'High-Impact’ Tutoring: Why It’s Exactly What America’s Students Need

So many people have suffered as a result of the pandemic. But there’s one group who may pay the price for an especially long time: America’s children. As schools start to reopen this spring, and federal funds begin to flow into states and municipalities, what can we do to make up for kids’ social, emotional, and academic loss?

Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown, has some ideas. At the top of the list? Tutoring. To help spread what she and her team call “high-impact” tutoring to a wider range of communities, they’ve created The National Student Support Accelerator, a one-stop resource for schools and teachers to develop effective, long-term tutoring infrastructure in schools. On this episode, Sarah talks with Susanna about the definition of “high impact tutoring,” how to make it scale, and why it’s exactly what America’s students need right now.

You can learn more about the National Student Support Accelerator here.

You can read more about the story of its creation here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. So many people have suffered in so many ways as a result of the pandemic. But there's one group who may pay for an especially long time.

We may never fully understand how the closing of in-person schools affected children's development the past year. But the effects we do know of on learning loss and mental health are profound, especially disturbing are the hugely unequal impacts often falling along lines of race and class. So as schools start to reopen this spring, and much needed federal funds come in to states and municipalities, we need to look at what we can do to make up for this loss.

Susanna Loeb director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown has some ideas. At the top of the list, a classic you could say reinvented tutoring. As Susanna explains, tutoring shouldn't just be seen as a luxury item for privileged kids. Guided long term tutoring what Susanna calls high impact tutoring is one of the most proven interventions to address learning loss in schools.

To help spread high impact tutoring to a wider range of communities, Susanna and her team have created the National Student Support Accelerator, a one stop resource for schools and teachers. We talk more about this new program in the episode. But we start by looking at the highly unequal experiences school children have had in this pandemic. Here's Susanna.

SUSANNA LOEB: I think what is particularly difficult is some students really didn't lose very much because of the pandemic while others really have lost a lot. And the ones who have lost a lot have also really disconnected from school. So they may not have had any contact with school or it has been such little contact that we really have to think about how to get them back in there, and in the routines, and the processes that help to engage them in school and help them be successful overall.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, I have two questions about what you just said. One is breakdown for us who those kids are, who the kids were risking we might lose. And then do we have any data on how easy or difficult it is to get kids back once they've disengaged?

SUSANNA LOEB: Those are really good questions. And we don't know exactly which students have stopped coming to school and which haven't. But we see the effects are much bigger in low income and non-white communities.

And these communities often have been less well-served in the past as well. So it really exacerbates some of the serious inequalities that we had even before the pandemic. So the pandemic really has increased inequalities and shown us so clearly that it is our responsibility to address them and make sure they're not there. But there were serious inequalities before the pandemic as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: So kids who might not have internet at home, or even laptops, or iPads, and maybe parents who have to go out and work?

SUSANNA LOEB: I think part of the problem is conductivity. But probably not the main problem. That students to connect him to school will need a laptop or a computer that they can use, that other people in their house aren't using at the same time. They need a quiet space to work. They need somebody to help them get situated if they're young.

So I think we do worry a lot about high school students who disengage. Because once they disengage, it's harder to get them back into school. But it hasn't been the case before that we really have these large numbers of elementary school students who aren't going to school, and we've had that during the pandemic. So we're not even used to having to re-engage those kinds of students, that age student in school.

And so it is a new thing. I think many students will be happy to be back in school because they have their friends and all of the wonderful things that school brings. But it will be hard for other students to come back in.

SARAH BALDWIN: Let's talk about what the Annenberg Institute is doing. I know there's a new initiative to help start to reverse those losses. Is that too ambitious to say?

SUSANNA LOEB: That is what our hope is. So we've had a couple of projects focused on how to help schools in this new situation that the pandemic produced. And one of them is called EdResearch for Recovery. And that's a really broad initiative aimed at providing all sorts of information. So we went out to districts across the country and collected information on what their questions were, and then tried to bring to bear as much knowledge as we could experts around the country to answer those questions.

So that's one part of what our response has been. We wrote briefs and we worked with districts to figure out their strategies moving forward. So that's one thing.

