District Trendline

High-impact tutoring: Five ways to increase effectiveness with students

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The impact of the pandemic continues to have far-reaching consequences for students, teachers, school staff, and other stakeholders at every level of our education system. School closures, shifts to virtual learning, increased student and teacher absenteeism, and staffing shortages have been particularly detrimental to learning—student outcomes on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress saw the steepest declines in decades on both math and reading. Substantial achievement gaps persist, with recent estimates suggesting that the average student will require 4.1 months of additional school to catch up in reading and 4.5 months to catch up in math.

As states and districts continue their recovery efforts, they have embraced high-impact tutoring (a term commonly used interchangeably with high-dosage tutoring) as a popular solution to recover lost learning time. Yet with the upcoming September 2024 deadline to commit the third and final round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, a substantial funding stream for many tutoring programs will disappear.1033

With estimated costs of high-impact tutoring programs ranging between $1,200 and $2,500 per student, districts and states must continuously evaluate the effectiveness of these programs to make sure their dollars have maximum impact. While research demonstrates that high-impact tutoring can be exceptionally effective, it can also fall short of expectations and result in limited improvement in student outcomes if not implemented properly.

What the research says

High-impact tutoring, typically defined as one-on-one or small-group instruction that occurs several times a week, can significantly improve student outcomes when done well. A 2016 review of nearly 200 studies found that high-impact tutoring, when provided more than three days per week or at least 50 hours over 36 weeks, produced significant, positive effects on students' math and reading outcomes.1034 Many other studies have reached comparable conclusions.

Note that the above meta-analysis and much of the research in support of high-impact tutoring are based on studies published pre-pandemic. Given significant shifts in need and scale, the effects of prior research may not generalize to our post-pandemic world. In fact, post-pandemic research into tutoring efforts emphasizes a more cautionary approach. A 2022 analysis of a virtual tutoring program in eight school districts found no detectable effect on student outcomes from high-dosage tutoring and that less than 20% of eligible students in participating schools opted into the program.1035 Other analyses further emphasize that the impact of tutoring depends significantly on its structure and implementation.1036 Despite these counterpoints, research clearly shows that effectively implemented high-impact tutoring interventions can have a positive impact on student outcomes.

In this month's District Trendline, we explore the research behind five key factors of effective high-impact tutoring programs. We explore how districts can use this information to better understand the efficacy and implementation of their tutoring interventions, and ultimately guide their decisionmaking in a post-ESSER world.

1.) Leverage your existing workforce to provide tutoring services—but don't forget about the power of your community.

In a 2020 meta-analysis examining different types of pre-pandemic tutoring programs, defined in this study as one-on-one or small-group instruction provided by a human tutor (excluding computer-based or AI initiatives), researchers found a significant, positive impact on learning outcomes for participating students, with even more pronounced outcomes for students when teachers provide the tutoring services (see Figure 1).1037

This certainly makes sense—teachers are highly trained professionals familiar with how to provide effective instruction, identify gaps in learning, and implement interventions and strategies to improve student performance. As such, districts should aim to leverage these experts when possible to provide tutoring services to students.

But using teachers will likely come with higher costs, particularly when tutoring services are provided outside of the regular school day.

There are other viable alternatives for staffing tutoring programs. That same 2020 meta-analysis found promising, statistically significant results for other tutors. While students experienced smaller gains than those enrolled in teacher-led programs, the average pooled effect size for students enrolled in paraprofessional-led programs was fairly high. Students enrolled in parent- and nonprofessional-led programs also experienced smaller but still meaningful gains, suggesting that students can still see improved outcomes when tutored by community-based tutors (rather than teachers).

Figure 1.

Adapted from: Nickow, A. J., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on prek-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. EdWorkingPapers.Com. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.26300/eh0c-pc52

Districts can draw inspiration from several models on how best to leverage paraprofessionals and community members. Guilford County Schools (NC), nationally known for its robust high-dosage tutoring program, recruits tutors from local high schools and colleges as well as the North Carolina Education Corps, a state-funded tutoring nonprofit that recruits parents, retirees, and others to provide tutoring services. This approach has been successful for the district: All student groups showed gains in their 2022–23 assessment proficiency scores, and the district is no longer classified as low-performing.

