A growing body of evidence indicates that many students will enter the 2021–22 school year with a substantial amount of unfinished learning. The tendency of educators may be to use benchmark assessments to determine the extent of unfinished learning and then group those students according to how far below grade level they’ve fallen. While benchmark assessments can be helpful, evidence suggests that grouping struggling students in this manner is not the approach to use because it leads to them spending most of their time below-grade-level work.
A consensus is emerging among well-respected organizations with instructional expertise that schools should instead focus on accelerating these students and supporting them to participate in grade-level instruction. Targeted support to help all students reach grade-level goals should be curriculum-specific, and the support itself should focus on the most critical skills and knowledge students need to master by the end of the school year. Researchers and practitioners are focused in particular on the potential of intensive tutoring to address learning losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Articulate the most critical instructional content priorities and benchmarks for grade-level success and focus instruction accordingly.
- Maintain grade-level instruction for students with unfinished learning and use regular assessments to deliver just-in-time acceleration, as needed. Teaching at grade level is about keeping up, not catching up, but using frequent formative assessments can identify missing skills or content knowledge so that gaps can be addressed at the right moments.
- Extend the school day to provide high-impact, high-dosage tutoring using proven practices. These include student-tutor ratios no greater than 4:1, instruction that complements classroom lessons, ample time to meet at least three times each week, and sustained relationships between students and well-supported, well-trained tutors.
David Steiner and Dan Weisberg write that “‘meeting students where they are’ and trying to remediate learning deficits often just results in having to meet them even further back next year. It stigmatizes students and reinforces inequities.... Instead of delaying access to grade-level work for students who’ve fallen behind, we need to accelerate it.”
In her book Learning in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put ALL Students on the Road to Academic Success, Suzy Pepper Rollins writes, “Remediation is based on the misconception that for students to learn new information, they must go back and master everything they missed.” Rollins goes on to say that while the primary focus of remediation is mastering concepts in the past, acceleration prepares students for success in the present. “Rather than concentrating on a litany of items that students have failed to master, acceleration readies students for new learning. Past concepts and skills are addressed, but always in the purposeful context of future.”
When it comes to reading, schools must take care not to rely on assessments, instruction, or remediation that focus primarily on comprehension skills or strategies, nor should they steal instructional time from social studies and science. Students should not be tested for their individual “reading levels” and then limited to books at those supposed levels. In schools using English language arts curricula that focus on such skills and strategies, it’s also unclear what concepts students would be deemed to have missed during the pandemic, given that the same skills and strategies are covered every year.
A number of well-respected organizations, including Student Achievement Partners, Council of the Great City Schools, Achievement Network, the Center for Assessment, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, and TNTP, have provided guidance related to acceleration to address unfinished learning. In all cases, the advice is in support of grade-level instruction for students.
The Evidence Project, a collaborative research effort led by the Center for Reinventing Public Education “to close the gap between research and policy in K–12 responses to Covid,” published a paper with this specific advice: “Focus on what’s most important for a student to know to engage effectively in the first major unit or two of the instruction.” As a teacher moves forward in the curriculum, experts suggest working in grade-level teams to identify the most critical prerequisite skills and background knowledge students will need to access the upcoming content and address this in “real time,” as the unit is being taught.
Student Achievement Partners, whose founders are the lead authors of the Common Core State Standards and other college- and career-ready standards, issued a helpful document in the summer of 2020 that identified the priority instructional content in ELA/literacy and mathematics. Publishers have used this document to support teachers in collapsing content that is not as essential to the major work of the grade and pulling in material from units that students missed previously, as needed.
Scott Marion of the Center for Assessment argues that off-the-shelf assessment products are disconnected from the instruction they intend to measure. A better approach is to select instructional materials that come with aligned assessments baked into them, through both formal assessments and other opportunities throughout the curriculum itself to assess student learning such as exit tickets, written work, or student discussions. As Student Achievement Partners notes, such an approach is a “deliberate alternative to assessment choices that have the potential to serve as a gatekeeper to grade-level content.”
The choice of curriculum can help. For example, there is evidence that the kind of writing instruction embodied in The Writing Revolution’s method can help compensate for significant gaps in background knowledge and facilitate acceleration. In a high school where many students lacked sufficient preparation for grade-level work, its adoption led to significantly higher graduation rates and AP participation and performance, as well as improvements in other measures of achievement over a three-year period. If such an approach can compensate for ten years or more of deficient in-class education, it is likely to help with the negative effects from the much shorter period of remote schooling during the pandemic.
An important programmatic feature of any school’s acceleration design must be the strategic use of tutoring. The recently deceased education researcher Robert Slavin, former director of the Center on Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, has argued that intensive tutoring is, by far, the most effective intervention for students who have fallen behind. Given the scope of the challenge, he said, “it would be malpractice to do anything less than tutoring.”
