Opinion: Tutoring can help if we avoid No Child Left Behind missteps

Among the most sought-after advice on University of Georgia parent forums: where to find an organic chemistry tutor. UGA students have long recognized the value of tutoring to gird them through what is considered one of the hardest classes on the campus. Now, the benefit of tutoring is being touted at the K-12 level to make up the ground lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

K-12 tutoring has been limited to affluent parents who can afford the $50-an-hour fees for top-rated reading and math tutors. That’s changing with the $122 billion coming to schools from the Biden White House’s American Rescue Plan. States are investing millions of their federal relief dollars to hire and train tutors to work with students who are not at grade level.

Decades of research affirm the value of individualized instruction to boost student learning. The problem is not all tutoring is quality, as evidenced by the billions wasted in the tutoring mandated in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

President George W. Bush’s sweeping education reform law required free tutoring for students in schools that failed to show adequate yearly progress for three years — the dreaded AYP designation was determined solely by test scores with how performance predictability aligned with high poverty. No Child provided $2 billion annually for Title I schools to pay for after-school tutoring.

Typically offered by outside contractors, the tutoring was not well monitored, and most states lacked the cash or capacity to vet providers or ensure students attended. It fell to parents to hold the tutoring firms responsible for their student’s performance. Until the practice was banned in 2006-2007, private companies enticed parents to enroll their kids in their programs with iPods, mall gift cards and movie passes. Multiple studies found the tutoring was not individual, intensive or consistent and made zero impact on academic performance.

So, how can schools ensure the billions in American Rescue Plan dollars won’t likewise be wasted?

“We know so much more now than we did then about what works,” said Allison Rose Socol, vice president for P-12 policy, practice and research at the nonprofit Education Trust.

What works, said Socol, is one-on-one tutoring or in small groups of less than four students by certified teachers or trained paraprofessionals. The tutoring must occur several times a week over an extended period and align with classroom curriculum. Those conditions enable the two critical elements, academic support paired with an ongoing relationship with a caring adult, she said.

Researcher Gary Henry has spent his career, including stints at Georgia State, the University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt, digging into what works. Now dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Education and Human Development, Henry said his research in North Carolina showed creating space in the school day to tutor students at the first sign of struggle was a highly effective intervention. The focus of the tutoring also matters.

“Students should still work primarily at their grade level during tutoring, rather than going back and trying to pick up skills they might have not picked up the year before,” said Henry. Giving students simpler, previous grade-level materials only causes them to fall further behind the grade-level material.

“Rather than focusing on items that students have failed to master previously, tutors can address missed concepts and skills that are most critical to accessing the upcoming content,” advises the report, “Accelerating Student Learning with High-Dosage Tutoring,” part of the EdResearch for Recovery series created by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University to detail best practices to address the COVID-19 fallout.

In a 2021 paper, Brown researchers Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken recommended tutoring become a core feature of public school classrooms to deepen learning, rather than an ancillary and temporary intervention tossed out when a child needs a lifeline. To offer tutoring at scale several times a week for 30 minutes, they propose a tiered model where high school students serve as tutors/mentors in elementary schools via an elective class, college students in middle schools via Federal Work Study and four-year college graduates in high schools via AmeriCorps.

Tutoring as a standing classroom feature rather than a rescue mission seems a ways off, although Socol believes education is more open to promising practices and research. “It is going to be important to collect data on tutoring programs because this is an opportunity for us to learn,” she said. “As we have more information on the impact these programs are having, we will be able to build on what is working well.”