Could Tutoring Be the Next Big Bipartisan School Reform?

This piece originally appeared in Washington Monthly.

For most people, the lesson of pandemic schooling was that remote learning was an unmitigated disaster for America’s K–12 students, especially those from lower-income families. Learning loss at all ages was profound. Chronic absenteeism nearly doubled. The achievement gap that separates rich and poor kids widened.

And the disaffection of that dark period is still with us: Parent satisfaction with education has plunged to a 23-year low. Donald Trump and other Republicans have sought to capitalize on the discontent by pushing for public funding of private schooling in the name of educational freedom.

But just as wars force governments to innovate—think of the GI Bill providing millions of returning World War II veterans with free college tuition—the damage done by the COVID school shutdowns led to a grand federally funded experiment in education: a vast expansion of tutoring programs in public schools.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the mammoth $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to help the nation recover from the pandemic. The bill earmarked $122 billion for the nation’s schools—the largest single investment of federal education funding in the nation’s history—through a program called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER). States and school districts spent the windfall, and earlier ESSER monies, on laptops, sanitizing materials, HVAC systems, psychologists, summer school, new textbooks, and much more. But we estimate that $7.5 billion or more went to new tutoring programs. As many as 80 percent of U.S. school districts have launched or strengthened tutoring programs since the start of the pandemic, according to the federal School Pulse Panel, bringing tutoring to millions of low-income students for the first time.

Three years later, the impressive results of this experiment are becoming clear. Schools that simply made online help available to students who sought it out saw poor results. But schools that implemented “high-impact” tutoring—where students work in small groups during the school day with the same tutor in 30-minute sessions three times a week over several months—have been strikingly successful. Those programs are producing an average of more than four months of additional learning in elementary literacy and nearly 10 months of additional learning in secondary school math, says Susanna Loeb, a Stanford education economist who leads a highly regarded tutoring research center. “The effects we see for high-impact tutoring are larger than what we see for most other education interventions, including class-size reduction, extended day, and technology support for students,” Loeb says.

When Congress unanimously passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the GI Bill in 1944, it was out of fear that the vast numbers of returning veterans would swamp the U.S. labor market and drive up unemployment. Little did lawmakers know that funneling millions of veterans onto college campuses would create the foundation for a vast expansion of the American middle class. Similarly, when Biden and congressional Democrats funded the American Rescue Plan, they saw it as a temporary measure—the program is scheduled to wind down when the funding expires in September—to avert the worst effects of the pandemic on student learning.

But now that the value of high-impact tutoring is emerging, policy makers on both sides of the aisle have begun to embrace the strategy. The Biden administration has proposed $8 billion in its fiscal 2025 budget for grants to states and school districts to support academic recovery through tutoring and other strategies. And governors in deep-blue New Jersey and Oregon and red-running Tennessee and Florida have pledged funding to continue tutoring once the federal relief ends. The support prompts the question of whether the nascent tutoring movement could be the foundation of a new, bipartisan campaign to improve the nation’s struggling public schools.

In a sense, it shouldn’t be surprising that high-quality tutoring is effective. Affluent families have long used it to help their kids. One measure of the demand for outside support: The number of private tutoring centers—charging an average of $300 a month and out of the financial reach of many families—more than tripled between 1997 and 2016, from roughly 3,000 to nearly 10,000.

Though students from modest backgrounds didn’t get a lot of tutoring before the pandemic, what they did get helped. A review of 89 tutoring studies between 1985 and 2020 by the researcher Andre Nickow of Northwestern University and colleagues found that the average elementary school student gained four additional months of learning with tutoring. Research led by the University of Chicago found that high-impact tutoring in Chicago public high schools doubled or tripled the amount of math the students were learning. And in 2015, a research review concluded that federally funded AmeriCorps tutors using high-quality methods were “effective in promoting academic achievement, especially at the early grades and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” But despite the encouraging results, the public education system provided tutoring to only a smattering of its 49 million students.

