Ed Tech Q&A

TutorMe’s Kyle Baker on What ‘High-Dosage’ Means, Why 1:1 Tutoring Impacts More Than Just Grades, and How Their Platform Works

Of all the “hot topics” in K–12 education emerging from the pandemic, tutoring is surely one of the hottest. As the negative impacts of COVID-19 interruptions to learning began to show themselves, education leaders began considering what scalable tutoring for a digital-first generation of students might look like. In the last two years, a variety of “modern” tutoring programs — from state education agencies, universities, ed tech stalwarts and startups, and even some nonprofits — have quickly gained traction across the country.

Post-pandemic tutoring comes in many shapes and sizes, and most of the fastest-growing programs are fully digital, paid for by school districts or state education agencies, providing unlimited tutoring for students whenever they need it, with dashboards for educators to monitor students' progress and participation. Such “high-dosage tutoring” is effective in boosting learning outcomes, researchers say, though experts note that the “science” of how best to implement impactful, large-scale tutoring is still in its toddler years.

TutorMe is one of the online tutoring platforms eager to fill the national need. Founded in Los Angeles in 2015 by Myles Hunter, the company was tutoring online before the pandemic made it the only way to tutor. Uniquely poised to help students continue learning during school closures, TutorMe has grown exponentially in the last two years, more than tripling its number of customers and nearly quadrupling its staff, a spokesman told THE Journal.

TutorMe's platform gives students near-instant access to about 15,000 tutors, each of whom must be a graduate of or currently enrolled in an accredited university, be at least 18, have two years of verifiable teaching or tutoring experience, and pass a thorough background check.

Earlier this month, TutorMe was named the 2022 CODiE Award winner for Best Overall Ed Tech Solution and for Best Virtual Learning Solution. And in May, the company was acquired by GoGuardian for a reported $55 million from Zovio, which had bought the startup in 2019 in a deal valued at $6.6 million.

THE Journal recently spoke with TutorMe Chief of Staff Kyle Baker about what “high-dosage” or “high-impact” tutoring means, how the TutorMe platform works, the impact TutorMe is seeing among its students (spoiler alert: it's more than "just" higher test scores), and what K–12 leaders should look for when considering a new, large-scale tutoring program.

THE Journal: Why are tutoring services getting so much attention right now? Do you think it's warranted?

TutorMe Chief of Staff Kyle Baker KYLE BAKER: Yes, I think it's warranted, in part because of some of my own classroom experiences as a teacher. But why now? The last two-plus years have really been the catalyst. And I think of it as a three-part catalyst. The first part is awareness. These systemic problems that were exposed over the last two years — learning interruptions, opportunity gaps, access gaps — these aren't new problems. Now I don't want to downplay the effects of the pandemic and this new era that we're in, but if you've been in education your whole life, you've known that these problems existed for a long time. But it wasn't widely talked about outside of education. Then in spring of 2020, these issues started to pop up on CNN and the front page of The New York Times, and people everywhere became more aware that these issues are a real barrier for millions of students all across the country.

For example, internet access: I remember working with rural schools 10-plus years ago in Kansas, and we were saying then that ‘every day that students don't have access to reliable internet service, they're falling behind for the rest of their lives — not just falling behind today and not just falling behind this year in school — forever.' Shoot, that was 10 years ago. Okay, so COVID-19 was a catalyst of awareness.

It also served as a catalyst of solutions. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to figure things out really fast. How are we going to do education in a different way, where volatility is the norm? TutorMe had been around a number of years before the pandemic, but certainly, all online solution providers in education had huge growth during that time, because whether they were around before or not, the demand was suddenly significant. In those first months of the pandemic, we had to develop new solutions quickly.

The third part is the catalyst of action. So for example, internet access, and schools nationwide immediately committing to 1:1 devices. In 2020, we saw schools say “We don't have to wait, we can get hotspots in the students' homes now.” When it comes to tutoring, schools and educators are asking, “Are we providing the support that students need to learn and grow when they need it, wherever they need it?” If that is a core ethos of our lives as educators and of our educational system, of our societal belief in education, well, now's the time for action. Educators are saying, “We can find ways to provide high-quality, high-impact tutoring — now. We don't have to wait, we don't have to round up five local volunteers who are willing to tutor for an hour every Tuesday. There are people out there who are willing to do this now. So let's do it.” I think that's what's happening now.

THE Journal: So as terrible as the pandemic has been, is this a silver lining? That it brought mainstream attention and urgency to fix these holes in our education system that have been there all along?