The educational benefits to high-dosage tutoring are immense. A meta-analysis of nearly 200 research studies finds that high-dosage tutoring has a far greater effect on math and reading outcomes than even early childhood interventions. Gold-standard randomized experiments have demonstrated the incredible gains students can make with the help of a tutor. For example, in Chicago, at-risk high school boys rose from the 38th percentile to the 46th percentile of math achievement. Furthermore, tutoring is an intervention with the potential to scale well across contexts. In Houston, high-dosage tutoring models successfully transferred from high-performing charter schools to lower-performing traditional public schools.
In addition to significant learning loss, students have spent the past year feeling increasingly disengaged from their school communities. Tutoring and similar mentoring programs, such as Success Mentors in New York City, have been shown to improve attendance and engagement among students. As reported by Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, students with at least one positive and stable adult relationship are far more capable responding successfully to traumatic events. Tutors can fill that need for at-risk students recovering from the pandemic. Tutors can even meet this need in a virtual capacity, as a fully remote tutoring program in Italy significantly improved the psychological well-being of students in the spring of 2020.
The new National Student Support Accelerator, housed at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, launched to accelerate the growth of high-impact tutoring opportunities for K–12 students in need. The accelerator coordinates and synthesizes tutoring research and uses that research to develop publicly available tools and technical assistance to support districts and schools to develop high-impact tutoring programs for students.
The accelerator began with a group of national education leaders seeking solutions to pandemic disrupted learning. Initial research by the group quickly identified tutoring as a promising solution because of its effectiveness relative to other academic interventions, its spillover effects such as increased student engagement, and its potential to improve the pipeline into teaching by providing opportunities for a large and diverse group of potential teachers to work with students, building their skills and their understanding of teaching.
The accelerator also found that not all tutoring is equitable or effective. No Child Left Behind’s Supplementary Education Services (SES) invested heavily in tutoring, yet only 23 percent of eligible students participated and evaluations showed little benefits, on average (see Heinrich et al., 2014; Zimmer et al., 2010).
Their synthesis of the extensive research on tutoring identified seven elements that distinguish high-impact tutoring. The Covid-19 disruptions and an influx of federal funding provide opportunity to scale this high-impact tutoring so that all students who can benefit from it have access. The accelerator is providing the research-backed tools and technical assistance to support implementation so that districts can take advantage of this opportunity to embed effective and equitable tutoring into schools for the long-run.
These characteristics mirror research-based recommended supports for students with disabilities and echo recommendations published by the Institute for Education Sciences in its Practice Guides on Response to Intervention. Specifically, effective tutoring programs should include:
- A minimum of three sessions of at least thirty minutes per week.
- Sustained and strong relationships between student and tutor.
- Student-tutor ratios no greater than four to one.
- Close monitoring of student knowledge and skills.
- Alignment with the school curriculum.
- Oversight of tutors to assure quality interactions.
Matthew Kraft and Grace Falken of Brown University recommend that tutoring be made available to every student and incorporated into the school day, including by extending the school day by thirty minutes. By providing a tutor to every student, schools can decrease the stigma around receiving extra help and eliminate the perception of tutoring as a “punishment” for low performance. Incorporating tutoring into a part of the regular school day also promotes “regular attendance, better coordination with teachers, and a stronger academic culture,” say Kraft and Falken.
Extended learning time has been shown to be a successful strategy for delivering additional needed instruction. For example, targeted instruction provided to select students over school breaks and weekends at turnaround schools in Massachusetts both improved student achievement and lowered suspension rates. But given the urgency and wide scale need for additional instruction, extending the school day to allow for tutoring is likely to be a far more implementable and sustainable strategy.
We are impressed by the advice of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics as it relates to just-in-time support for students due to pandemic-related school interruptions, and think it has implications for this tutoring strategy as well. The council advises:
There are better options than using testing at the beginning of the school year to assess a laundry list of prerequisite understandings from previous grades that would consume a significant amount of instructional time. Prerequisite skills or understandings that may have been missed as a result of Covid-19 could be strategically taught right before the connected unit of study or incorporated as spiral review or as part of instructional routines and procedures. Teaching these skills as connected to grade-level or course-level content deepens students’ mathematical understanding.
Before each unit of study, teachers should collaboratively identify prerequisite understandings, using sources such as the Mathematics Coherence Map, that will build the foundational understanding for the essential learning in each unit of study students are about to enter. They should collaboratively plan how to support students in making connections to previous learning, incorporating tasks and lessons that build conceptual understanding before the unit of study.
Schools and districts can staff tutoring efforts by tapping teacher-preparation programs, paraprofessionals, and trained volunteers. Tutoring should be delivered to students identified by classroom teachers and be closely related to classroom instruction. Tutors might preview upcoming grade-level content or address unfinished learning relevant to upcoming lessons.
