The tutoring revolution: How it could transform education

Raymond Jiang was scrolling through Instagram this past June – a way to pass time during a summer of no camps or social gatherings, after a high school freshman year that ended early – when he came across a post from education innovator Sal Khan.

For this 16-year-old son of Chinese immigrants living in the suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mr. Khan was something of a rock star. Mr. Jiang had used Khan Academy, Mr. Khan’s nonprofit offering free online classes, to pass trigonometry and pre-calculus the summer prior. Now, he saw, Mr. Khan was looking for people to join his newest enterprise: schoolhouse.world, a free, global, online tutoring network.

Mr. Jiang loved calculus. He was thrilled by the idea of working with Mr. Khan himself. So he applied to be one of the organization’s first math teachers.

Why We Wrote This

If tutoring is adopted broadly, some envision a world where school buildings will matter less in the future and everyone, young and old, can be both a teacher and a learner.

A few states away, Carl McGrone was also “driving around online just to have something to do,” as he puts it. A 52-year-old Mississippi native who works in a Waterloo, Iowa, pork processing plant, Mr. McGrone was studying to get his high school diploma when he came across Mr. Khan’s new venture.

Although he is not usually “a guy to get involved with something online,” Mr. McGrone signed up to be one of the first students with schoolhouse.world. He met Mr. Jiang in algebra class. 

“Raymond – he took me to a whole new level,” Mr. McGrone says. 

The teen just had a great way of explaining facts, he says. Mr. Jiang, for his part, says he bonded with the older man over their shared interest in wrestling. 

“There are so many things I like about it,” says Mr. Jiang, who has tutored everyone from adults such as Mr. McGrone to teenagers worried about their grades. “It makes me feel good. I’m impacting someone’s life.” 

Timothy J. DeBruyn/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Raymond Jiang of Oklahoma tutored Carl McGrone of Iowa on algebra.

As the United States and its schools enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers, educators, and families are struggling to address everything from learning loss among K-12 students to new pressures befalling the country’s nearly 7 million adult learners. Increasingly, they are narrowing in on an old, but potentially now groundbreaking, intervention: tutoring. 

Research shows that tutoring can be hugely effective at closing academic achievement gaps. This has prompted a new, bipartisan push for expanding tutoring in schools, whether through a new national “tutoring corps,” a constellation of innovative initiatives such as schoolhouse.world, or some combination of both.

But as Mr. Jiang and Mr. McGrone are quick to attest, tutoring can do far more than improve an individual’s test scores. It can create connections across age and place. It can build a global community and bridge socioeconomic divisions. Indeed, supporters say that there is a chance in this moment to use tutoring not only for pandemic recovery, but also to fundamentally change the way we envision, and deliver, education. Implemented creatively and broadly, tutoring can create a world where grades and school buildings matter far less than they do now, and where everyone, young and old, can become both a teacher and a learner. 

“We are having a moment of national enthusiasm about tutoring, motivated by the pandemic and the acute challenges it has presented for student learning,” says Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University who has been at the forefront of the push for a national tutoring corps. “But if we only see tutoring through the lens of COVID recovery, we will lose out on a fundamental opportunity.”

Thomas Wells/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal/AP/File

Daniel Tores enjoys his after-school tutoring session at a Catholic Charities center in Vardaman, Mississippi, in March 2020.

A learning-loss fix

There is no clear consensus about how much learning children have lost from a year of remote and interrupted school. But some educational assessments have revealed substantial dips in both math and reading – and researchers worry that the impact is greater even than these tests show. 

The nonprofit assessment group NWEA, for instance, found during its fall testing that children on average scored 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math than they did in 2019. But researchers also noticed that a large number of students hadn’t taken the assessment at all – and those who were absent were disproportionately low-income and students of color. In other words, those students most likely to be struggling anyhow were not taking the test, which meant that the results were likely skewed high.

“The biggest red flag for us is that the kids who are tested are not a representative sample,” says Karyn Lewis, a research scientist at NWEA.

Data released earlier this year from Ohio showed a similar pattern. There, a lower percentage of students scored above the state’s “proficient” level in reading than at any time in the past four years. Ohio has also reported a dramatic increase in chronic absenteeism, with nearly half of Black students recurringly out of school in sampled districts. This mirrors findings from the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, which estimated that 3 million students nationwide – mainly those most at-risk, such as children who are homeless – have stopped attending school altogether. 

Although it is impossible to predict the long-term education impact of all this, statistical models show a clear connection between learning loss, absenteeism, lower college graduation rates, and a decline in lifetime earnings.

“We’re still really measuring it,” says Kristin Blagg, senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy. “But it’s right to start thinking about interventions now, since the evidence we have is that there are gaps that are going to need to be mitigated.”

Tutoring is one way, researchers say, to effectively close those gaps. “We’ve done a review of research about summer school; we’ve used others to look at the outcomes of after-school programs and extended day – at adding time to the school day – all of which are the kinds of things people are talking about,” says Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. “All of these things, on average, produce positive results. But nothing compared to tutoring.”

