Researcher Says: “Please, Please, Please–Invest in Tutoring.” Here’s How to Do It Right.

During the pandemic, students lost time and opportunity to learn. Now, educators are looking for the best strategies to help them recover. In July, the White House announced a new effort to recruit and place 250,000 new adults in schools over the next three years. Many will work as 1-1 or small group tutors, using evidence-based practices to help children catch up.

But educators and school leaders have lots of questions about how this will work. In a time of school staffing shortages, how will tutors be recruited? What’s the most effective way to put them to work for kids?

Ed Post spoke with Kim Dadisman, associate director of policy, North America, with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), about how leaders can set up tutors–and kids–for success.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



What are your thoughts on the new initiative to bring 250,000 more tutors, mentors and advisors into schools? What are the possible benefits? What are the likely challenges?

I am thrilled that the Biden-Harris administration has launched the National Partnership for Student Success and that they are looking to the evidence to inform practice. 

We know there was an incredible gap in learning prior to the pandemic for students of color and students from low-income communities compared to high-income students or compared to white students. So everybody's falling behind. Kids are starting to catch up again, and there's some recent data that looks at some of the standardized test data from the 2021-2022 school year and says there are small gains being made.

But those gains are higher for high-income or white students. It's still kids of color and kids from low-income communities who are staying behind. Tutoring is an opportunity to work with those kids, not just because there's been a pandemic, but an opportunity to provide additional support to those kids. To close that gap, regardless of whether the pandemic is happening, it really is a way to provide individualized and personalized instruction to students. 

Having a cadre of tutors readily available may reduce the burden on schools and districts to identify, hire and train tutors, allowing programs to be up and running more quickly. 

This initiative also has the potential to increase and diversify the pipeline to teacher education programs. A tutoring corps will likely hire and train a diverse group of individuals who may not be looking for a career in education. The experience of working with students may lead some tutors to apply to teacher certification programs and pursue teaching as a profession. 

There may still be challenges in getting tutors into rural schools and districts. We are currently supporting two studies looking at computer learning platforms to support tutoring. Learning more about these types of innovative tutoring models could offer a solution to some of the challenges of providing in-person programs to rural districts.

Districts trying to implement tutoring have struggled to hire enough tutors. What can research tell us about how best to hire, train and retain qualified tutors to work in schools?

The evidence suggests that teachers and professionals (those that are paid and trained), are consistently the most effective tutors. We have also worked closely with an evidence-based high-impact tutoring program and have learned from their practices. They work with organizations like AmeriCorps to hire tutors from the community. They provided training on the curriculum, pedagogy and building relationships with students. Ongoing coaching and mentoring, including observations of tutoring sessions, provide additional training and support to tutors throughout the school year.

What does the evidence say about how tutoring can be most effective? 

In-person tutoring models are incredibly effective and can improve academic achievement. With younger kids, [pre-k, kindergarten and first grade], when it's a tutor with one child, that is most effective. As kids get older, it's more effective when it's a small group. Peer-to-peer learning happens when you have a small group with a single tutor. 

If kids have an opportunity during the school day, particularly young children, to engage one-on-one, to practice and receive tutoring in fundamentals of reading, mathematics, and things that will improve their overall academic achievement. Part of why tutoring is so effective is the mentoring bond that happens between the tutor and the student. 

We also saw how often tutoring happens is also really important, and that four to five days a week is really optimal for both younger and older kids. Those tutoring sessions need to be at least 30 minutes to an hour long. 

We also found that in-school tutoring is more effective than tutoring that happens outside of school, and we believe it is a bit of an accountability factor. You're in middle school, your second period is tutoring, and you're more likely to go since you're already there. After school, you're at the Boys and Girls Club, you can do tutoring, or you can do art or basketball. There's less accountability. 

In-school tutoring has tutors closely collaborating with classroom teachers. There can be communication back and forth between tutors, and classroom teachers about how kids are doing. This is not to say an out-of-school program can't implement evidence-based tutoring, we just didn't see it as often in our analyses. 

How qualified do tutors have to be in order to get results?

We looked at almost 100 randomized evaluations of tutoring programs, and what we found were four types of tutors are the most common. 

You've got professional teachers, tutors, teachers who are tutors, [and other school staff] who we call paraprofessional tutors. These are paid tutors that have some pretty extensive training. While all four of those groups are found to be effective, teachers and paraprofessionals were the most effective. 

How can we re-engage students who became disengaged during pandemic school closures?

One of the things we have really strong evidence on and have been talking about with school districts and state-level departments of education around the country is high-impact tutoring. While we haven't tested if tutoring engages kids enough to bring them back into the school setting, we have early studies that look at more innovative tutoring models that are not just in-person tutoring sessions. Those studies are happening now.

You can imagine a kid who has been relatively disengaged in the education system for the last couple of years because it's go to school, schools close, do it virtually, go back to school, your teacher’s not there, half of your friends aren't there. If they are now back in the classroom, and they have the same tutor coming to see them three to four days a week, and spend time working on things they are trying to learn, [that] could really improve how they view school in general. 

It's hard to improve your academics if you're not in school. If you’ve made a bond with your tutor and you are improving, you're turning in your homework, you're improving in whatever you're being tutored in, the odds are you're probably in school more.

What does the research say about the effectiveness of virtual tutoring?

We have two different researchers at J-PAL that are working in very different contexts. One is working in Puerto Rico, the other one is working in Texas, Chicago and Tennessee, to look at a computer-assisted learning platform that allows students access during the school day as well as at home. 

The process that students go through to do math within this platform, they're focusing on math and doing math exercises, which mimics tutoring, in that it's personalized. As students do their exercises, if they miss something, it goes back. It points out what they did wrong, they have opportunities to practice and then continue to move forward at their own pace. Teachers can go in to see the kids’ exercises, monitor their progress, and can then adjust their classroom teaching based on what they're seeing in the backend. 

September is the deadline to spend the second round of federal ESSER pandemic relief funds. What advice do you have about the best investments for districts that still have money to spend?

Please, please, please invest in tutoring. Whether you as a district invest in a kind of a grow-your-own program, where you're hiring tutors and implementing 100% yourself, or whether you’re contracting with a vendor or tutoring organization, look at the evidence, look at the key elements: who's the tutor? Are they paid to train? Is this going to happen during the school day? Are the frequency and the duration enough to have an impact? 

Consider if you'll develop your own implementation. If you are contracting with a vendor, demand that the vendor meets these evidence criteria. 

Much of the American Rescue Plan funds do [allow] for using some of those funds for evaluation, so we really encourage districts to work with researchers to evaluate what they're doing to understand whether or not it's effective.

Trinity Alicia
Trinity Alicia is an editorial intern at EdPost based in Boston. Having studied journalism, film and Spanish at San Diego State University, Alicia has versatile experience in print, public relations and multimedia that she brings to the EdPost team. In her free time, she enjoys live music and bicoastal traveling.

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