Tutoring Works. But Let’s Learn How It Can Work Better and Cheaper

I was once at a meeting of the British Education Research Association, where I had been invited to participate in a debate about evidence-based reform. We were having what journalists often call “a frank exchange of views” in a room packed to the rafters.

At one point in the proceedings, a woman stood up and, in a furious tone of voice, informed all and sundry that (I’m paraphrasing here) “we don’t need to talk about all this (very bad word). Every child should just get Reading Recovery.” She then stomped out.

I don’t know how widely her view was supported in the room or anywhere else in Britain or elsewhere, but what struck me at the time, and what strikes even more today, is the degree to which Reading Recovery has long defined, and in many ways limited, discussions about tutoring. Personally, I have nothing against Reading Recovery, and I have always admired the commitment Reading Recovery advocates have had to professional development and to research. I’ve also long known that the evidence for Reading Recovery is very impressive, but you’d be amazed if one-to-one tutoring by well-trained teachers did not produce positive outcomes. On the other hand, Reading Recovery insists on one-to-one instruction by certified teachers with a lot of cost for all that admirable professional development, so it is very expensive. A British study estimated the cost per child at $5400 (in 2018 dollars). There are roughly one million Year 1 students in the U.K., so if the angry woman had her way, they’d have to come up with the equivalent of $5.4 billion a year. In the U.S., it would be more like $27 billion a year. I’m not one to shy away from very expensive proposals if they provide also extremely effective services and there are no equally effective alternatives. But shouldn’t we be exploring alternatives?

If you’ve been following my blogs on tutoring, you’ll be aware that, at least at the level of research, the Reading Recovery monopoly on tutoring has been broken in many ways. Reading Recovery has always insisted on certified teachers, but many studies have now shown that well-trained teaching assistants can do just as well, in mathematics as well as reading. Reading Recovery has insisted that tutoring should just be for first graders, but numerous studies have now shown positive outcomes of tutoring through seventh grade, in both reading and mathematics. Reading Recovery has argued that its cost was justified by the long-lasting impacts of first-grade tutoring, but their own research has not documented long-lasting outcomes. Reading Recovery is always one-to-one, of course, but now there are numerous one-to-small group programs, including a one-to-three adaptation of Reading Recovery itself, that produce very good effects. Reading Recovery has always just been for reading, but there are now more than a dozen studies showing positive effects of tutoring in math, too.

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All of this newer evidence opens up new possibilities for tutoring that were unthinkable when Reading Recovery ruled the tutoring roost alone. If tutoring can be effective using teaching assistants and small groups, then it is becoming a practicable solution to a much broader range of learning problems. It also opens up a need for further research and development specific to the affordances and problems of tutoring. For example, tutoring can be done a lot less expensively than $5,400 per child, but it is still expensive. We created and evaluated a one-to-six, computer-assisted tutoring model that produced effect sizes of around +0.40 for $500 per child. Yet I just got a study from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) in England evaluating one-to-three math tutoring by college students and recent graduates. They only provided tutoring one hour per week for 12 weeks, to sixth graders. The effect size was much smaller (ES=+0.19), but the cost was only about $150 per child.

I am not advocating this particular solution, but isn’t it interesting? The EEF also evaluated another means of making tutoring inexpensive, using online tutors from India and Sri Lanka, and another, using cross-age peer tutors, both in math. Both failed miserably, but isn’t that interesting?

I can imagine a broad range of approaches to tutoring, designed to enhance outcomes, minimize costs, or both. Out of that research might come a diversity of approaches that might be used for different purposes. For example, students in deep trouble, headed for special education, surely need something different from what is needed by students with less serious problems. But what exactly is it that is needed in each situation?