But we'd really been thinking about what do we know from prior experiences in prior research could be a really effective way of helping students excel in school when they're each coming in with different levels of knowledge. They've each had different experiences. And high quality tutoring really emerged as the approach that has amazing evidence of effectiveness more than really any other kind of intervention in schools.

It has a clear interest among parents because parents have invested so much. The middle and high income parents have invested a lot in tutoring.

And we have these programs and knowledge that's available on what really makes tutoring effective that can help us bring it to schools in the way that was much more difficult for schools to implement in the past. So what we did at the Annenberg Institute was work with a group of educators to think what we could do to help scale tutoring, but with really high quality and really making it sure that the students who need it the most get it.

SARAH BALDWIN: Just to be clear. What we knew about high quality tutoring or high impact tutoring? We already knew that pre-pandemic. We had the data on that.

SUSANNA LOEB: In the past decade, a good amount of research has come out that shows that certain kinds of tutoring can be really effective. So we did have the evidence even before the pandemic. There's new evidence now that some online work can be effective.

As you can imagine during the pandemic, many tutoring programs have moved online. And now, we see that they can be effective in that way as well. So we are getting new evidence all the time.

But we knew this before. But it had been hard to implement at scale in the past. And the pandemic in some ways has presented an opportunity for us to implement it at scale.

SARAH BALDWIN: So talk to me about the National Student Support Accelerator. What is that?

SUSANNA LOEB: Yes. So we took a look at the history of tutoring and the effectiveness of tutoring. And really asked ourselves, why hasn't tutoring scaled in the past? And what we found is that when we've tried to scale it, in fact, it hasn't been that effective. And that's in part because we haven't been really clear about what high impact tutoring is.

So when people think of tutoring, sometimes they think, well, what tutoring is a student is having problems, and homework, and brings a homework question to an adult, and ask that question and the adult helps them with it. That isn't really what high impact tutoring is.

High impact tutoring is a long term relationship between student and adult, where they work at least three times a week at least 30 minutes a week together. They really work on the holes that students have in their learning, or the next things they need to know in order to excel in their classes. It's a much more structured kind of tutoring than we might think of tutoring in the past.

Because many students don't really know that they missed adding fractions. And that's why algebra is so hard. Or that there's some part of reading that could be easier for them if the tutor could help them on that one earlier skill. And so having a program that is more informed and more structured is really where we see the big effects.

SARAH BALDWIN: I want to dive down a little bit deeper into that and just ask you more about what you're finding that really does make tutoring effective. And also, are you measuring just how beneficial high impact tutoring can be concretely?

SUSANNA LOEB: Yes. So we are currently running of a number of pilot programs around the country in order to understand how to implement high impact tutoring effectively. But the evidence is already out there on its effectiveness. And for high schools, it really can add a year or a year and a half of learning to over a course of a year. In elementary schools and early elementary schools, it adds half a year of learning.

So these are really big effects that it has. Those aren't from our studies, but from the compilation of a whole number of studies that are out there are already.

SARAH BALDWIN: The components of effective, high impact tutoring you said were frequency, regularity, and then the quality of the tutor.

SUSANNA LOEB: Yeah. There are a few things. One of the most important things is to make sure that the students who need it get it. And one way to do that is to embed tutoring in schools.

So in high schools, there's often an extra period that students have, where they can have tutoring. In elementary schools, it can be in the school day or maybe right after the school day, so that you really have the students there.

So embedded in the schools is one aspect of it. A high amount of tutoring. So again, a number of days a week for 30 minutes for younger students, 45 minutes for older students, that's really important. Then you want the tutors to be effective.

And what's been so interesting in the study of tutoring is that certified experienced teachers make very good tutors. And that's terrific. But they're not the only kinds of adults who make good tutors.

They're a group called paraprofessionals who are often college graduates. But not always college graduates who are working in the schools and can be effective.

Other kinds of programs that bring in tutors. Those can all be effective. As long as they have good oversight, so you need somebody watching out to make sure that the tutors are doing a good job and they have high quality materials. So some tutoring programs really have excellent materials that help the tutor understand what the students need and then provide really engaging materials to help them master that material.