An important caveat is that much of the research on tutoring fails to distinguish between different kinds of tutoring: math, decoding, or reading comprehension skills and strategies. (There has been little or no tutoring in social studies, science, or any other content area, especially at the elementary level.) A recent meta-analysis observed that “curriculum and other pedagogical characteristics of tutoring interventions remain mostly black-boxed in our review.” It also found that, in reading, the benefits of tutoring are highest at lower grade levels, after which there’s a “pattern of declining returns.” A strong possibility is that, as grade levels go up, decoding skill becomes less important and background knowledge becomes more important because more complex texts assume more background knowledge. Reading tutoring in the earlier grades that focuses on decontextualized comprehension “skills” should be avoided, since it will only set students up for failure at higher grade levels, just as with regular classroom instruction. On the other hand, math tutoring tends to be more effective in later grades.
Moreover, effectively scaling up tutoring programs is no easy feat. Context and quality matter. For high-dosage tutoring to be grown to benefit many more students than it already does, policymakers will have to make well-informed choices and do more than just throw money at these programs. In other words, implementation is everything.
Nothing in this discussion should be confused with a lack of commitment to addressing diagnosed special learning needs with appropriate Tier II and Tier III instruction. This discussion relates specifically to learning losses attendant to Covid-related school closures. Though by extension, much of it could also apply to students with learning gaps or unfinished learning due to other circumstances, such as chronic absenteeism, ineffective prior instruction, previously undiagnosed special needs, social-emotional challenges, or lack of exposure to phonics or other essential parts of the curriculum.
Allensworth, E., Schwartz, N. (2020). “School Practices to Address Student Learning Loss.” EdResearch for Recovery Project, Brief No. 1.
- This useful and succinct policy brief outlines key rationales for and promising strategies to implement high dosage tutoring programs.
Baye, A., Inns, A., Lake, C., and Slavin, R. (2018). A Synthesis of Quantitative Research on Reading Programs for Secondary Students. International Literacy Association Reading Research Quarterly. 54 (2), 133-166.
- This review of experimental research identifies categories of programs that show positive outcomes on widely accepted measures of reading, one-to-one and small-group tutoring being among them.
Carlana, M., Ferrara, E. L. (2021). “Apart but connected: Online tutoring and student outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.” HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP21-001, February 2021.
- A virtual tutoring program implemented in Italian middle schools during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic substantially increased academic performance, socio-emotional skills, aspirations, and psychological well being. These effects were greater for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and for immigrant children.
Dietrichson, J., Bog, M., Filges, T., Kling Jorgensen, A. (2017). Academic interventions for elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic status: A systemic review and meta analysis. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 243-282
- This meta-analysis reveals tutoring to be a highly effective educational strategy for low-socioeconomic status students, followed closely by feedback and progress monitoring.
Fryer, R. (2016). “The production of human capital in developed countries: Evidence from 196 randomized field experiments.” NBER Working Paper 22130.
- This meta-analysis reviews nearly 200 field experiments to identify the relative impacts of a variety of interventions on educational outcomes. High-dosage tutoring generates the most substantial and consistent academic benefit to students.
Gersten, R., Beckmann, S., Clarke, B., Foegen, A., Marsh, L., Star, J. R., & Witzel, B. (2009). “Assisting students struggling with mathematics: Response to Intervention (RtI) for elementary and middle schools. (NCEE 2009-4060).” Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C.M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., and Tilly, W.D. (2008). “Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045)”. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Goldstein, Michael, and Paulle, Bowen (2021). “The narrow path to do it right: Lessons from vaccine making for high-dosage tutoring.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Kidron, Y., and Lindsay, J. (2014). “The effects of increased learning time on student academic and nonacademic outcomes: Findings from a meta-analytic review. (REL 2014-015).” Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.
Kraft, Matthew A., and Falken, G. (2021). “A Blueprint for Scaling Tutoring Across Public Schools. “(EdWorkingPaper: 21-335).
Lake, R. and Olson, L. (2020). “Learning as We Go: Principles for Effective Assessment During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Center on Reinventing Public Education, University of Washington Bothel.
- Cautions against using assessment results “as a gatekeeper to grade-level content or to track students into low-level content, which may increase the achievement gap and historically have been much more likely for English language learners and students of color.” Instead, assessment results should identify students’ strengths and “build on those strengths while addressing their needs.”
Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2020). “Moving Forward: Mathematics Learning in the Era of COVID-19.”
- NCTM encourages grade-level teams to work, with the support of district leaders, to identify essential learning and focus on the major work of each grade. It points to the Mathematics Coherence Map by Student Achievement Partners to identify prerequisite understandings that can help target supports to students with gaps.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience,” Working Paper 13. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Nickow, A., Oreopoulos, P., Quan, V. “The Impressive Effects of Tutoring on PreK-12 Learning : A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence,” NBER Working Paper, July 2020
Panero, N. (2016). Progressive mastery through deliberate practice: A promising approach for improving writing. Improving Schools. Vol 19(3), 229-245.
Slavin, R. (2018). “New Findings on Tutoring: Four Shockers.” Robert Slavin’s Blog.
- One finding is that tutoring by paraprofessionals was at least as effective as tutoring by teachers. Slavin postulates that among the reasons tutoring works is that, in addition to individualization, it provides nurturing and attention.