Academic Recovery’s a Long-Term Challenge. Tutoring Must Be Part of the Solution

Huffman: 4 steps to greatly expand high-dosage tutoring so millions of students can get the support they need to succeed in school and life.

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When Accelerate launched as a nonprofit nearly two years ago, we entered the somewhat nascent space of high-dosage tutoring at a very particular moment. Coming out of the pandemic, schools and policymakers understood that many students were behind in core academic subjects and that gaps between wealthier and lower-income young people had grown throughout the pandemic. 

High-dosage tutoring already had a strong research base demonstrating its effectiveness, and the combination of broad public concern about achievement levels mixed with the influx of federal funding via ESSER created an opportunity tutoring to gain market share. 

Today, high-dosage tutoring continues to grow as a policy focus and as a core part of schools’ academic recovery plans. The White House released its blueprint for academic recovery in January, and tutoring was front and center. The U.S. Education Department sent out guidance to states for the extension of ESSER spending, explicitly calling out tutoring as a preferred category. The NCES Pulse survey of principals across the country showed a continued push to provide tutoring to students. Bipartisan bills to support tutoring have been introduced in both houses of Congress. And states continue to propose legislation and regulations to support the growth of tutoring in local communities. All this presumes continuity beyond ESSER. 

Yet, schools are facing different challenges than they were even two years ago. The most recent student achievement data continues to show that academic recovery is slow; kids are not close to returning to pre-pandemic learning levels. Meanwhile, the challenges for schools are multiplying. Chronic absenteeism is on the rise, enrollment rates have declined and staffing challenges — particularly for non-teaching roles — have grown.

In this changed landscape, public schools and policymakers can no longer afford to treat academic recovery as a short-term challenge, which means tutoring has to be a permanent part of the solution.  Most states will not see NAEP and state test scores return to 2019 levels without an ongoing push for personalized intervention, and high-dosage tutoring has the strongest research, the best infrastructure,and the strongest support as the backbone of a longer-term recovery model. 

What is needed to massively grow high dosage tutoring in the years ahead, then?

First, a commitment from federal, state and local leaders to do whatever it takes to get all students, including those with the highest needs, back to pre-pandemic levels. This seems non-controversial, but the country currently lacks true accountability, reporting and hard conversations about where students are vis-a-vis 2019 learning levels. 

Second, a policy framework that supports the growth of genuinely effective high-dosage tutoring. This means direct funding and flexibility to pay for tutoring, which can cost anywhere from under $1,000 to more than $3,000 per student. Policymakers must also require reporting from school districts on tutoring delivery at the student level. The “dosage” piece of high-dosage tutoring is non-negotiable for getting results, so It is unacceptable to pay for services without knowing and reporting which students received exactly how many tutoring sessions. Additionally, policymakers can put guardrails on which types of tutoring and which specific programs are eligible for public funding. Our partners at the National Student Support Accelerator have created excellent guides correlating research-backed principles with student success. And individual programs continue to produce research showing their own efficacy.

Third, school districts and school leaders need to prioritize and better manage the delivery of tutoring. Through Accelerate’s research and tutor-providing partners, we are seeing two major delivery challenges. Students are not receiving the appropriate number of sessions per week; regularly, programs recommend three, but students receive one or two instead. And, tutoring begins too late in the year, with schools assigning students to programs that begin in October or November. The combination of late starts and lower dosage means that even when states and districts agree to tutoring and pay for it, they are not maximizing the benefits.

Finally, the private sector must continue to produce tutoring models and materials with a focus on results. If policymakers do begin to more effectively regulate the implementation of high-dosage tutoring in schools, requiring active reporting and prioritization for evidence-based practices, the strongest programs and providers will be rewarded. But these providers must be willing to engage in meaningful research to show their efficacy, they must show willingness to sign outcomes-based contracts and they must aspire to greater scale. In particular, curriculum providers should take steps to deliver tutoring modules and lessons that align with the overall classroom curriculum. This is what teachers and school leaders want, and it will allow tutoring to function as a coherent strategy rather than a one-off skill-building exercise. 

Accelerate is hosting over 100 leaders from the high-dosage tutoring community, including policymakers, tutoring providers, researchers and school district chiefs at a conference in Washington this week. They are gathering to share their lessons and engage in conversations that explore what is working well, and what could work even better — and they are bringing optimism and determination because they see their programs succeeding. 

This success needs to spread to more students, though. Millions of young people need personalized interventions to help them catch up academically. The means exist to do it. Policymakers and private investors must work together to achieve this common goal.

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