- Intensive small-group tutoring is one of the best strategies for upskilling children, but few schools do it on the scale or quality necessary to do their job.
- A large-scale research experiment from the University of Chicago aims to finally address some of the longstanding obstacles that have prevented effective tutoring from becoming a widespread reality.
- The research will be applied in real time, potentially helping tens of thousands of students left behind in part due to COVID school closures within the next five years.
Joi Mitchell got into tutoring largely by accident, but in hindsight it all makes sense. The 27-year-old grew up in a family of educators in Chicago. After college, where she majored in business administration, some of her roles involved mentoring teenagers.
When she saw an Instagram ad recruiting teachers for Saga, a non-profit organization that focuses on low-income students struggling with math, she decided to apply. She thought she might as well dip her “toes in the leather bath.”
Working in schools in Washington, DC, over the past year Mitchell has seen students transform through tutoring, and in particular Saga’s approach to it—with small groups of students and teachers integrated into classroom life. She works to get to know who her students are as people, to make “math a conversation.”
“I would walk them through it, ask them the question out loud and tell them to explain their thought process,” said Mitchell, who is now a site director. In between, she gave them “brain breaks.” “I definitely learned that students learn from who they like. That extra investment really goes a long way.”
In much of the country, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 have wiped out decades of academic progress. Intensive tutoring in small groups during the school day is, according to research, one of the most effective strategies for updating children.
But relatively few districts are doing it, at least not at the scale or quality experts say is necessary to do its job. Teachers like Mitchell are scarce, but that’s only part of the challenge.
A new $18 million research initiative is finally trying to address some of the longstanding obstacles that have prevented effective tutoring from becoming a widespread reality. In news shared exclusively with USA TODAY, the University of Chicago Education Lab has announced it will lead the research project in collaboration with MDRC, experimenting with different models while also expanding access to tutoring and applying solutions in real time .
“We have a once-in-a-century public health crisis and also a once-in-a-century education crisis,” said Monica Bhatt, senior research director at the Education Lab. “This is an opportunity to do it a little differently.”
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Why don’t more schools offer tutoring?
An education strategy that’s been around for centuries, this form of tutoring can provide ideal learning conditions, Bhatt said. Tutors are integrated into the school day to complement classroom instruction, with tailored and targeted support in small groups.
It’s rare that researchers have something like this consensus, said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis organization. But they usually agree that tutoring is part of the solution. “It’s the thing that we know works,” she said.
As of this spring, about a quarter of the more than 5,000 districts surveyed by FutureEd, a Georgetown University education research think tank, had money set aside for tutoring. States including Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Tennessee have doubled down on the strategy and developed their own tutoring corps.
But in many cases, tutoring initiatives have struggled to reach all students who need help. And they have often been surpassed by the demand for private lessons among resourced families.
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“If you have a situation where you’re sending your central office staff into classrooms to actually teach kids, the last thing on your mind is starting a new tutoring program,” Lake said.
In its current form, high-dose tutoring is expensive and requires many people at a time when school personnel of all kinds are in short supply. Districts often have too little time to figure out how to do this in a sustainable way.
Then there are the less obvious matters: the recruitment, training and management of personnel; the development of a high-quality curriculum; the logistics of scheduling and working tutoring into the school day while meeting numerous other requirements.
“Districts and construction leaders have so much on their plate, especially now more than ever,” said Kevin Huffman, the founder and CEO of Accelerate, a newly formed national initiative that aims to scale education in high doses in schools. Accelerate is a partner in and funder of the Education Lab research project. “Anything that is complex from a management and implementation point of view will be very difficult to tackle. We just need to look for ways to achieve similar results with less burden,” Huffman said.
‘The largest social experiment ever completed’
The goal of the Education Lab is to find solutions to those huge and pressing challenges, ideally within the next five years. Schools are inundated with federal aid dollars, much of which remains unspent even as the money expires in 2024. The districts’ failure to spend the money has drawn increasing criticism from members of Congress.
With the help of philanthropic partners, including America Achieves, Arnold Ventures and Citadel’s founding CEO, the funding will be used to support the research and to strengthen and supplement on-the-ground guidance.
Three school systems have already signed up to participate in the study: Chicago Public Schools, a longstanding partner of the University of Chicago Education Lab; Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia, including Atlanta; and the New Mexico Department of Education. Next year, researchers hope to work in half a dozen geographically diverse districts or states.
One of the main questions of the project: what is the most cost-effective way to offer tutoring at scale without compromising on quality?
To put things in context, Chicago Public Schools will use approximately $25 million of its relief funds to train a district-wide corps of some 850 teachers. But ultimately, with current models, that will only serve a fraction of the district’s more than 322,000 students, Bhatt said.
The project hopes to experiment with higher student-tutor ratios and a greater reliance on technology, which can reduce costs. For example, some students need less intensive tutoring, which can free up resources for students who do benefit from it.
This performance gap was already widening:COVID added fuel to the fire.
Finding a more cost-effective method of tutoring is critical given the fiscal cliffs districts face once relief funds dry up.
“We can’t wait three or five years to find the answer,” Bhatt said. Researchers will work in the field with school and district leaders, tweaking and fine-tuning as they go.
“A lot of times in education we make too many guesses about what works,” said Bhatt,
With these findings, Bhatt and others hope to shed light on which types of tutoring models – which mix of high-dose tutoring and, say, a more technology-based version – work best for which type of students?
“Until we get to that level of specificity, we’re still not going to make as much progress as we could,” Bhatt said.
The ultimate goal is to include as many as 50,000 students in the study. Most of the existing high-dose tutoring studies have focused on no more than a few thousand children.
“If we get this done,” Bhatt said, “it will be the greatest social experiment ever completed.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.