Tutoring to accelerate learning
A 2020 meta-analysis of 96 randomized evaluations of tutoring programs showed that tutoring results in impressive learning gains for students. Eighty-seven percent of evaluated programs improved academic outcomes, most by the equivalent of receiving an additional half year of school. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, policymakers have turned to this research to inform policies to combat unfinished learning. The state government of California drew on this rigorous evidence when it passed Assembly Bill 86, allocating US$4.6 billion for expanded learning opportunities to help students catch up. This bill allots funding for tutoring, including US$460 million specifically to hire paraprofessional tutors.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread unfinished learning in the United States.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of students were behind grade level in the United States. In 2019, 41 percent of fourth graders were considered “proficient” in math. This figure drops to 34 percent by eighth grade. For reading, 35 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders met or exceeded the 2019 proficiency benchmark.1
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue. Inconsistent learning environments, low attendance, and inequitable access to educational technologies and resources have culminated in an unprecedented educational crisis. Research shows that students have learned just 87 percent of the reading and only 67 percent of the math that their grade-level peers learned during more typical years.2
Once students are behind, it can be difficult to catch up. Falling behind in early years of schooling impacts many students into adulthood. Research has linked third grade reading proficiency with high school graduation rates, noting that students who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school than children with proficient reading skills.3
Poverty exacerbates these issues: students from low-income families are more likely to begin school already behind their more affluent peers and face challenges catching up.45 Furthermore, school districts that serve large populations of students of color and students from low-income families receive less funding for student resources than those serving student communities who are predominantly white or affluent.6 Consequently, throughout the pandemic, students at schools that primarily serve students of color have learned an even smaller fraction of what their peers learned in a typical year––77 percent of reading and 59 percent of math.7
Research indicates that tutoring programs have consistently large, positive impacts on student learning across a wide range of program characteristics.
J-PAL education Co-Chair Phil Oreopoulos (University of Toronto), J-PAL North America Co-Executive Director Vincent Quan, and Andre Nickow (Northwestern University) conducted a meta-analysis of 96 randomized evaluations of tutoring programs. The meta-analysis focused on literature from high-income countries and studies that examined the impact of tutoring on academic outcomes. The results of the meta-analysis are summarized in J-PAL North America’s Evidence Review, The Transformative Potential of Tutoring for Pre K-12 Learning Outcomes: Lessons from Randomized Evaluations.
The meta-analysis defines tutoring as one-on-one or small group human (i.e. non-computer) instruction aimed at supplementing, rather than replacing, classroom-based education. The research team aimed to analyze the existing body of rigorous literature on tutoring interventions to identify which forms of tutoring are most effective and for whom. Such insights inform education leaders’ decision making as they seek to implement effective programs to help students catch up.
The meta-analysis found that tutoring programs had consistently large, positive impacts on students across a wide range of program characteristics.8 Eighty-seven percent of the evaluated programs improved academic outcomes for students, most by the equivalent of an additional half-year of school. The magnitude and consistency of the findings point to tutoring as one of the most impactful tools available to educators for improving student learning. The review offers the following key insights:
- Tutoring programs led by teachers or professional tutors—tutors who are paid and trained—are generally more effective than programs that use nonprofessional (volunteer) or parent tutors.
- The effects of tutoring programs tend to be strongest among students in earlier grades, though a smaller set of programs at the secondary level were also found to be effective at improving learning outcomes.
- While overall effects for math and reading tutoring programs are similar, reading tutoring tends to be relatively more effective for students in preschool through first grade, while math tutoring tends to be more effective for students in second through fifth grade.
- Tutoring programs conducted during school tend to have larger impacts than those conducted after school.
For more information, read the evidence review.
From Research to Action
Findings from J-PAL’s meta-analysis informed state efforts to address unfinished learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, including California and Colorado lawmakers’ decisions to pass legislation allocating funding to supplemental education programs.
The federal government and multiple states have identified tutoring as a priority area for investment to accelerate student learning. Citing J-PAL’s meta-analysis, the United States Department of Education recommended tutoring as a strategy to address the impact of lost instructional time.
In late 2020, J-PAL North America staff met with individuals at the California governor’s office to discuss the evidence on tutoring and the actionable insights highlighted by the meta-analysis. These conversations, particularly the findings about the impressive potential of professional tutors, influenced the inclusion of tutoring in Assembly Bill 86, including the US$460 million allocated to hiring paraprofessional tutors.
Assembly Bill 86 has the potential to benefit California’s six million public school students.9 In June 2021, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) adopted plans for how to utilize these funds, many of which include developing high-impact tutoring programs. The state recently began allocating funds to LEAs across California, and schools are starting to implement their plans.10
Throughout the bill development and fund allocation process, J-PAL North America provided ongoing consultation and support to the California State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and various organizations that provide technical assistance to schools and districts across California. J-PAL staff presented at multiple webinars hosted by the California AfterSchool Network, the California Department of Education Expanded Learning Division, and the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to help education leaders design tutoring programs that adhere to research-based principles.
J-PAL also developed resources to support education leaders to adapt evidence-based tutoring programs to their specific contexts. J-PAL and these California partners continue to work together to ensure that public funds for tutoring are being directed towards evidence-based approaches.
Other states also turned to J-PAL’s evidence on tutoring to influence legislation. In June 2021, the Governor of Colorado signed a bill creating the Colorado high-impact tutoring program, which will provide US$5 million in grant funding to local education providers to create high-impact tutoring programs. Advocates behind the bill drew from J-PAL’s evidence review to inform the characteristics of tutoring outlined in the legislation.
For more on how research by J-PAL affiliates has impacted tutoring programs, read the case study on the scale-up of Saga Education's intensive math tutoring program.
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). 2022. "Tutoring to accelerate learning." J-PAL Evidence to Policy Case Study. Last modified January 2022.