Tutoring to Combat COVID-19 Learning Loss

By ·January 5, 2021
J-PAL North America

The Issue:

COVID-19 has resulted in widespread learning loss across the United States, further exacerbating already significant disparities in educational opportunity by income and race. In the face of unequal access to remote learning and reduced instructional time, low-income students and students of color are at particular risk of falling behind. These setbacks have long-standing consequences that carry into adulthood, placing increased urgency in finding a solution to help this generation of learners.

Tutoring is a well-studied, viable, and effective way to combat learning loss and educational inequities. But not all tutoring programs are created equal.

The Facts:

  • The switch to remote learning has reduced the quantity and quality of instruction for millions of students across the United States. This has likely resulted in significant and widespread loss of learning. Early indication of the impact is emerging from standardized exams offered at the beginning of the academic year and from Fall term grades (see here). Even in the Netherlands, where there is more equitable access to technology, a relatively short lockdown (8 weeks) had negative impacts on student learning. In the absence of data on student learning in the United States, researchers have released historically-informed projections of learning loss. Based on what is known about the “summer slide” – the erosion of learning that typically happens from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next, one education research organization predicts that the average student lost 57 to 183 days of learning in reading and from 136 to 232 days of learning in math just during the spring of 2020. 
  • The repercussions of learning loss during the pandemic have the potential to be long-lasting, particularly for low-income and minority students. Broad-reaching learning loss will likely exacerbate long standing educational disparities in the United States. Studies have found that existing disparities in K-12 educational outcomes for low-income and minority students extend and sometimes grow into adulthood. For instance, one study found that students who are not reading proficiently in the third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school than children proficient in reading. Disruptions in educational and career trajectories due to learning setbacks are more likely to impact students of color. Black and Hispanic students attend college at much lower rates than their white peers and enroll in colleges of lower-quality, resulting in decreased lifetime earnings. Learning loss threatens to worsen these stark opportunity gaps, leaving students to deal with repercussions far beyond the pandemic.
  • Decades of rigorous evaluations have consistently found tutoring programs to yield educational benefits, offering one promising strategy to combat pandemic-related learning loss. Tutoring involves one-on-one or small-group instruction that aims to bolster classroom-based learning and is conducted by teachers, paraprofessionals, volunteers or parents. Although such instruction can be more costly, efforts to develop and test tutoring interventions capable of improving learning outcomes within the stark budgetary constraints of real-world education have intensified since the 1980s. Our meta-analysis of 96 randomized evaluations found that, on average, tutoring programs consistently led to considerable improvements in learning outcomes, equivalent to a student advancing from the 50th percentile to nearly the 66th percentile. Approximately 80% of the included studies reported statistically significant positive impacts across a wide range of program characteristics and contexts. Such consensus is rare in education research, especially among interventions that have been rigorously tested using randomized evaluations. 
  • Why might tutoring interventions result in student improvement? It is possible that tutoring provides students with more instruction time. But since students are often pulled out of normal class time for tutoring, it also may be the case that tutoring improves learning by customizing teaching specifically to individual students' knowledge gaps. In addition, one-on-one interventions might allow for greater engagement and more rapid feedback, lower distractions, and for benefits from mentorship or human connection fostered by the relationship with a tutor. Students who do not receive tutoring directly might also benefit if tutoring programs reduce class sizes for the remaining students or lead to having better-educated peers contributing to the class environment.
  • Certain types of tutoring tend to be more effective than others and the magnitude of the impact seems to vary across age groups. Tutoring was generally most effective when delivered by teachers or trained professionals, although tutoring programs delivered by parents or volunteers still benefited students on average. The use of trained professionals — school staff members, undergraduate and graduate students in the education field, fellows in professional development and service programs, like AmeriCorps — represent a particularly promising cost-effective alternative to more costly tutoring programs run by teachers. Tutoring was also most effective when it was conducted during school hours with younger students benefiting the most. The age at which tutoring had the greatest impact varied by subject. Literacy tutoring was most effective for younger students in preschool through first grade. For instance, an evaluation of the Minnesota Reading Corps, the nation’s largest tutoring program which aims to strengthen elementary students’ literacy skills, found that kindergarteners who participated in the program performed approximately twice as well as students who did not. Tutors in the program hold daily one-on-one and small group sessions with students, delivering interventions that match individual needs. Math tutoring tended to have larger impacts on students in second through fifth grade. 
  • Although tutoring seems to yield bigger impacts for elementary school students, there is strong evidence that some tutoring programs also benefit high-school students. A prominent example of this is an intensive, small-group tutoring program run by Saga Education to improve math outcomes for high school students who are behind. Students participating in Saga’s program meet daily with their professional tutors during school hours. Tutors work with a small group of students and cover math content tailored to each students’ needs. An evaluation of Saga in 12 Chicago public schools in some of the city’s low-income communities found large effects: participants gained an extra one to two years’ worth of math beyond what their peers learned in an academic year. Students’ failure rates also fell by more than 50%. 
  • As the pandemic restricts in-person interaction, questions remain about whether tutoring can be effectively delivered virtually. However, early evidence from a pilot study in Italy suggests that remote tutoring can positively impact learning outcomes. Five hundred middle-schoolers from 78 schools across Italy received three hours of online tutoring per week. These students’ performance improved by 4.7%. Increasing tutoring to six hours per week doubled this effect size. Students also experienced significant increases in mental well-being and academic aspirations. Researchers are now scaling up the study across Italy to understand the potential of remote tutoring. Yet the success of remote tutoring efforts will depend largely on student access to technology and reliable internet connectivity. In the United States, students face a significant digital divide. In an EdWeek Research Center survey, 62% of leaders in districts with poverty rates below 25% indicated that all students had home internet access. In contrast, leaders in communities with poverty rates above 75% reported only 31% of students having access.
  • While such an effort may be resource-intensive, economists argue that tutoring may result in large economic gains by increasing future productivity and reducing educational disparities. Researchers who rigorously evaluated Saga Education’s tutoring program in Chicago found that the program cost $3,800 per student over a school year. The benefits of participating in the program are estimated to be 5 to 11 times larger than the cost. Even under the extreme assumption that four years of tutoring would be necessary to maintain the impact shown in the Chicago evaluation, the benefits would be 1.3 to 2.9 times the cost. Researchers have highlighted a number of scale-up strategies — including increasing student to tutor ratio, incorporating tutoring into the school day, and hiring professionals and volunteers as tutors — that could help lower the price tag without compromising quality.
  • To address this widespread crisis, policymakers and researchers are exploring cost-effective avenues to scale up evidence-based tutoring models nationally. In particular, the professional-led tutoring programs have garnered considerable attention given their relative cost-effectiveness compared to teacher-led tutoring. Others are exploring the possibility of expanding AmeriCorps, which could help evidence-based tutoring programs like SAGA scale up further. Countries like the Netherlands and England have already allocated funds to create a national tutoring program to address COVID-related learning loss.

