A Long-Term Strategy for Funding High-Quality Tutoring

With millions of students struggling academically in the wake of the pandemic and a raft of research pointing to high quality tutoring as an effective way to raise student achievement, it’s not surprising that upwards of 80 percent of public schools offered some form of tutoring in the 2022-23 school year.

The looming question now is how school districts can continue tutoring programs after federal Covid-relief funds are depleted over the next year or so. A new study looking at four districts in Tennessee offers one suggestion: use allowable funding streams for Response to Intervention (RTI), a program designed for early identification of struggling students that is often a first step in identifying students with disabilities. While RTI itself doesn’t have dedicated funding, districts can use federal Title I, Title II, or IDEA Part B Coordinated Early Intervention Services to support RTI.

Tennessee launched a statewide Response to Instruction and Intervention Framework in 2014 that directs districts to provide almost five hours a week of support to struggling students. With so much evidence that “high-dosage” tutoring works—tutoring that happens within the school day at least three times a week in small groups with the same tutor over the course of a semester—there’s no reason that those five hours of intervention couldn’t be tutoring.

Researchers at the non-profit education policy organization Tennessee SCORE found that students, especially those at the lowest achievement levels, learned more with tutoring than with other district interventions. The researchers also found that tutoring programs closely aligned to schools’ curriculums are most effective. Districts, according to the research team, use a wide array of budget approaches to fund these interventions, including federal, state, and local dollars. In other words, if a district has already budgeted funds for RTI, this study suggests that high-dosage tutoring is the most effective strategy for struggling students.

Districts already using RTI have likely addressed one of the key challenges to implementing effective tutoring—the school schedule. If a school has already planned for an intervention block, then a built-in time for tutoring already exists. The Tennessee study also shows that the “who” doing the tutoring can vary but achieve the same results. One district hired independent tutors on part-time contracts; a second used certified educators hired specifically for tutoring; another used a mix of educators and teachers-in-training; and the fourth used a wide array of tutors, including parents who wanted to work part-time. All of them received the same training and materials. All four of the districts showed student-achievement gains.

But sustaining tutoring programs at scale in a post-Covid funding landscape means making tough choices in a resource-constrained environment and weighing existing programs against newer programs and determining which will help students the most. Tennessee SCORE’s new report is interesting for both identifying a way to use ongoing federal funds to support tutoring and reminding education policymakers and practitioners that aligning academic interventions to curriculum is both crucial and achievable.