In educational research, reliable positive effects of any intervention are rare enough that we’re usually happy to celebrate anything that works. We might say, “Great, tutoring works! But we knew that.”  However, if tutoring is to become a key part of every school’s strategies to prevent or remediate learning problems, then knowing that “tutoring works” is not enough. What kind of tutoring works for what purposes?  Can we use technology to make tutors more effective? How effective could tutoring be if it is given all year or for multiple years? Alternatively, how effective could we make small amounts of tutoring? What is the optimal group size for small group tutoring?

We’ll never satisfy the angry woman who stormed out of my long-ago symposium at BERA. But for those who can have an open mind about the possibilities, building on the most reliable intervention we have for struggling learners and creating and evaluating effective and cost-effective tutoring approaches seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Government Plays an Essential Role in Diffusion of Innovations

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of concern in reform circles about how externally derived evidence can truly change school practices and improve outcomes. Surveys of principals, for example, routinely find that principals rarely consult research in making key decisions, including decisions about adopting materials, software, or professional development intended to improve student outcomes. Instead, principals rely on their friends in similar schools serving similar students. In the whole process, research rarely comes up, and if it does, it is often generic research on how children learn rather than high-quality evaluations of specific programs they might adopt.

Principals and other educational leaders have long been used to making decisions without consulting research. It would be difficult to expect otherwise, because of three conditions that have prevailed roughly from the beginning of time to very recently: a) There was little research of practical value on practical programs; b) The research that did exist was of uncertain quality, and school leaders did not have the time or training to determine studies’ validity; c) There were no resources provided to schools to help them adopt proven programs, so doing so required that they spend their own scarce resources.

Under these conditions, it made sense for principals to ask around among their friends before selecting programs or practices. When no one knows anything about a program’s effectiveness, why not ask your friends, who at least (presumably) have your best interests at heart and know your context? Since conditions a, b, and c have defined the context for evidence use nearly up to the present, it is not surprising that school leaders have built a culture of distrust for anyone outside of their own circle when it comes to choosing programs.

However, all three of conditions a, b, and c have changed substantially in recent years, and they are continuing to change in a positive direction at a rapid rate:

a) High-quality research on practical programs for elementary and secondary schools is growing at an extraordinary rate. As shown in Figure 1, the number of rigorous randomized or quasi-experimental studies in elementary and secondary reading and in elementary math have skyrocketed since about 2003, due mostly to investments by the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and Investing in Innovation (i3). There has been a similar explosion of evidence in England, due to funding from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Clearly, we know a lot more about which programs work and which do not than we once did.

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b) Principals, teachers, and the public can now easily find reliable and accessible information on practical programs on the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), Evidence for ESSA, and other sites. No one can complain any more that information is inaccessible or incomprehensible.

c) Encouragement and funding are becoming available for schools eager to use proven programs. Most importantly, the federal ESSA law is providing school improvement funding for low-achieving schools that agree to implement programs that meet the top three ESSA evidence standards (strong, moderate, or promising). ESSA also provides preference points for applications for certain sources of federal funding if they promise to use the money to implement proven programs. Some states have extended the same requirement to apply to eligibility for state funding for schools serving students who are disadvantaged or are ethnic or linguistic minorities. Even schools that do not meet any of these demographic criteria are, in many states, being encouraged to use proven programs.

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Photo credit: Jorge Gallo [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

I think the current situation is like that which must have existed in, say, 1910, with cars and airplanes. Anyone could see that cars and airplanes were the future. But I’m sure many horse-owners pooh-poohed the whole thing. “Sure there are cars,” they’d say, “but who will build all those paved roads? Sure there are airplanes, but who will build airports?” The answer was government, which could see the benefits to the entire economy of systems of roads and airports to meet the needs of cars and airplanes.

Government cannot solve all problems, but it can create conditions to promote adoption and use of proven innovations. And in education, federal, state, and local governments are moving rapidly to do this. Principals may still prefer to talk to other principals, and that’s fine. But with ever more evidence on ever more programs and with modest restructuring of funds governments are already awarding, conditions are coming together to utterly transform the role of evidence in educational practice.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.