School districts across the United States have been tapping tutoring services for additional support as part of an overarching effort to help students recover from learning losses suffered by pandemic school closures.
As a shortage of qualified tutors makes in-person services difficult to implement on a large scale, district and state boards have turned to virtual providers.
A recent study by researchers from Brown University and the University of California, Irvine, examined whether these tutoring services were improving academic outcomes. The researchers followed Aspire Public Schools, a school district with 7000 middle and high school students, which made a contract with Paper, an online, 24/7 tutoring company.
Over the course of the school year, they found that over 70% of students never used the tutoring service. Just 19% made use of the service without any outside intervention.
In August of 2022, the New Hampshire Department of Education formed a partnership with Tutor.com to provide 24/7 online tutoring for every middle and high school student in the state. This was the third tutoring initiative New Hampshire has rolled out since 2021 as part of its ongoing effort to close learning gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Hampshire’s contract with Tutor.com is effective through June 2025 and totals $4.8 million, all of which is sourced through federal COVID relief funds. This comes out to approximately $15 per student per year.
Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, cautions school districts against relying on on-demand tutoring as a primary solution to their students’ learning gaps.
“These online tutoring services are set up for the students who are most proactive to use them,” Kraft said. “These types of on-demand structures are set up in such a way that it’s not always the students who would benefit the most from these supports that actually access them. They might not have the time, the information or even the confidence to pick up and call [for help].”
Less than 200 New Hampshire Students Used Virtual Tutoring Service at Launch
Data collected by the New Hampshire Department of Education indicates that 117 students used the Tutor.com service through a LMS or the NH portal in the first two weeks after the program’s launch. Over 70% used the service for assistance with language arts and/or math.
Even less is known about how many homeschoolers have used the service. According to the New Hampshire Bureau of Education Statistics, there are 4,185 homeschoolers enrolled in the state. Of those, 3,025 are enrolled in the Education Freedom Account program, which gives moderate and low-income families state-funded vouchers toward nonpublic school expenses.
Multiple parents of homeschooled children either refused to comment on whether their children would use the Tutor.com service as part of their education, or outright said they had no interest in using it. Those who responded asked to remain anonymous.
“Broadly, for these sorts of online virtual tutoring models, there's just not studies showing that these types of approaches can actually help kids,” said Amanda Neitzel, an assistant professor at John Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education (CREE). “What I'm seeing a lot more of is in these the virtual on-demand tutoring looks more like homework help than it looks like high-impact tutoring."
Neitzel is also the research director for ProvenTutoring, a coalition of tutoring and education organizations which studies and shares evidence-based tutoring programs.
“There's no evidence that these types of models work, so they need to be evaluated,” Neitzel said. “[School districts] should think about that when making their budget. If you're signing a $10 million contract, maybe you also need to set aside some amount of money to pay for the evaluation of its performance, so that you know that you're spending this money wisely."
In a press conference in early September, New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut commented on whether this partnership might continue once the COVID relief funds run out.
“We don't want to drag out use of those funds. We want to be fairly deliberate about how we address the learning gaps and try to close them as quickly as we can,” Edelblut said. “If we decided that this was a program that we wanted to continue, or if it was a program that some districts decided that they wanted to continue to participate in, then they would either independently contract with Tutor or we would bring something to the legislature and seek statewide funding for that.”
In-Person, High-Dose Tutoring Works, But Costs Much More
Experts recommend “high-dosage” tutoring, a more intensive and targeted approach, rather than the online, on-demand models being implemented around the country. The intervention is backed by research and has been shown to double, and even triple, the amount of learning in a single academic year.
However, high-dosage tutoring has its limitations. According to Proven Tutoring, a free resource hosted by CREE, this form of tutoring necessitates in-person instruction with a predetermined curriculum, meeting several times a week with the same tutor each time. For the best results, tutoring should be done on a one-to-one basis, and group sessions should be no larger than three or four students per tutor.
This immediately raises questions of manpower, cost and time—all finite resources. If these obstacles were overcome, many experts believe high-dosage tutoring would certainly be the way to go moving forward.
The University of Chicago Education Lab recently announced it is leading an $18 million, cutting-edge research project to effectively scale high-dosage tutoring for widespread use.
“As students continue to struggle with pandemic-era learning loss, this project represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost learning and close longstanding gaps in student achievement,” said Monica Bhatt of the University of Chicago’s Education Lab.
“The Education Lab is proud to work alongside our partners in determining how to cost-effectively deliver one of the most promising learning interventions – at scale – to a student population in urgent need of support.”
As districts and states try to make up for learning losses caused by the pandemic, research projects like the one by the University of Chicago will be important to watch.