Data is really important for high impact tutoring and that data is the information that tutors need to know what to focus on. And it can come from assessments that the tutoring program does with the students or from interactions with teachers. So teachers can bring that information to the tutors, which is one of the nice things about being embedded in schools.

Underlying the whole process really needs to be a focus on equity. Because it's that equity driven mission of these programs that keep them working towards reaching the students who need it, making sure the students have these close relationships that can really engage students, and make them excited about the material, and also make them excited about other things in school.

SARAH BALDWIN: You did answer one of my bigger questions, which is, what does it look like? But I did wonder, why are we just focusing on improving public education?

SUSANNA LOEB: Well, it's always important to focus on improving public education. And public education isn't necessarily bad. So you have a teacher. And the teacher has 25 students or 30 students in her class at a time.

And to reach each student, and make sure that they get the supports in the areas that they need is a lot of work for teachers. But to have to have that close interactions, those one-on-one or one-on-two interactions with each student in the class is I think nearly impossible for any teacher to be able to do it no matter how terrific the teacher is or the school system is.

There any students whose families can afford it provide tutoring even when they're in a very good school. And that's because no matter what's going on in the classroom and how terrific the teacher is, those kinds of additional supports can only supplement and make the school better.

SARAH BALDWIN: I always thought of tutoring as either something that privileged families pay for, or something that's extra. But you're saying it's actually integral to the school environment.

SUSANNA LOEB: If you think about it, many students in the US fail classes in high school. So they fail algebra. It's really a very typical thing to do.

They often then have to retake algebra. If instead, while they were going through it, you could have someone say you're having trouble here because this other area, you've just missed this from fifth grade or sixth grade or seventh grade. Then they can work on that, and the student can see how much more smoothly through their classes. And so it can really be an efficient, as well as an effective approach to helping students learn.

SARAH BALDWIN: I think that one-on-one or one-on-two human interaction is so interesting. And I wonder if there are other things at work that make that so effective. Other things meaning not just focused attention that addresses a specific problem, but are there psychological factors do we know?

SUSANNA LOEB: Yes. So every tutoring provider that we've talked to, everybody who tutors says that the most important thing is not the content, but it's the relationship. And I think it's probably some combination of the two of those things. But that relationship is very important.

During COVID, for example, I've talked to tutors who have been working in these kinds of programs. And they say that their students come to the tutoring session much more than they come to class. Because you really get that attention that you need as a student.

There's somebody there who really wants to serve as your champion, that really wants to make sure that you succeed. And the two of you succeed together. And that's a very rewarding experience both for the student and for the tutor.

And in some of the studies that have been out there, they've looked not only at the effect of tutoring on the subject that you're tutoring. Let's say you're tutoring math in a particular grade. They also look at the effects on other subjects in other things. And they find that a tutoring in one subject has spillovers to other subjects and leads to students attending school more.

So you can just see in there that these close relationships form, it makes schools seem like a more positive environment, a more appealing environment for students, and can really have these broad and long term effects on students well-being.

SARAH BALDWIN: The pandemic has revealed so many inequalities. Some schools don't even have soap in their bathrooms. How is the accelerator proposing that those schools not be left behind if this actually ramps up?

SUSANNA LOEB: Well, the accelerator is driven by an interest in inequity and in reducing inequalities in opportunities for students to have excellent education. And so our focus is really on the places that need it the most.

But I do think, of course, that it's not just tutoring that the places need. I think the pandemic has been striking not only in how it's affected students and how unequal those effects are, but it's been striking because it's uncovered inequalities that have been there for such a long time. And that we weren't focusing on.

So my hope is that it gives us the opportunity to really focus where the needs are, put our resources there, make sure that the students there get terrific school buildings that they do have soap. But they also have computer labs and teachers who are well-trained and really engaging and effective in their classrooms.

And so my hope is that this new focus on the importance of equity and on the inequalities that are out there will really be sustained over time, so that we can make some progress in ways we weren't making as much progress as we wanted to before.

SARAH BALDWIN: And this is a naive question. How is this to be paid for?

SUSANNA LOEB: One of the reasons that even though we knew that tutoring was really effective. We couldn't get it embedded in schools as part of the core curriculum. Because while it is likely very cost effective, it is also costly, which means that you really have to reallocate funds to it.

