagement in learning, as well as their motivation to learn. It’s especially noteworthy that a number of these studies were conducted by American Institutes for Research and are much more recent.
    At this juncture, it would be a grave mistake to minimize the importance of supporting social-emotion learning (SEL) skills development and the author is right that after-school and summer programs excel at that. The demand for after-school programs is greater than ever. An early 2020 study (http://www.afterschoolalliance.org/AA3PM/) found that for every child in a program, 3 more would be if programs were available. And in the midst of the pandemic (http://afterschoolalliance.org/documents/AA3PM-2020/AA3PM-National-Report.pdf#page=15), demand remains strong. Fortunately policymakers recognized both the SEL AND academic support after-school and summer programs provide in American Rescue Plan. States and local communities should use those funds to reach more young people, especially those most affected by the pandemic.

  4. There was research out of MIT a few years ago where they were looking for the reasons why civilizations either did or did not make dramatic progress in society-wide learning/knowledge. It turns out that it is not steady progress over time but is punctuated by particular periods of rapid improvement. They suspected that in safe / stable times folks might have spare time to learn and do research (e.g. Roman empire) or in tough times might be highly motivated to learn new things (e.g. in times of war). They found neither. What they found was that a focus on how the young were educated was the difference. A tutor / mentor based education process was the key factor in when a civilization progressed.

    I can’t find my link to the research so if anyone knows of and can send a pointer to that research paper that would be much appreciated.

  5. There was research out of MIT a few years ago where they were looking for the reasons why civilizations either did or did not make dramatic progress in society-wide learning/knowledge. It turns out that it is not steady progress over time but is punctuated by particular periods of rapid improvement. They suspected that in safe / stable times folks might have spare time to learn and do research (e.g. Roman empire) or in tough times might be highly motivated to learn new things (e.g. in times of war). They found neither. What they found was that a focus on how the young were educated was the difference. A tutor / mentor based education process was the key factor in when a civilization progressed.

    I can’t find my link to the research so if anyone knows of and can send a pointer to that research paper that would be much appreciated.

  6. In response to the recent article by Jill Barshay, “The Science of Catching Up,” I want to offer another perspective on her section covering “Afterschool.” Our organization and its partners disagree with the author’s point that “summer school programs don’t fare well.”
    As the most recent National Academies of Sciences report on Summertime Experiences noted, summer is a metaphor for both inequity and opportunity for young people in education. The term “summer learning” has emerged over the last several decades as a rebranding of sorts and counterstrategy to the widely held, negative perceptions of traditional “summer school.” Summer school in the U.S. has historically been viewed as “punitive,” “mandatory,” “remedial,” “boring,” “solely focused on academics,” and “confined often to a school building.”
    In contrast, by design, Summer and Afterschool Learning offer the opposite experience. Successful programs are hands-on, project-based, and fun. They align with school district goals but do so in creative ways, which combine academics, health and fitness, enrichment, and mental health supports. As the Boston Afterschool and Beyond program demonstrates, when you make the city your classroom and partner the school district with nearly 200 community-based groups, you can make programs attractive, attendance voluntary, get results, and have 14,000+ students ready to return to school more motivated to learn and poised for success.
    To sustain support for these programs over time, we must show policymakers, educators, and the media the benefits summer learning programs can have on the lives of young people. No single non-profit, school district, and government agency can meet all of the diverse student needs by themselves. We need local leaders to have vision, humility, and flexibility to coordinate complementary resources and strengths among different groups. If we collectively do a good job focusing on students’ needs, we will ensure summer learning experiences for all students become the expectation for years to come and not just an exception during an emergency.

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