How to Cover the Varied World of Tutoring

School districts across the United States are investing millions of dollars to build and invigorate tutoring programs with the hope that the extra attention will help students rebound academically after disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Districts and charters are spending, on average, $136 per student in tutoring using federal pandemic relief funding, according to the think tank FutureEd. Tutoring comes in many different forms: Some programs take place during the school day while others are held after school or during extended breaks from school.

But the explosion of programs, including digital tutoring services that promise around-the-clock help to students, raise many questions education reporters should ask. Namely, whether schools can keep up with the cost of tutoring programs, whether they will find qualified candidates to tutor struggling students, how educators will decide which students to prioritize and how schools will measure student success in tutoring.

Resources for Writing About Tutoring 

This resource will help journalists get up to speed on tutoring during the pandemic and cover the complexities of this story in their communities.

How Much Federal Relief Money is Going to Tutoring?

Here’s how some districts across the country are spending federal COVID-19 funding on tutoring:

David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, said his district has focused on ramping up tutoring during the school day and is hesitant to add programming after school when students may already be burned out.

“Our parents have routinely told us, ‘Give us what our kids need while they’re at school,’” he said.

Law estimates that his district is using about 30% to 50% of its federal relief funding specifically to help students who are behind academically.

But while policymakers and parents are clamoring for academic recovery, the ongoing pandemic complicates that process, Law said. Educators are contemplating just how much time should be dedicated to tutoring, as they balance academic needs with social-emotional needs.

“There’s this disconnect between the adult perspective of kids falling behind and parents of children thinking, my kid needs to be a kid,” he said.

What Are States Doing?

Some states are mandating targeted instruction, such as tutoring, for students who lag academically based on state testing results or other assessments.

For example, Texas lawmakers mandated “accelerated instruction” for students in grades 3 through 8 who scored below grade level on state assessments. Students must either be assigned to a classroom teacher with a high rating, or they must receive at least 30 hours of tutoring in the subject area they didn’t pass.

The Austin Independent School District in Texas fills tutoring needs through an after-school tutoring program that links volunteers from the community with students who need the extra support. Parents and caregivers apply for the tutoring services for their students, said Corrina Noriega, the program’s coordinator.

Getting enough tutors has not been a problem for Austin, Noriega said, because the program has sought volunteers through a range of partnerships, including with the University of Texas and the City of Austin, which gives employees volunteer hours. The tutoring program then trains volunteers.

“We match them up one-on-one with students and give them all of the resources and materials they need,” she said.

The program originally began at local libraries but has shifted online amid the pandemic.

What Does Pandemic Tutoring Look Like?

Tutoring can take many forms, but a common strategy to support pandemic recovery is called “high-dosage tutoring,” typically with three or more sessions per week of required tutoring, according to the National Student Support Accelerator, a program based at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Studies have found high-dosage tutoring to be particularly effective, and generally, research on tutoring has found the practice improves student achievement, particular for struggling students.

Researchers at the Annenberg Institute recommend a few different best practices in tutoring.

They recommend three or more tutoring sessions per week lasting 30 to 60 minutes per session for at least 10 weeks.

Tutoring is still found to be effective when groups of students are brought together. Small group programs in which groups of students focus on a single subject during school breaks can help students who may have fallen behind. The researchers point out that tutors can still be effective if they’re not educators. Studies show AmeriCorps members and teaching assistants can still effectively step into the role of tutor.

Important, too, is measuring the success of tutoring programs, according to the Annenberg report. Reporters covering tutoring programs should ask schools whether they’re assessing children before and after receiving tutoring and what kind of assessment. The report recommends tutors use material that complements what students learn from their classroom teachers and that there is some evidence to suggest that coordinators who connect teachers and tutors may help bolster the success of tutoring programs.

The pandemic has also seen a rise of interest in online tutoring.

Sandi White, with the for-profit Tutor.com, said the on-demand, online tutoring her company provides grew from 1.3 million sessions in 2019 to 1.6 million sessions in 2020. It then grew to 1.7 million in 2021. The organization has also seen a rise in demand for services from K-12 schools. The organization connects tutors to students – Some school districts contract Tutor.com to provide services districtwide, and individual families can also sign up for tutoring.

While school districts and other industries have struggled to hire through the pandemic, White said her organization has seen an uptick in interest from people wanting to become tutors. The online, flexible nature of the gig may help make the job more attractive to applicants. According to information provided by Tutor.com, tutors for the site are vetted to “demonstrate their subject-matter expertise” and on their knowledge of “effective tutoring methodology.”

Boston Public Schools, meanwhile, partnered with Paper, a company promising 24/7 tutoring services.

The explosion of online tutoring from for-profit companies in particular also raises questions over efficacy, as Dana Goldstein with The New York Times reports. Online, it may be harder to keep tabs on students who need consistent tutoring, and it may also be more difficult to track student success before and after tutoring.

Three Ideas for Tutoring Stories 

  1. Ask who is receiving tutoring in your district or state. Tutoring has long raised questions over equity, with some parents  paying for private tutoring services after school that other families cannot afford. Are districts more effectively bridging that gap with pandemic relief funds? Or is that gap widening with an increased emphasis on tutoring?
  2. Ask school leaders and examine whether hiring tutors is feasible in your state. Hold schools accountable if they’ve promised to expand tutoring programs with federal aid but have yet to hire tutors. Who is the district trying to recruit? What qualifications do they need to work as a tutor?
  3. Follow students in tutoring programs in your state from the first session to the very last. Make sure to note how their school tracks progress and how schools choose which students are enrolled in tutoring programs. Is there communication between teachers and tutors? What’s the district’s philosophy around tutoring?

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