And that's very difficult to do in more difficult times. However, again, the pandemic may give us an opportunity to do that because we're going to have an influx of funds. We've already had some funds coming in that are supposed to be used for addressing the results of the pandemic and accelerating students learning as they return to school. And tutoring is really well set up for that.

So I think what the new federal funds will do is allow schools to put tutoring in and to try it out. And if we can help as many places as possible, do it with quality. Then our hope is that they will see that it's effective, and that it will be effective for them. And so they will choose to keep it.

My hope is that there isn't so much a funding cliff then as a slow reduction in the funds coming in. Because I think if there's a slower reduction in the funds in the new funds coming in, then it will be possible to maintain tutoring over time as it gets embedded more and more into the regular school day and core instruction.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, besides funding, what do you think the biggest barrier to this happening? Is it that the data hasn't been there, or it's a mindset, or it's seen as extra?

SUSANNA LOEB: Yeah. So one I think schools really have had a heavy load during this last year to say the least. That they've so much has been thrown at them. That to think about another change is really difficult.

So I think that's one of the biggest barriers facing. Schools right now is just exhaustion. So I think that's one.

In the past, one of the bigger barriers to implementing tutoring has been scheduling to try to figure out how to get the schedules set up, so that tutoring can fit in. I'm actually more optimistic, again, because schedules have been so messed up this year that this scheduling will not be as much of a problem going forward.

But I do think the exhaustion right now is a real issue. And so doing whatever we can to make it as easy as possible for something that's as effective as tutoring. And there could be other things that are also good to be putting into to help students with this transition making it as easy as possible to put these highly effective approaches into schools right now I think is really important. And that's why we have the accelerator and what we've been trying to do with it.

SARAH BALDWIN: I was thinking about this. And it seems to me that if there were by and for widespread scaled up tutoring in our schools, it's a fantastic employment opportunity.

SUSANNA LOEB: I completely agree. I think there are multiple benefits of tutoring. So we've been focusing on the most important one, which is for students. And really engaging the students who have been left out during the pandemic, and also others who have just not had the educational opportunities that they should.

On top of that, tutoring also has a lot of benefits for tutors. So for the tutors themselves, they get an opportunity to work with students and see what that's like. Particularly if they're young college students or just after college, they could see if they're interested in teaching.

It can provide a pipeline, a new pipeline of teachers that can come from the communities, where the students live. We could get a pipeline of teachers with skills that have been difficult to find in the past like speaking multiple languages, or high school math, and some high school science areas.

And it could serve right now in a time when there's so many young people who are unemployed or underemployed to provide really meaningful employment in the transition and give them good skills because teaching and working with students really does develop a lot of skills among the tutors themselves.

SARAH BALDWIN: Who do you hope will go to investigate the accelerator? Is it practitioners like teachers and administrators, or is it policymakers, or is it both?

SUSANNA LOEB: That's a great question. So we have different kinds of outreach for different kinds of audience. And I really think of the website not as much of if you build it, they will come a place where you just put it there and ignore it.

But one that provides us with a base of information, so that when we're out there interacting with people, there's a source of information that they can go to then. So we have a number of districts coming to us who are interested in implementing high impact tutoring. And so it's set up for them. And it's set up for people who want to run tutoring programs or take the tutoring programs that they have, and expand them.

So this new set of tools that we have, which is really almost too depth can really provide information, first, on how to think about the goals. But then even things like here are sample letters home and things like that. Hopefully do this work of making the process easier.

And then we have some things recommendations for states that people who are interested in effecting state policy or national policy can use. So what is high impact tutoring? How is it possible to fund it? Those kinds of questions.

SARAH BALDWIN: Well, it's a great, great project. And I do hope our listeners will go and explore it. Thank you so much for talking with us, Susanna. It was really interesting to learn about the accelerator.

SUSANNA LOEB: Good to talk to you.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Ilina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

I'm Sarah Baldwin. If you like us, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Or if you have a friend who you think would like the show, tell them about it.

If you want to learn more, we've put a link to the National Student support accelerator in the show notes. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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