Last year, when concern over the pandemic’s effects on education was at its peak, school districts turned to high-dose tutoring, a regular and intensive form of small-group tutoring.
There’s a lot of evidence that high-dose tutoring improves reading and math performance, such as this study from Brown University. And there was particular concern over students losing skills in those areas during the pandemic, especially in K-12.
Brimming with dollars from the American Rescue Plan, one of the biggest relief packages in U.S. history, districts hoped that tutoring would help claw back some of the learning kids may have lost.
It’s a lot of money.
Under the American Rescue Plan, $122 billion flowed to K-12 school districts. Most of the funds haven’t been spent, largely because of supply chain issues and the national labor shortage. But states’ allocations were significant, with places across the country putting millions specifically toward tutoring.
For example: $25 million of Chicago Public Schools’ $525 million Moving Forward Together investment is slated to hire 850 tutors in the fiscal year 2022 who will focus on literacy in kindergarten through fifth grade and math in grades six through 12.
Similar figures are allocated in other states, such as a $200 million, three-year investment in Tennessee through the Tennessee Accelerating Learning and Literacy Corps program, a sort of funding-match program that allows districts to use federal and local relief dollars to jumpstart tutoring.
These programs are helping, if you listen to officials. Districts that didn’t initially jump into the Tennessee program are expressing buyer’s remorse, says Lisa Coons, the chief academic officer for the state’s department of education. In fact, this month, the state announced it opened up the funding to nonprofits, which leaders claim will enable free tutoring for another 18,000 students. Sometime this summer the data will be available about how effective the tutoring has been, and Tennessee leaders plan to publish case studies in September, Coons says.
There’s a “real concern” that for some states this is a temporary emergency response rather than a new support system for beleaguered teachers and struggling students, says Anthony Salcito, who leads Varsity Tutors for Schools, the online tutoring platform’s program for partnering with schools. However, if this investment does create the structural transformation he hopes for, Salcito says it would provide another critical tool for teaching and learning.
What Money Can’t Buy
Just having money doesn’t solve the problem.
There have been numerous logistical strains in creating and growing tutoring programs, including hiring tutors. For some districts, the challenge of speedily finding tutors pushed leaders to consider outsourcing tutoring rather than keeping it in-house, experts say, causing them to turn to nonprofits and for-profits.
This creates a wrinkle. The industry doesn’t use a uniform definition of “high-dose” tutoring, and that means districts have had to learn the market and set their own standards.
For example, in Tennessee’s tutoring programs, “high-dose” has to mean a small student-to-tutor ratio and regular meetings, which state leaders advocate for other regions looking at similar programs.
A ‘Land Grab’
Industry groups that provide tutoring services, however, could just as easily apply the “high-dose” label to online chat tutoring.
“You have, kind of, a land grab going on,” says AJ Gutierrez, co-founder of Saga Education, a nonprofit that specializes in high-impact tutoring. “And that’s very risky.”
The flush of new money attracted for-profits that say they offer high-dose tutoring, when they really offer 24/7 on-demand tutoring, which is a different animal, he indicated.
Some businesses insist that even services that provide that other sort of tutoring are immensely valuable. Gutierrez suggests that there just isn’t as much evidence for them as for “high-dose” tutoring.
Venture capital has clearly backed some of the for-profits Gutierrez has in mind. When Paper closed a $270 million Series D in February, it reported that it tutored nearly 2 million students, virtually double what it had during its Series C round. It also reported 300 percent staffing growth.
Some people think that districts are learning quickly.
“Schools have gotten a lot more savvy and mature in understanding how to navigate through the right kinds of services and tutoring offerings,” Salcito of Varsity Tutors says.
The staffing issues aren’t localized to school districts. They raise the question of whether bringing tutoring to scale means drawing on online instruction.
Saga Education reports that even for-and-nonprofits have struggled to find in-person tutors, while there’s a ready supply of online tutors.
And there’s another issue. Most of the for-profits use contractors rather than employees, Gutierrez says. Gig work by its nature keeps workers from accessing the supports available to legally classified “employees.” Gutierrez says that it limits the tutors’ access to the “intensive supports” that tutors who’re working as extra educators need in order to be effective. From the outside, it’s also not clear what these for-profits are doing for pedagogy, training and efficacy, beyond perhaps student surveys, he says.
Salcito advocates for a mix of tutoring offerings. Last year, he says, a lot of districts opted for on-demand chat tutoring because it was easier to put in place.
“But I think as we watch schools, and [we’re] seeing very low consumption in a lot those environments,” he explains, “you’ve got to have a mix of [tutoring options for schools.]”