When Dr. Slavin talks about tutoring, he means a particular kind of educational connection. He and others describe this as “high impact” or “high dosage” tutoring, where an instructor is matched with either one student or a small group of students, and where tutoring happens multiple times a week, integrated into the school day. 

New research from the University of Chicago’s Education Lab found that Chicago public school students who received high-dosage math tutoring learned two to three times as much as their peers.

“It is one of the most positive results of any education innovation,” says Monica Bhatt, a senior research director with the Education Lab.

Politicians took note.  

“As cities begin to rebuild from the pandemic, leaders across the country should act on these findings and make high-dosage tutoring a priority to support students,” said Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in a press release. 

Indeed, a number of educational experts and policymakers are calling for a national tutoring corps, which would leverage federal resources to get hundreds of thousands of new tutors inside schools. Using partners such as Saga Education, the nonprofit that ran the tutoring studied by the University of Chicago, and organizations such as AmeriCorps, which already has an infrastructure to connect young people with nonprofits doing the work, the government could dramatically improve education for students across the country, supporters say.

There is precedent for this sort of scaled-up initiative. Both England and the Netherlands have launched tutoring initiatives in hopes of counteracting the educational impact of the pandemic.

It is not only the K-12 students who would benefit from a national tutoring initiative, proponents say. Dr. Slavin, who has pushed for a national tutoring corps, says a federally funded initiative that dramatically expands tutoring programs could also help new college graduates, who are entering the workforce at a time of high unemployment.

“Part of the concerted effort here is to find good jobs for 100,000 people,” he says. 

Neil Campbell, director of innovation for K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress, says this sort of collaboration – evidence-backed tutoring plus a jobs initiative for college graduates – could end up bolstering the school workforce long term. “I would hope this would introduce thousands of young people to career opportunities in education,” he says.

There are also benefits for the tutors, says Jim Balfanz, chief executive officer of City Year, a nonprofit that partners with AmeriCorps to bring 3,000 young people into underserved school districts. These primarily 20-somethings, who come from a diversity of economic, religious, and racial backgrounds, quickly learn how to work together, for a cause bigger than themselves. And that, he argues, is profound.

“The idea of service as a shared experience, where you’re on a team working side by side with people from very different backgrounds, working for something larger than yourself – that creates an incredibly powerful developmental moment,” he says.

A national year of service could both close educational achievement gaps and enhance a sense of civic engagement. “It shows that being a citizen and being part of democracy is not just about your rights and participation in a political process, but participating as a citizen,” Dr. Balfanz says.

Dan Crisler/The Public Opinion/AP/File

AmeriCorps member Tyus Gallegos-Jones helps Ayden Jensen, of the Boys and Girls Club of Watertown, South Dakota, paint in August 2019. Using organizations like AmeriCorps, which already have an infrastructure to connect young people with nonprofits doing the tutoring work, the government could dramatically improve education for students across the country, supporters of a tutoring corps say.

Concerns about scaling up

Dig into the talk about scaling up tutoring, though, and even supporters acknowledge that there is a worrisome background.

“I can think of very few interventions in the education sector that hold more promise,” says Dr. Kraft of Brown University. “That said, one of the truths of education reform and education research is that taking small-scale, effective programs and expanding them is universally difficult to do and often fails.”

Thinkers on the political right say this is reason to be skeptical about a large federal initiative. In an article for Education Next, Lisa Snell, director of K-12 education policy partnerships at the Charles Koch Institute, supported the idea of ramped-up tutoring in schools, but argued against a top-down tutoring “Marshall Plan.”

“A national, centralized tutoring program would create a slow response, where politics and process will stand in the way of students’ needs,” she wrote.

Many involved with today’s tutoring look back with concern at SES, the acronym for supplemental education services, a program that was part of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law.

Under that initiative, schools that failed to hit mandated achievement targets were required to offer students free tutoring programs. But there were few requirements for the tutoring groups that contracted with school districts.

“Every big company, every mom and pop company, people who had never done tutoring, they all came out of the woodwork,” Dr. Slavin recalls. Almost all offered their services during the summer or after school and struggled to keep students engaged. With profits tied to the number of students enrolled, some offered sign-up incentives like free iPods – only to see students collect a device and never return.

Few programs produced any meaningful academic gains, Dr. Slavin says. “The impact was near zero,” he says.

This is why both the type and the implementation of tutoring are going to be key, supporters say. And it is why David Hersh, the director of Proving Ground, an educational laboratory launched in 2015 that is connected to Harvard University, says that improving academic outcomes is going to have to be about more than just tutoring. 

“Let’s say we knew that tutoring was the best hope in the world,” says Dr. Hersh. “We’d still need to get that tutoring model, that effective thing, into the hands of educators who needed it. They would need to identify the students [who would benefit from it]. It would need to be set up well to make sure that it could be implemented the way it was designed. And implementation is a huge, huge challenge in education.”