That changed after COVID closed the nation’s schools. By the time the pandemic was over, students in grades three through eight had lost the equivalent of half a year of learning in math and a third of a year in reading. The pandemic didn’t just cause learning loss because kids weren’t in school or were attending in remote or hybrid environments that didn’t facilitate learning as well as classrooms. It also widened the spectrum of student achievement so that when students came back into classrooms, teachers were faced with even larger differences between the highest- and lowest-performing students. Congress told school districts they had to use at least 20 percent of their share of the $122 billion in ESSER funds to reverse pandemic learning loss and gave them only three years to do so. In that environment, and with stellar research results piling up, tutoring became a watchword of the education world. New programs proliferated in public schools, and a variety of innovative tutoring models emerged.

Jackson Elementary School in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, is using one of them. The principal, Megan Phillips, calls the school “one of the poorest districts in maybe the poorest state in the country.” The big employer in the area is a state prison. Decades ago, the nonprofit Teach for America trained and placed Phillips at Jackson as a novice teacher. She’s been there ever since. When COVID struck, TFA asked Phillips whether she wanted her school to participate in the new national tutoring program they were launching, called Ignite Fellowship. The program would hire and train mostly undergraduate students to provide high-dosage virtual tutoring in reading or math, tapping into a huge reservoir of tutoring talent on college campuses.

Phillips jumped at the chance. Soon, Jackson Elementary students in grades one through three were receiving sessions on reading fundamentals multiple times a week with their undergraduate tutors, who log in from around the country to work with the same two or three students for 10 weeks. So far, the work has paid substantial dividends. In the 2022–23 school year, Jackson Elementary saw a 56 percent increase in the number of students scoring “proficient” on their early literacy assessment.

Meanwhile, TFA’s Ignite Fellowship program grew considerably thanks to the federal funding. Last year, more than 1,500 undergrads from 300 other colleges and universities tutored 3,500 elementary and middle school students across 100 schools in 21 states, making Ignite the nation’s largest tutoring program enlisting college students exclusively. Fifty-seven percent of the Ignite fellows were people of color, and, strikingly, 350 became public school teachers the following year.

Ector County Independent School District in oil-rich West Texas also tapped the ESSER funds, using a different model to bring tutoring to its largely Latino student population. It hired two vendors, Air Tutors and FEV Tutor, to provide remote tutoring via video links. Ector deploys a pioneering strategy called outcomes-based contracting: The district pays the providers more when students show academic growth—and less when they don’t—to incentivize results, saving public money when they fall short. The model has worked: Half the Ector students who scored below grade level on the previous year’s Texas state assessment and received at least 20 hours of tutoring climbed up to grade level, or higher, after only a year.

Great Oaks Charter School in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which primarily serves low-income students of color, tapped into another promising source of tutors: AmeriCorps members. Under the federal AmeriCorps program, some 36,000 people, many of them young adults, work at more than 9,000 schools up to 35 hours a week for a year in exchange for a stipend, health benefits, and a modest college scholarship. Great Oaks uses its nearly three dozen full-time fellows not just to help struggling students but also to assist with classroom instruction and head off the teacher shortages that plague public education.

Great Oaks designed its school day around tutoring, placing up to six fellows in each of the 304-student middle school’s English and math classes and doubling the duration of the periods. With the extra time, teachers first instruct the entire class, then tutors work with students in small groups during what’s called a workshop period, freeing up teachers to circulate and give extra help where it’s needed. As a result, students get much more individualized instruction than is possible in traditional classrooms. Great Oaks students who started the 2022–23 school year at the 25th percentile or below in math ended the year at the 43rd percentile, on average. And by supporting teachers in their classrooms—AmeriCorps tutors also prepare instructional materials, proctor exams, and grade assignments—and relieving them of many of the non-teaching duties that can make the profession so draining, the Great Oaks tutoring strategy keeps teachers teaching and sources new talent: Half the school’s teachers started as tutors.

While studies have found that a wide range of people can be effective tutors—retired teachers, stay-at-home-parents, and “professional” tutors hired by third-party vendors, among others—there’s evidence to suggest that enlisting college students might pay the biggest dividends. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s undergraduates could offer the small-group support at the heart of high-impact tutoring to 25 percent of the nation’s elementary students. The work also helps defray college costs and is far more meaningful than flipping burgers in the college cafeteria. The federal work study program provides a way to pay college students. And there’s evidence to suggest that college students who work as tutors are more inclined to enter the educator workforce.

