Large-Scale Tutoring Could Fail. Here’s How to Ensure It Does Not.

I’m delighted to see that the idea of large-scale tutoring to combat Covid-19 losses has gotten so important in the policy world that it is attracting scoffers and doubters. Michael Goldstein and Bowen Paulle (2020) published five brief commentaries recently in The Gadfly, warning about how tutoring could fail, both questioning the underlying research on tutoring outcomes (maybe just publication bias?) and noting the difficulties of rapid scale up. They also quote without citation a comment by Andy Rotherham, who quite correctly notes past disasters when government has tried and failed to scale up promising strategies: “Ed tech, class size reduction, teacher evaluations, some reading initiatives, and charter schools.” To these, I would add many others, but perhaps most importantly Supplementary Educational Services (SES), a massive attempt to implement all sorts of after school and summer school programs in high-poverty, low-achieving schools, which had near-zero impact, on average.

So if you were feeling complacent that the next hot thing, tutoring, was sure to work, no matter how it’s done, then you have not been paying attention for the past 30 years.

But rather than argue with these observations, I’d like to explain that the plan I’ve proposed, which you will find here, is fundamentally different from any of these past efforts, and if implemented as designed, with adequate funding, is highly likely to work at scale.

1.  Unlike all of the initiatives Rotherham dismisses, unlike SES, unlike just about everything ever used at scale in educational policy, the evidence base for certain specific, well-evaluated programs is solid.  And in our plan, only the proven programs would be scaled.

A little known but crucial fact: Not all tutoring programs work. The details matter. Our recent reviews of research on programs for struggling readers (Neitzel et al., in press) and math (Pellegrini et al., in press) identify individual tutoring programs that do and do not work, as well as types of tutoring that work well and those that do not.

Our scale-up plan would begin with programs that already have solid evidence of effectiveness, but it would also provide funding and third-party, rigorous evaluations of scaled-up programs without sufficient evidence, as well as new programs, designed to add additional options for schools. New and insufficiently evaluated programs would be piloted and implemented for evaluation, but they would not be scaled up unless they have solid evidence of effectiveness in randomized evaluations.

If possible, in fact, we would hope to re-evaluate even the most successful evaluated programs, to make sure they work.

If we stick to repeatedly-proven programs, rigorously evaluated in large randomized experiments, then who cares whether other programs have failed in the past? We will know that the programs being used at scale do work. Also, all this research would add greatly to knowledge about effective and ineffective program components and applications to particular groups of students, so over time, we’d expect the individual programs, and the field as a whole, to gain in the ability to provide proven tutoring approaches at scale.

2.  Scale-up of proven programs can work if we take it seriously. It is true that scale-up has many pitfalls, but I would argue that when scale-up does not occur it is for one of two reasons. First, the programs being scaled were not adequately proven in the first place. Second, the funding provided for scale-up was not sufficient to allow the program developers to scale up under the conditions they know full well are necessary. As examples of the latter, programs that provided well-trained and experienced trainers in their initial studies are often forced by insufficient funding to use trainer-of-trainers models for greatly diminished amounts of training in scale-up. As a result, the programs that worked at small scale failed in large-scale replication. This happens all the time, and this is what makes policy experts conclude that nothing works at scale.

However, the lesson they should have learned instead is just that programs proven to work at small scale can succeed if the key factors that made them work at small scale are implemented with fidelity at large scale. If anything less is done in scale-up, you’re taking big risks.

If well-trained trainers are essential, then it is critical to insist on well-trained trainers. If a certain amount or quality of training is essential, it is critical to insist on it, and make sure it happens in every school using a given program. And so on. There is no reason to skimp on the proven recipe.

But aren’t all these trainers and training days and other elements unsustainable?  This is the wrong question. The right one is, how can we make tutoring as effective as possible, to justify its cost?

Tutoring is expensive, but most of the cost is in the salaries of the tutors themselves. As an analogy, consider horse racing.  Horse owners pay millions for horses with great potential. Having done so, do you think they skimp on trainers or training? Of course not. In the same way, a hundred teaching assistants tutors cost roughly $4 million per year in salaries and benefits alone. Let’s say top-quality training for this group costs $500,000 per year, while crummy training costs $50,000. If these figures are in the ballpark, would it be wise to spend $4,500,000 on a terrific tutoring program, or $4,050,000 on a crummy one?

Successful scale-up takes place all the time in business. How does Starbucks make sure your experience in every single store is excellent? Simple. They have well-researched, well specified, obsessively monitored standards and quality metrics for every part of their operation. Scale-up in education can work just the same way, and in comparison to the costs of front-line personnel, the costs of great are trivially greater than the cost of crummy.