What this Means:

If unaddressed, COVID-era learning loss may harm students for decades to come. For policymakers seeking to combat this crisis, scaling up tutoring is a safe bet that is backed by a robust body of evidence. To maximize its impact on learning loss, a national expansion of tutoring programs should be carried out in a way that follows the evidence. Given limited resources, a national tutoring program should first allocate funding to tutoring models that have a strong evidence base, for example, programs that utilize trained tutors or can be implemented during the school day. Moreover, a national tutoring initiative should utilize data to determine communities that have fallen furthest behind during the pandemic and would most benefit from tutoring. An increase in federal funding could also go towards supporting specific programs that have already been rigorously evaluated and deemed effective, such as Saga Education. Finally, a federal commitment to support tutoring presents a rare opportunity to generate evidence around newer forms of tutoring, including virtual tutoring and tutoring that focuses on racial equity. This will allow policymakers to pull back programs that are less effective and scale-up those that are having an impact on learning loss.

  • Editor's Note: The analysis in this memo is based on “PreK-12 Tutoring Programs and Student Learning Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence,” by Andre Joshua Nickow (Northwestern University), Philip Oreopoulos (University of Toronto), and Vincent Quan (J-PAL North America, MIT). NBER Working Paper 27476, July 2020.

  • Topics:

    Coronavirus / Education Policy / Inequality
    Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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