BAKER: I was living in the Bronx through the beginning of the pandemic, so I don't think I'll ever be in a place where I can positively coat the pandemic itself. But I do think that this greater awareness, and development of solutions, and a willingness to take action are imperative if we want our students to succeed. I definitely think we're at the beginning of an era of change that can really impact students in a positive way — and thus impacting communities, families, the future of our world, quite frankly. Not to get overdramatic about it, but education is where all that change starts.

THE Journal: What is your background, and how did you come to be so passionate about tutoring?

BAKER: I started my career as a fifth-grade teacher and then moved into a role that was more oriented towards curriculum design, research, professional development, school assessments, and culture; we really focused on culture as a way of impacting academic and behavioral outcomes. Then I became a higher ed administrator before going on to spend the most recent five years — before joining TutorMe in August 2021 — as a Jesuit, actually, and I worked in diverse fields ranging from classroom education to higher ed mission work. I served as a prison chaplain, taught school in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and in Mexico ... but always working in education somehow.

This is the first year of my life that I haven't been in a classroom — although I still work in the field and have visited schools this year — but I've either been in school or, you know, working on the ground in schools my whole life. Those years really inform my perspective. In front of my computer, I have a picture of my first fifth-grade class; one of the students in that class just graduated from law school this last weekend. And those 32 students are the kids that most informed my perspective on tutoring and education. I walked into a classroom in the inner city loop of San Antonio with no instructional resources; we didn't even have textbooks, initially. And a lot of my students were facing a lot of hurdles. And as a first year teacher, I was doing everything I could for those students, but I needed more than just one person. So that experience, as well as a lot of others since, deeply informed how I see this world of tutoring now.

THE Journal: How important is it to your team at TutorMe to not just help students figure out their homework, or pass a test, but for them to grow their confidence and to feel some empowerment over their learning?

BAKER: Something that I knew as an educator, and has been really important now at TutorMe is how important encouragement, engagement, and support is to a student's growth and for them to develop a love of learning. Any child development course will tell you that the most important thing for a young person is for them to know that there is an adult who cares about them. What has been very moving in this role is to hear from students, administrators, teachers, parents, and tutors, how that love of learning and sense of empowerment are created in TutorMe as well. I guess I should have expected that, but when you get the email that says it, or you're talking with an administrator in a school and hearing about it, it really is kind of one of those “Wow” moments of how important this tutoring is.

We shouldn't understate or ignore what these kids have lived through. The impacts of the pandemic on students are significant. When you ask students what they think their future is going to be like, you know what they think about? They think about the volatility of their future in their adult lives. They think about climate change, they think about all this stuff. So then the parallel impacts of high-impact tutoring programs — engagement, support, empowerment — become an even bigger deal for these students. Research from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform has pointed that out.

THE Journal: Tell me about the impact on outcomes you're seeing from TutorMe's 1:1 online tutoring — and also, why does the body of research on whether tutoring works seem to be somewhat contradictory?

BAKER: With federal agencies, there are things built into that system that cause that caution or hesitation. But we do have some evidence and actual research. The Annenberg Institute at Brown is one of the places that has focused on things like this for a long time, and especially in recent years. And Annenberg's research has shown that high-impact tutoring is one of the very few things that we can precisely point to — after generations of educational research — that works to improve math and reading outcomes. We have poured so many resources into studying what works in education, and we've really struggled as a field to figure out which levers to pull, so to speak. So when we find one, that is backed up by research, boy, we should pay attention to that.

Now, whether 1:1 tutoring works is the proven part. At the pre-eminent ed tech conferences I've attended in recent months, tutoring is one of the hottest topics — people are really thinking about tutoring right now. And it's not just about how to spend ESSER funds; what we know is, when you need help with something, what is the most effective way to solve it? Is it to Google it? Is it to watch YouTube videos? Or is it to sit down with someone who is willing and able to help you change or solve your problem? It's the latter. And now we have some research confirming that 1:1 tutoring works.

At all these education conferences, and in a lot of research happening in recent years, people are really thinking about the best ways to design tutoring programs, and they have designed all kinds of really interesting things. We're at the cusp of learning about this from a research standpoint; education researchers will be studying this for years to come. For now, we have to focus on looking for evidence of impact on the ground. And then we have to combine that with what we know, at our core as educators and as people, and when we find an alignment between those — clearly, tutoring aligns with what we know and what is having an impact on student outcomes.