Teacher candidates (or student teachers) are also a viable and often untapped resource, particularly in communities that are home to teacher preparation programs. Deans for Impact's Aspiring Teachers as Tutors Network is a national collaborative of tutoring initiatives working to promote student teachers as tutors by pushing states to strengthen field experience requirements, provide stipends and funding to teacher candidates who serve as tutors, and more.

Despite these potential cost-savings, education leaders must factor into their decisionmaking that a smaller hourly rate may not reduce the overall cost of providing services and could actually increase costs altogether. For instance, nonprofessional tutors may have less experience working with students, meaning they may only be effective working with one student at a time. Classroom teachers are much more likely to be capable of tutoring small groups of students, reducing the number of staff necessary to provide services.

2.) When you deliver a program can be just as important as who delivers it.

Tutoring programs delivered during the school day have roughly twice the student impact of afterschool programs, positioning in-school interventions as an often stronger and potentially more cost-effective solution than providing high-impact tutoring services afterschool.1038 Afterschool programs face various challenges, the first of which is simply getting students to attend. These programs often require parental consent to participate, meaning that parents have to know they exist in the first place and that their child would benefit. Even when awareness is not an issue, districts and families alike have to navigate challenges like transportation, extracurricular activities, and long school days—which can lead to lower attendance.

Figure 2.

Adapted from: Nickow, A. J., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on prek-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. EdWorkingPapers.Com. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.26300/eh0c-pc52

Limited research exists comparing attendance rates between in-school and out-of-school tutoring programs. However, several state education agencies, like the Tennessee Department of Education, nationally known for its tutoring initiative, TN ALL Corps, have reported "much lower attendance" in schools that provide out-of-school tutoring interventions. Summer school programs are a great example of this phenomenon, as research has pointed to relatively mixed outcomes in literacy and math achievement due to poor attendance.1039

Even virtual afterschool programs, which don't have to navigate challenges like transportation, face attendance challenges. A New Mexico pilot program that provided free, virtual evening and weekend tutoring saw 500 students, or just 1.5% of the state's eligible students, enroll in services—leading the state to adjust the pilot to provide services during the traditional school day.

Of course, high-impact tutoring programs within the confines of a traditional school day are not immune from their own challenges, including scheduling, pulling students from core instruction, staffing needs, and more—which is why districts must think creatively and be willing to innovate.

A 2023 study from the National Student Support Accelerator, an organization devoted to increasing access to tutoring, found that even short, one-on-one in-school tutoring sessions of five to seven minutes per day can significantly impact student outcomes.1041 Students who received access to these short sessions, which a part-time tutor or early literacy specialist provided during typical classroom instruction, were over twice as likely to reach the target reading stage by the end of kindergarten. Such an approach eliminates the need for designated tutoring blocks during the school day and may be a viable avenue for districts with limited resources.

Ultimately, districts will need to explore the research and learn from national case studies to apply aspects of tutoring programs that work best for their unique, local context.

3.) One-on-one and small-group in-person tutoring is powerful, but do not be afraid to incorporate technology to help scale and maximize reach.

One-on-one and small-group in-person tutoring interventions are the strongest research-backed method for improving student outcomes. However, implementing these types interventions may not be feasible in certain scenarios, especially in schools grappling with staffing shortages or those located in hard-to-service rural areas.

In these cases, research underscores the power of virtual learning and even artificial intelligence to reach more students or reduce staffing needs. In a 2023 randomized controlled trial investigating the impact of a virtual literacy tutoring program in the southern United States, researchers saw promising results through 20-minute one-on-one and two-on-one virtual tutoring four times per week.1042 Students who participated in virtual tutoring accessed the platform during the school day and were tutored by a consistent, trained tutor who leveraged a literacy curriculum rooted in the science of reading. Students with access to the tutoring platform performed 0.08 standard deviations better than control group students on the end-of-year Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) assessment, a small but notable improvement.

