Ed Tech Expert Viewpoint

4 Considerations for Tutoring in the Wake of NAEP

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) put a fine point on what teachers already knew: our K–12 students are struggling. Test results from the NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed significant declines in math and reading, something U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called “appalling, unacceptable and a reminder of the impact that this pandemic has had on our learners.” Only one in three fourth- and eighth-graders met proficiency standards in reading, and only 36% of fourth-graders and 26% of eighth-graders were proficient in math. 

Already, an unprecedented $123 billion influx of dollars from the federal government is being invested in tutoring — following a growing body of research that suggests tutoring can play a critical role in helping students catch up. “Tutor and then tutor again,” said Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP, as she unveiled the national results. 

So how can district leaders best mobilize the tutoring infrastructure they’ve invested in over the last 18 months? Based on my experience this past year supporting more than 200 districts as they’ve built tutoring programs from the ground up, here are four considerations as school leaders examine the best strategies for addressing lost instructional time:

  1. We must act with urgency, but not haste: the how matters. Last year, when it became clear the impact of school closures would reverberate, many districts understandably were in a well-intentioned rush to help students. Along the way, schools and researchers discovered what worked well, what didn’t, and in what contexts. We also learned what strategies were at times reactionary and led to ineffective programs or those that went unused by students. Take, for instance, the consistency of a learner-tutor relationship. We know that students benefit most from tutoring when they meet with the same tutor at the same time, especially when it’s incorporated into the school day.

    Effective tutoring requires an intentional strategy that considers the following questions: Should it take place in school or after? Online or in-person? Occasionally or every day? The answers to these questions greatly impact how leaders design a tutoring initiative, what technology is adopted, and what roles teachers, administrators, tutors, and parents play. 

    Not all tutoring programs are equal — or even similar. As districts work to identify the right approach, we need to talk openly about the benefits and challenges of different modalities, and what works best, and when. For example, chat-based services (one of several modalities my own company offers) can offer an affordable solution that allows districts to provide all students with some level of support and reliable troubleshooting. For students stuck on just one problem, or are advanced in their coursework and diving into new topics ahead of their peers, quick, targeted tutoring can make a lot of sense. But the format is far from optimal for learners grappling with reading comprehension, an algebra program, or other serious and specific challenges.  Recent studies suggest that high-dosage tutoring — defined as more than three days per week or at a rate of at least 50 hours over 36 weeks — is among the most effective school-based interventions that demonstrate positive effects on both math and reading achievement.

  1. We must consider teaching — and teachers. As districts mull over ways to rebound from unfinished learning, much of this renewed energy has been on supporting students — as it should be. But it’s equally important to consider the challenges teachers face, and look for resources and solutions that support their core needs. Depending on the district, that may range from offering teachers targeted professional development to teacher-directed tutoring programs to align with what’s happening in the students’ classrooms.

  1. We must precisely diagnose why each student struggles. The amount and consistency of time spent on tutoring clearly matters, but too often, we overshadow a critical part of the equation: diagnosis. If we understand the precise concept or issue that’s holding kids up, some may not need 30 minutes a day, three days a week. Instead, a meaningful 30 minutes could do the trick. We can unlock the mystery of what students need more quickly if we more precisely identify where they struggle.

    In an analysis of common state standards, our academic team, for example, found that the path from struggling to getting back on track is often shorter than you’d expect. The mastery of certain foundational skills can help struggling learners leap ahead. We’ve found that the fourth-grade standard “identify equivalent fractions” is a critical gateway skill for 11 other standards that are critical to progressing through fourth- and fifth-grade math. By mastering the foundational skill, students can move ahead faster.

  1. We must stop thinking of tutoring as the solution of last resort. For decades, educators have considered tutoring a temporary response for struggling students. But it’s something from which all students can benefit. It’s time to make tutoring an “always-on” component of school offerings for all students, not just those who have fallen behind. That means helping teachers create a pathway to individualized learning and providing a team of tutors at their disposal. Teachers, after all, have the best insights about who needs additional reinforcements, who needs a sounding board, and who is ready to advance in the curriculum.

Today, many administrators and educators now recognize the opportunity for technology to be a supporting instructional tool, making it much more tenable to individualize instruction and tutoring for every child. For far too long, technology was only accessible to schools or families who could afford it. While not perfect, we’ve made huge strides in access. Likewise, we’re at a moment where we have an opportunity to make tutoring far more accessible to children and families, both at home and embedded in the classroom. But, we must take into account the lessons we’ve learned so far to ensure schools are developing tutoring initiatives that sustain tutoring far beyond this moment in time -- and that starts with understanding tutoring as an extension of the classroom.