Achievement Gap

As Schools Reopen, High-Quality Tutoring Programs Will Make a Difference for Kids in the Early Grades

As we turn the corner on COVID-19, we must help our kids recover from the terrible disruptions caused by the pandemic. There are lots of opinions on how to do that, but one of the smartest things we can do is provide one-on-one tutoring for students who need it as they return to the classroom. 

Tutoring doesn’t just sound like a good idea—it actually makes a difference, especially for children in early elementary school. Research has shown that, when done right, tutoring is the most effective way to get students back on track after they have fallen behind. That’s why Maryland should launch a statewide tutoring corps to accelerate learning for struggling students in kindergarten through third grade. The program should be based on tutoring models that have been shown to work, as the specific approach can make a real difference in effectiveness.

COVID-19 Slide

Parents are all too familiar with the losses of the past year. Many worry their children missed key concepts, spent days simply staring at the screen, or had trouble logging on. COVID has been difficult for everyone, but it has been especially hard on kids who were already vulnerable, including students of color and those from low-income families. McKinsey & Company projects that students in the United States, on average, “could lose five to nine months of learning” by the end of this school year, and “[s]tudents of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students.” 

If we don’t take action now, these gaps—which add to troubling inequities that existed before the pandemic—are likely to grow even wider.

We must make it easy for students and their families to get extra support when they need it. Fortunately, there’s a solution that has been shown by strong evidence to significantly improve kids’ performance in school, particularly for children in early grades: high-quality, one-on-one tutoring. Experts at Johns Hopkins have written extensively about what a game changer tutoring can be, and MIT researchers have reported that “[in] a field where there is little consensus over what works, tutoring presents a promising strategy to overcome academic achievement gaps and help all students succeed in school.” 

High-Quality Tutoring Programs That Work

While many educational strategies are based on guess and hope, tutoring is based on proof about what works to raise achievement levels. I know this because, for the past two decades, I’ve devoted my career to reviewing the research in education and other policy areas, and then to working with governments at federal, state, and local levels to implement programs proven to be effective. This is the approach we must take in Maryland; the stakes are too high to do otherwise.  

Here’s how it could work in my home state, Maryland: The General Assembly recently approved a new blueprint for strengthening education that provides funds for supplemental instruction including tutoring. However, not all forms of tutoring are effective. Tutoring that is provided too infrequently—such as once or twice per week, as opposed to daily—or is delivered by tutors with inadequate training or guidance, tends to produce only weak effects. Also, tutoring generally produces larger effects when delivered to young children in the early grades rather than to older students. For that reason, we should ensure the new funds are deployed for high-quality tutoring programs that have been shown to work—ones that focus primarily on struggling students in the early grades, use well-trained tutors and one-on-one instruction and provide tutoring sessions on a frequent, even daily, basis. 

The best way to accomplish this on a sizable scale would be to enlist people of all ages from the community to serve as tutors. The programs would recruit, train, and match tutors with students, and would pay tutors a modest stipend. I know there are grand-moms and grand-dads who would gladly spend a few hours each week helping a child learn how to read or do arithmetic. There are recent college graduates who are looking to give back. And there are lots of adults who would happily share their love of learning so the pandemic doesn’t keep students from achieving their dreams. 

My mom was a special education teacher and taught remedial reading in public schools. She passed away a few years ago, but I know she would have been the first to sign up as a tutor. There are people all across Maryland and our nation who have the same heart for kids and service. We should all commit to helping children in the wake of COVID-19. Tutoring is one proven way to do exactly that.

Jon Baron

Jon Baron is a former nonprofit executive and federal official who is exploring a run for governor of Maryland.

Jon’s career has focused on government reform, and he has been able to drive real change from both inside and outside government. As a congressional staffer, he created and worked with members of Congress to enact a new program that now awards $450 million each year to small ...

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