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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3 thoughts on “Tutoring Works. But Let’s Learn How It Can Work Better and Cheaper

  1. I was trained as a Reading Recovery teacher (RRT). The training was more instrumental in helping me to understand how students learn, how to design lessons, translate assessments, etc., than the teacher prep program that I was in. I cannot overstate the benefits of the Reading Recovery training for teachers and the intervention for students. I will not get into that here because that is not the point. However, there are too few RRTs to meet the demands. To reach all students, I like to see that Reading Recovery training is embedded in all teaching prep programs. It will help teachers become better reading/writing teachers. Despite of all of our effort with NCLB and Common Core, the reading achievement has not really change much since the “A Nation At Risk” report of 1982 (or 1983).

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  2. Hi Robert.
    I run a tutoring organisation in Sydney Australia. I’m also developing software to answer your question of “Can we use technology to make tutors more effective?”. The software automates many of the admin tasks for the tutor such as assigning and grading homework so they can dedicate all of their time to providing feedback to and coaching the student. In particular as students work through problem sets it analyses not just whether they get problems right or wrong, but specifically why the student is making those errors. Using this granular data our tutors are then able to have more detailed and impactful conversations. This is the same process that good tutors do manually when they sit next to a student and review their work to understand the reasons behind errors. We just automate it.
    To date results have been good (although small sample (under 20) so wide confidence intervals) but school grades over the year have on average improved from 50s to mid-70s.
    Happy to chat to others who else might be interested in learning more or in partnering together.

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