Neitzel: Tutoring During the Summer Is a Great First Step Toward Fixing Pandemic Learning Loss. It Must Continue into the Fall

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There’s a lot riding on this summer. Schools are reopening their doors to in-person learning in the fall, and many see this summer as a chance to address the unfinished learning the pandemic leaves in its wake. But no matter how successful summer programs are, schools can’t expect to operate business as usual this fall. Tutoring must be a part of summer learning strategies — and of plans for the 2021-22 school year.

While the U.S. Department of Education declared summer programs key in efforts to address lost instructional time, school leaders can’t stop trying to accelerate learning at the end of this summer. Research on summer school programs with intensive reading supports for kindergartners and first-graders showed substantial improvements — but these had all but dissipated by the time those students reached the spring semester. It makes good sense to build on success over the summer and replicate those efforts as traditional school begins in the fall.

The urgent need for solutions to address pandemic-related unfinished learning is clear, but students falling behind is nothing new. Prior to the pandemic, many children in the U.S. already struggled to meet grade-level expectations. The pandemic only exacerbated this issue. An analysis by McKinsey & Co. in December shows that students on average started the 2020-21 school year about three months behind grade level in mathematics. This trend didn’t play out equally across demographics, however. White students were about one to three months behind, while students of color were three to five months behind. A solution that reaches large numbers of the neediest students is critical to close these widening achievement gaps.

My colleague, the late Bob Slavin, education researcher at Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of Success For All, was a fierce advocate for one-on-one and small-group tutoring using programs that research has shown helps students improve. High-dosage tutoring — personalized tutoring provided to students at least three times a week — is proven to accelerate learning.

Bob’s latest effort, ProvenTutoring, which launched May 4, just days after his sudden passing, is a growing coalition of more than a dozen evidence-based reading and math tutoring programs, shown to be, on average, nearly seven times more effective than summer programs without a tutoring component. Bob believed the effects of these programs could translate to a gain of 20 points in reading and 15 points in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Bob’s vision was to provide a one-stop shop of tutoring programs that rigorous evaluation shows are significantly effective at improving student achievement for K-9 students in low-income schools. These programs also have the capacity and willingness to serve large numbers of low-performing students, while maintaining the quality of implementation. Through the website, school administrators can access several tutoring program options that meet the needs of their students.

After such a tumultuous year, some education and youth development experts have argued that summer school this year should focus on reengaging students rather than building academic skills. We don’t need to choose between the two. Engaging students through trusting and supportive relationships is central to effective tutoring. In addition to academic instruction, students receive personalized attention, encouragement and support. Tutors, through these caring relationships, can serve as mentors, helping students re-engage in school and improving attendance as well as social, physical and mental health.

High-dosage tutoring requires investment, yes, but the human capital is there. Well-trained college graduates are shown to be just as effective as certified teachers in one-to-one and small-group tutoring. And with millions of young people graduating into a recession, tutoring can provide meaningful, full-time work and even a pathway to teaching — and an affordable staffing solution for school districts.

But the type of tutoring districts are investing in matters too. A Harvard study on nearly 200 experiments in education improvement found that high-dosage math tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage math tutoring. For reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. As for when tutoring is implemented, sessions that take place during the day have been found to be more impactful than after-school tutoring, with nearly double the effect size.

Substantial federal investment in tutoring has happened before. The Supplemental Educational Services component of No Child Left Behind invested heavily in tutoring for students but resulted in little to no benefits for students. One possible explanation is the use of unevaluated programs that had little to no evidence documenting their success in improving achievement. This is why rigorous evaluation is so important — school administrators should invest time and money in programs with a history of success.

The reality is we won’t be able to make up for a whole year in one summer. Tutoring must be part of a long-term effort to get all children on grade level in reading and math. Beyond addressing COVID’s effects on learning, tutoring provides an opportunity to fix long-standing inequities in education that existed long before the pandemic. It’s a chance for children to feel supported and encouraged after a long, difficult year of uncertainty and learning challenges. Students deserve solutions proven to work. They deserve long-term investment. Let’s start now.

Amanda Neitzel is an assistant research scientist at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and the spokesperson for ProvenTutoring, a coalition of organizations that provide highly effective tutoring programs to support students across the U.S. Before pursuing her Ph.D., she was a public school teacher.

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