High-dosage tutoring programs have expanded significantly, with nearly 40 percent of schools now using individual and small-group tutoring with trained teachers or tutors four or five days a week. This approach has been shown to boost student learning, but it can also be expensive. A new study by the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University suggests virtual tutoring could be a less-costly option, if it remains as intensive and rigorous as in-person tutoring.

"We're pretty clear on the big picture about what makes tutoring work, and it is focused on intensive, relationship-based, individualized instruction," said Kathy Bendheim, managing director of the National Student Support Accelerator. After-school tutoring has spotty attendance records, she said, and on-call, web-based tutoring may not be tailored to the student or used very frequently, either.

Thankfully, states and districts aren’t sitting on their hands in the face of learning loss. Supported by billions of dollars of federal funds, many have invested heavily in tutoring programs that promise to help struggling children overcome the challenges imposed by past school closures and virtual instruction. The question is whether those efforts work for enough students to justify their cost — and according to data generated by the National Student Support Accelerator, a Stanford initiative devoted to studying the effects of tutoring, there is reason for hope.

Transformative change in education often begins with a powerful story. Increasingly, high-impact tutoring is that story, where students find both significant academic success and personal confidence in their abilities. Rhyne Richards—a 6th-grade student in Washington, DC.—met several times each week with a tutor, Ms. Burns, to overcome math challenges. Rhyne’s journey speaks volumes. “I get distracted a lot [in class],” Rhyne admitted. “But when I’m with Ms. Burns, I learn a lot; a lot more than I knew last year.” It’s a testament to the remarkable impact of intensive, one-on-one tutoring. “I’m proud of myself,” Rhyne continued. “Before, I didn’t really know math like I do now. But now I can do it myself. I want to be the smartest person in the world.” Rhyne’s regained confidence in math and optimism for the future epitomize the profound evidence for and influence of intensive, relationship-based, individualized instruction—it is a narrative we must tirelessly work to replicate and scale.

Those results are not unique to Oakland. Another recent study on a virtual early literacy tutoring model called OnYourMark found minimal impact in second grade. The lack of growth could be due to a mismatch between tutoring and testing, said Susanna Loeb, a Stanford University professor who leads a nationwide tutoring research center and conducted the OnYourMark research.

Stanford’s National Student Support Accelerator suggests various tutor trainings along with online pre-service trainings such as Saga Coach. The training level of tutors also impacts tutor payment with some models proposing payments of $20 per hour for non-professionals and payments of up to $50 per hour for teachers and professional tutors.

What makes tutoring high-impact? According to the National Student Support Accelerator, it involves substantial time each week, sustained and strong relationships between students and tutors, close monitoring of student knowledge and skills alignment to school curriculum, and oversight to ensure quality interactions. 

“A lot of districts really want to provide additional support for their students. They want to do it in an equitable way and they want to do it in a sustainable way. One of the things that we’ve seen is that starting big and not being able to do [tutoring implementation] smoothly sometimes backfires,” said Nancy Waymack, director of research partnerships and policy for the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University, which studies K-12 tutoring trends. “Starting by focusing on a smaller group of students, and really making sure that they have the full support of a consistent tutor, on a very frequent basis, in a data-driven way that’s really aligned with the curriculum is a way that’s going to work really well.”