Early Lessons from Implementing High-Impact Tutoring at Scale

Many education leaders are turning to high-impact tutoring to accelerate student learning and compensate for interrupted instruction due to COVID-19. As federal, state, and local tutoring policies and practices develop, understanding the key barriers and challenges that have the potential to limit program reach and hinder efficacy and then developing targeted approaches to overcoming these barriers can improve the likelihood of success and the ultimate benefits for students. The National Student Support Accelerator, an initiative of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, has partnered with over a dozen school districts and tutoring providers to implement tutoring programs, to learn from these efforts, and to develop tools and other resources to aid in the provision of high-impact tutoring broadly. This paper draws on interviews with Accelerator partners to provide an up-to-date view of the barriers to implementing quality, school-based tutoring at scale and promising practices to mitigate these challenges.

Across multiple studies and reviews of education interventions, researchers have found tutoring to have large, positive impacts on student achievement in both math and reading (Dietrichson, et al., 2017; Fryer, 2017). Tutoring programs can remain effective even as they expand to serve large numbers of students. For example, an analysis of fifteen larger-scale tutoring programs found that initiatives increased student learning by an average of 2-10 additional months (Nickow et al., 2020). However, not all tutoring programs are effective, particularly when implemented at a large scale. The federally-mandated after-school tutoring services under No Child Left Behind’s Supplemental Education Services (SES) program were found to have little to no effect on student outcomes, except in a few more regulated contexts (Heinrich et al., 2014).

Given the historical inconsistency of tutoring effectiveness when implemented at scale, how can we set current efforts up for success? The existing research base on challenges and barriers to effective tutoring implementation and how to combat them is slim. Many studies consider small-scale, localized tutoring initiatives, often driven and designed by researchers themselves, and few of these studies comment on program implementation. Those that do cite logistical challenges districts face in establishing regular time and space within the existing school day to conduct tutoring (Allor & McCathren, 2004; Al Otaiba et al., 2005; Bryant et al., 2011).

Much of what we know about program implementation comes from research on SES. This program required Title 1 schools to provide parents with the option of enrolling their student in additional learning opportunities to receive “extra academic help, such as tutoring or remedial help” during out-of-school hours (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). Researchers identify the program’s design as a key barrier to success as it depended on parents, who they argue may have limited capacity to discern provider efficacy and to choose from among available tutoring organizations. A qualitative evaluation of SES services found that the majority of students enrolled were not even receiving small-group tutoring but were instead participating in traditional, large-group classroom environments (Heinrich et al., 2014). The program also experienced low enrollment and attendance rates, a challenge which researchers attribute to a combination of after-school schedule conflicts, reliance on parents to identify, enroll, and in some cases, transport students to the programs, and minimal district financial capacity to support program development and administration (Heinrich et al., 2014). Additionally, a study of SES implementation across four large cities found that the average hours of tutoring received per student varied from 15 to 40 depending on the year and location, largely influenced by the availability of program funding (Heinrich et al., 2014).

The current push to expand tutoring diverges from SES in that, while many districts are drawing upon federal funding, few federal prescriptions exist for program design requirements except that programs should be “evidence-based” - for example, parents do not need to opt into tutoring for their children nor select the tutoring provider. Moreover, the challenge of ensuring quality SES providers was further exacerbated by the lack of existing, rigorous program evaluations for most organizations and lack of capacity at the district and state levels to fill these research gaps (Heinrich et al., 2010). The knowledge base identifying the elements of high-impact tutoring is much more clear today, though the knowledge of implementation challenges and successes is still sparse.

Over the late spring of 2021, we conducted 23 semi-structured interviews with 7 school districts, one charter management organization, and 12 tutoring providers. Three of these organizations participated in two conversations. From these interviews we focused on common challenges and barriers, identifying three overarching themes with 11 subthemes. Knowing these challenges can help focus tutoring implementation, pre-empting common barriers and maximizing the likelihood of program success.