THE Journal: The phrase “high-impact tutoring” has been used to mean different things depending on the person talking. Could you clarify what that means?

BAKER: That's a tough one, because there is no set-in-stone definition of “high-dosage” tutoring or “high-impact” tutoring. The Annenberg Institute, in their research study, frames “high-dosage” in a very particular way: a certain number of sessions, number of hours, consistency, all those things. But not everybody uses that definition of “high-dosage.” Same with “high-impact.” At TutorMe, we define “high-impact” as do we get students the support they need when they need it? Do we connect them with tutors who are qualified to help them in the subject areas that they need support in? That's high-impact tutoring, for us. Whether that is a frequency of five sessions a week for 30 minutes a day, or whether that is at 10 p.m.

When a freshman in high school is prepping for her last day of school and her last final exam, and she needs help at 10:05 p.m., and her parents have already helped her all they can, and she can hop onto TutorMe and connect with a tutor who can provide that support and help — that feels like high-impact. It supports the student, and it alleviates strain on the teachers and on the parents. I've seen it happen in real time. And it is high-impact.

THE Journal: When school leaders are deciding what kind of tutoring program they need, what do you recommend they consider and look for?

BAKER: Let's start with the list. When I meet with educators, I start by asking them: What are your goals? They have to clearly define and understand what are they trying to do — deeper than the three bullet points on their website. What are they trying to work on? Then I want to know, tell me about your students? Who are your students? What are their lives like? What are their needs like? Schools are still learning to use all the data they have access to now — meaning they're learning to mine the performance data, the outcome data, the process data to improve future outcomes. School leaders, educational leaders really need to think about the identity of the place, the context of where any tutoring program is being implemented.

Next, I'll ask what has led them to the belief that systematic intervention of tutoring would be beneficial. Then we will talk about what they want a tutoring program to look like. Do they want to rely on community volunteers? Do they want to rely on teachers? Very quickly, we know that neither of those models is what works anymore and neither is scalable.

So then it's a consideration of moving to online tutoring. What do they want that to look like? Because there's a lot of different providers offering a lot of different kinds of tutoring solutions.

At TutorMe, a core foundational belief of ours is in the power of that 1:1 connection between an expert tutor and a student. Our whole platform is built on that, and our whole service approach is built on that. If that's important to school leaders, then it's important they articulate that, because not every tutoring solution makes that a priority. Maybe with other solutions, schools can check the box that says you have tutoring available. But a 1:1 connection is something really powerful — that is where tutoring has high impact.

Other questions important for school leaders to consider are: Are you going to empower your educators to deploy online tutoring or whatever solution you choose in the classroom, or are you just going to put a paragraph about the tutoring program in the parent newsletter and hope it works? Once schools discuss these kinds of questions, the answers should point them in the direction of their ideal tutoring solution.

THE Journal: How does the 1:1 connection offered through TutorMe work, exactly? For example, if a student feels like the tutor they just got help from really clicked with their learning style, can they request that same tutor for future sessions?

BAKER: Yep, exactly. The student can message the tutor after the session ends if they choose to. They can schedule their next session, or they can message one of their favorite tutors — our platform lets students rate their tutoring session and save their favorite tutors to a list within their account — so they can easily message a tutor they've already connected with to see if they're available then or set up a session when that tutor is available next.

The benefit of this goes far beyond whether the student gets a high score on their homework. We're hearing from school leaders that students are talking to and connecting with these tutors from other places, and, even though the student is there to get tutored in math, now all of a sudden, the student is learning about a different place, a different culture, asking the tutor, ‘Well, what's it like to live in New York?' Or a student is on the platform for tutoring in math, and now all of a sudden they're online with an engineer, and their interest is piqued, their horizons are opening up: ‘What's that? What's it like to be an engineer? I've heard of that.'

THE Journal: What options or adjustments are available in TutorMe for students needing extra attention, or accessibility features, translation, or for students in special education programs?

BAKER: So before every tutoring session, a student or someone supporting the student can input any notes that the tutor needs to be aware of before the session begins. That ensures that the student and the tutor are a good match. And if either determines that they're not a good match, then the student or caregiver can easily select a new tutor, and have the platform create a new match based on the student's settings, preferences, and so forth.

Additionally, our platform is multimodal for students who have different learning needs, whether those are diagnosed or simply desired preferences. There are also preference options for language, which is part of the tutor-matching system. Our wide variety of inputs creates a robust tutoring environment that can serve a broad diversity of students.