While the growing body of research is promising, there is still considerable exploration to do around the impact of these programs. For instance, results from a randomized field trial on virtual tutoring in 2021 found "consistently positive, but statistically insignificant" effects on student achievement.1043 Notably, this study used volunteer college students as tutors, which may have led to reduced effect sizes. It further highlights the compounding factors that districts will need to consider as they craft their tutoring programs. The researchers also note that while these impacts are smaller than those that typically result from other high-dosage, in-person interventions, running the program was significantly cheaper—as low as $32 per treated student.

Outside the United States, a 2021 study in Italy found that students enrolled in virtual, free, and individualized tutoring for at least three hours per week experienced significant academic gains over students without a tutor, with an even greater impact for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.1044

Moreover, a recent analysis examining the efficacy of large language models (LLMs) like GPT-4 as support for math tutors highlighted promising results that may make scaling interventions more feasible as technology progresses.1045 The study aimed to address a significant challenge that many tutoring programs face: Novice tutors often struggle to effectively respond to and correct student mistakes. Training and coaching may help this issue but can be extremely costly and resource intensive. To address this, researchers worked with teachers to develop a framework to feed to an LLM, which breaks down remediation of student mistakes into three steps: inferring the type of student error, determining the intention behind the remediation strategy, and generating a response to the student's mistake. The study found that while the LLM's responses did not ultimately match the quality of experienced math teachers, they were significantly stronger than the original novice tutors' responses.

4.) Develop systems to monitor your impact.

Building a tutoring program is only the start of the work. Ensuring the tutoring helps students requires focusing on continual improvement, access to data, and processes for correcting course if necessary.

The Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research's (CALDER) recent analysis of 12 school districts' post-pandemic remediation efforts found that significantly fewer students received academic interventions than intended in district intervention plans.1046 In one of the 12 studied districts, only 30% of qualified students received reading tutoring, while only 20% received math tutoring—exposing a substantial gap in the district's implementation processes. The study also noted deep disparities between the district's intended hours of tutoring versus what students actually received. In the same district, students received nine hours of math tutoring and 11 hours of reading tutoring per year on average—far short of the district's 68-hour goal.

Tutoring programs that collect data are more likely to successfully reach students and meet their intended outcomes.1047 Districts should collect metrics like student attendance, pre- and post-tutoring student outcomes, per-pupil spending, and student and tutor perceptions. Not only can districts leverage this information to better understand whether programs are making their intended impact, but they can also use it to communicate programmatic impact to funders, state agencies, and other stakeholders that are likely to play an even more important role post-ESSER as funding opportunities become scarcer.

5.) Ensure external contracts center student outcomes.

Rather than paying for features like access to virtual instructional platforms or for a particular number of tutoring sessions, districts should look to hold vendors accountable to outcomes-based metrics.

Many districts spend significant resources, some with spending caps in the millions of dollars, simply for access to interventions like virtual tutoring but not for their effective delivery. In fact, one analysis of district contracts discovered that some vendors received more than half of their payment for platform access and other activities that did not actually involve tutoring students.1048 Low participation in tutoring services (described above) further emphasizes the need for policies that ensure students access and attend contracted services.

Contracts with tutoring providers should include implementation monitoring. As resources tighten post-ESSER, many districts will need to pay even more attention to the cost and benefits of contracts they have entered into with external vendors.

Several districts nationwide can provide examples of how to structure outcomes-based tutoring vendor contracts:

Ector County Independent School District (ECISD) in Texas pays its vendors a flat fee per completed tutoring session with each student and increases the fee if students show improvement on the NWEA MAP Growth assessment. The contract also allows ECISD to reduce the fee if students fall farther behind. Since implementing the program, the district has seen significant improvement in student and school performance, increasing the district's growth score from an F in 2019 to a B in 2022.

Denver Public Schools (CO) provides vendors with a base payment for each student who attends at least 70% of available sessions. However, vendors are eligible for additional compensation for each student who meets targets related to social-emotional learning and culture (measured through student surveys), student growth targets, and end-of-year assessments.

High-impact tutoring can be a powerful strategy for improving student outcomes and recovering lost learning time, and its power depends on effective implementation. As state and district budgets continue to tighten, education decisionmakers must think even more critically about how to maximize their impact to reach the greatest number of students in the most cost-effective way.