Not all of the new federal money is going toward well-designed tutoring programs. For example, many school districts, hoping to spread their federal pandemic funds as far as possible, purchased a low-cost online model that requires students to reach out for help, typically outside of the school day, rather than building tutoring into their school schedule the way Ector County, Great Oaks, and Ignite schools do. Few students, researchers found, reached out for help.

But at least 10 percent of the nation’s 49 million public school students have received “high-impact” tutoring since the pandemic. At least six studies of the nascent tutoring movement have come out this year, and they found that high-impact programs yielded consistently strong results in their many permutations. In one instance, 800 Florida kindergarteners were randomly assigned to participate in a new model of reading tutoring that has students work with tutors for just 10 minutes at a time, several times a week. Almost 70 percent of tutored students reached the district’s kindergarten reading goal, compared with 32 percent of untutored students—and the program cost $375 per student.

Another innovative organization, Reading Futures, drew on dyslexia research to design a tutoring model for students with learning disabilities or those far behind in reading. In one school district testing the model, students made more than a year’s worth of reading progress in a semester. The intensive program is expensive, at $3,000 per student, but researchers reported that comparable dyslexia tutors charge upward of $5,000 annually.

Could the early success of high-impact tutoring bring policy makers together for a renewed bipartisan push to improve America’s public schools? Such a movement has happened before.

In the early 1980s, business leaders and governors of both parties—including two who would become president, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—joined forces to champion higher academic standards and government requirements to hold schools accountable for student results in the name of racial equity and economic competitiveness. The so-called standards movement spurred improvement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal government’s gold standard measure of student achievement, reported increases in student achievement in reading and math from 1994 to 2012, especially for Black and Hispanic students. But over time, support for the movement collapsed. Teachers’ unions objected to their members’ job security being tied to test results. Middle-class parents balked at the proliferation of tests, which they felt routinized their kids’ classroom experiences. And conservatives opposed what they saw as heavy-handed mandates from Washington. In 2015, President Barack Obama signed legislation that largely gutted federal accountability regulations.

Like the standards movement in its earlier days, right now tutoring enjoys the support of governors from both parties. But unlike the standards reforms, the federal backing for tutoring isn’t highly prescriptive and doesn’t endanger educators’ jobs if achievement lags. Not only has this encouraged schools to innovate, it has also proved popular with teachers, who view tutoring as a boon to their work. It’s no accident that the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has endorsed the tutoring movement. Tutoring represents a rare point of convergence of a national policy priority, solid research evidence, and what educators on the ground need and want.

And at about $1,500 per student per year, high-impact programs are a relative bargain, given their results. We estimate that it would cost about $15 billion a year to tutor 20 percent of the nation’s students intensively—double the estimated percentage of the public school population that has received high-impact tutoring since the start of the pandemic. That’s a fraction of public education’s $857 billion combined federal, state, and local spending.

But it’s still a lot of money. Will political leaders rally around the nascent tutoring movement as federal pandemic school aid winds down? It’s encouraging that a few states, both red and blue, are putting their own funds into tutoring programs, but it’s not enough to fully compensate for the loss of ESSER money in the fall.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has talked up tutoring, urging colleges and universities to target work study funding at tutoring and prompting school districts to tap the department’s $18 billion program for low-income students and other federal funding streams to pay tutors. There are several other ways, however, that the federal government could put more money into tutoring to replace ESSER funds.

First, it could increase funding for AmeriCorps’s well-regarded and road-tested tutoring efforts. Second, it could expand the federal work study program to give more students job opportunities in tutoring. Both of those options would provide schools with an increased pool of low-cost, talented tutors. But both would be heavy lifts politically. Colleges jealously guard their work study slots as a source of cheap labor for their institutions. And House Republicans would zero out work study and halve the AmeriCorps budget if they had their way.

A third avenue would be simply to put more money directly into tutoring—in effect, extending the ESSER program, as the Biden administration’s $8 billion budget request would do. Legislation providing future federal funding for high-impact tutoring has been introduced in the House and Senate.

There is scant chance of Congress passing Biden’s proposal between now and November, a Democratic House education staffer told us. But election years are ripe for politicians running for office to advance new policy ideas—especially ones on issues that voters care about, like the quality of their children’s educations, and that have a strong track record of success.

It’s time to get the word out.