The focus of Proving Ground is to help with this step. It creates new processes for schools to test and make improvements, right down to the particular message that goes out to parents whose children have missed too many school days. With quick prototyping and adjustment, it distributes lessons learned to key decision-makers and districts, helping schools shift away from the slow, bureaucratic processes that many see as a hindrance to educational reform.

“We’re trying to use the lens that the pandemic has created to motivate people to realize that much more fundamental change is required,” says Dr. Hersh. 

In other words, it’s not just adding tutors – it’s changing the way schools try new things and even how they understand “academic achievement.” Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive editor of Education Next, agrees.

“Yes, we need high-dosage tutoring, we need more learning time, we need expanded mental health for kids,” he says. “But if all schools do is to add those services on what they usually do, and what they usually do is mediocre – that’s not going to get us there.”

“This is an opportunity”

That is exactly how Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education, sees it.

“What we need to do is to think outside the box,” she says. “We’ve always known that there’s been this dirty little secret in education, that we had these inequalities. COVID pulled it out from under the rug. Now this is an opportunity to reinvent what education can look like.”

In her state, this has taken a number of different forms. Rhode Island ran a summer program for students for the first time in 2020. It opened an All Course Network of virtual and in-person classes to any student in the state. And it partnered with schoolhouse.world to connect Rhode Island students with online tutoring – and maybe even with Raymond Jiang or one day Carl McGrone, who says he wants to be a tutor himself in the future.

Ms. Infante-Green admits that she was a bit skeptical when she first heard about the online tutoring site, but agreed to have her 13-year-old son try it out.

“He met a few times a week with a tutor. I was amazed at the progress,” she says.

And that, she says, along with the state’s relationship with Khan Academy, convinced her that Rhode Island should at least give it a try. 

“We have a tendency of doing things in these steps that take a long time,” she says. “That’s part of the educational bureaucracy. COVID has blown that out of the water. We know we need to do things differently.”

Drew Bent, chief operating officer of schoolhouse.world, says that more state partnerships are in the works. Already New Hampshire and Mississippi are actively using schoolhouse.world to get tutoring to its students; soon other education departments across the country will follow suit.

“Tutoring fits into everyone’s model,” Mr. Bent says. “No matter what you believe about education, tutoring plays a part.”

This, after all, is how Mr. Khan got involved in education in the first place. Khan Academy grew out of Mr. Khan’s experience tutoring his cousins while he was still working as a hedge fund analyst. 

Juan Gonzalez/EFE/Newscom/File

U.S. mathematician and educator Sal Khan (left) visits students at a school in Gijón, Spain, on Oct. 17, 2019. His education platform, Khan Academy, offers free online classes worldwide, and last year he launched an online tutoring service.

The number of people using Khan Academy’s online video lessons skyrocketed during the pandemic. And it became clear, Mr. Khan says, that access to real-time learning was missing for a lot of young people.

He decided to test out a platform that would let volunteer tutors offer free small-group tutoring to anyone in the world. Skeptics wondered where the tutors would come from. But that didn’t end up being a problem – they had a flood of people going through the schoolhouse.world certification process to teach, from retired physics professors to “really incredible 14-year-olds,” Mr. Khan says.

It turned out that many people enjoy teaching – people, he says, “who would have loved to go into teaching but got sucked into finance or technology or law.”

As schoolhouse.world expanded, it started building partnerships with urban school districts and charter school networks. The idea, Mr. Bent says, was that teachers whose students needed extra help could put in a request for tutoring, and within days, dozens of high-qualified tutors would be ready to log on and help.

“The tutors love this,” Mr. Khan says. “When they see, here’s an urban school district that needs our help, these software engineers and professors in England, they say, ‘I want to do that.’”

Meanwhile, for the students, “you’re sitting in Long Beach, or some inner city, and your tutor is in upstate New York? Where’s that? Or they’re in England? Cool. There’s just something fun about that.”

Schoolhouse.world is geared for students age 13 and up. Younger students, education experts say, often do better person to person.

But that’s why educational leaders such as AJ Gutierrez, co-founder of Saga Education, the tutoring nonprofit that saw tremendous success is Chicago Public Schools, see benefit in a diverse system of high-quality tutoring innovations. “As we think about tutoring, it’s not just about accelerating academic performance,” he says. “As a district, there is a lot of benefit from infusing schools and communities with human capital.”

Bringing hundreds of thousands of young people into schools, expanding learning communities to include professionals across the world, re-imagining the schoolhouse walls and even incorporating new technology, such as adaptive learning and artificial intelligence, into the tutoring process has the chance to fundamentally transform education, he says.

“The work that we have ahead of us is really figuring out how to incorporate this not as an add-on, but part and parcel of how education is delivered in the United States,” says Dr. Bhatt, the University of Chicago researcher.

Dr. Slavin agrees. “When everybody comes back to school … there will be a sense of exhilaration, a ‘let’s get back to normal, let’s get back to what we used to do,’” he says. “That’s not going to do it. There have to be ways of using this tragedy to create something better than what would have happened without it.”  

This story was supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reporting about responses to social problems. 

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