3.  Ongoing research will, in our proposal, formatively evaluate the entire tutoring effort over time, and development and evaluation will continually add new proven programs.  

Ordinarily, big federal education programs start with all kinds of rules and regulations and funding schemes, and these are announced with a lot of hoopla and local and national meetings to explain the new programs to local educators and leaders. Some sort of monitoring and compliance mechanism is put in place, but otherwise the program steams ahead. Several years later, some big research firm gets a huge contract to evaluate the program. On average, the result is almost always disappointing. Then there’s a political fight about just how disappointing the results are, and life goes on.

 The program we have proposed is completely different. First, as noted earlier, the individual programs that are operating at large scale will all be proven effective to begin with, and may be evaluated and proven effective again, using the same methods as those used to validate new programs. Second, new proven programs would be identified and scaled up all the time. Third, numerous studies combining observations, correlational studies, and mini-experiments would be evaluating program variations and impacts with different populations and circumstances, adding knowledge of what is happening at the chalkface and of how and why outcomes vary. This explanatory research would not be designed to decide which programs work and which do not (that would be done in the big randomized studies), but to learn from practice how to improve outcomes for each type of school and application. The idea is to get smarter over time about how to make tutoring as effective as it can be, so when the huge summative evaluation takes place, there will be no surprises. We would already know what is working, and how, and why.

Our National Tutoring Corps proposal is not a big research project, or a jobs program for researchers. The overwhelming focus is on providing struggling students the best tutoring we know how to provide. But using a small proportion of the total allocation would enable us to find out what works, rapidly enough to inform practice. If this were all to happen, we would know more and be able to do more every year, serving more and more struggling students with better and better programs.

So rather than spending a lot of taxpayer money and hoping for the best, we’d make scale-up successful by using evidence at the beginning, middle, and end of the process, to make sure that this time, we really know what we are doing. We would make sure that effective programs remain successful at scale, rather than merely hoping they will.

References

Goldstein, M., & Paulle, B. (2020, Dec. 8) Vaccine-making’s lessons for high-dosage tutoring, Part 1. The Gadfly.

Goldstein, M., & Paulle, B. (2020, Dec. 11). Vaccine-making’s lessons for high-dosage tutoring, Part IV. The Gadfly.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in press). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. AERA Open.

Original photo by Catherine Carusso, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

The Details Matter. That’s Why Proven Tutoring Programs Work Better than General Guidelines.

When I was in first grade, my beloved teacher, Mrs. Adelson, introduced a new activity. She called it “phonics.”  In “phonics,” we were given tiny pieces of paper with letters on them to paste onto a piece of paper, to make words. It was a nightmare. Being a boy, I could sooner sprout wings and fly than do this activity without smearing paste and ink all over the place. The little slips of paper stuck to my thumb rather than to the paper. This activity taught me no phonics or reading whatsoever, but did engender a longtime hatred of “phonics,” as I understood it.

Much, much later I learned that phonics was essential in beginning reading, so I got over my phonics phobia. And I learned an important lesson. Even if an activity focuses on an essential skill, this does not mean that just any activity with that focus will work. The details matter.

I’ve had reason to reflect on this early lesson many times recently, as I’ve spoken to various audiences about our National Tutoring Corps plan. Often, people will ask why it is important to use specific proven programs. Why not figure out the characteristics of proven programs, and encourage tutors to use those consensus strategies?

The answer is that because the details matter, tutoring according to agreed-upon practices is not going to be as effective as specific proven programs, on average. Mrs. Adelson had a correct understanding of the importance of phonics in beginning reading, but in the classroom, where the paste hits the page, her phonics strategy was awful. In tutoring, we might come to agreement about factors such as group size, qualifications of tutors, amount of PD, and so on, but dozens of details also have to be right. An effective tutoring program has to get right crucial features, such as the nature and quality of tutor training and coaching, student materials and software, instructional strategies, feedback and correction strategies when students make errors, frequency and nature of assessments, means of motivating and recognizing student progress, means of handling student absences, links between tutors and teachers and between tutors and parents, and much more. Getting any of these strategies wrong could greatly diminish the effectiveness of tutoring.

The fact that a proven program has shown positive outcomes in rigorous experiments supports confidence that the program’s particular constellation of strategies is effective. During any program’s development and piloting, developers have had to experiment with solutions to each of the key elements. They have had many opportunities to observe tutoring sessions, to speak with tutors, to look at formative data, and to decide on specific strategies for each of the problems that must be solved. A teacher or local professional developer has not had the opportunity to try out and evaluate specific components, so even if they have an excellent understanding of the main elements of tutoring, they could use or promote key components that are not effective or may even be counterproductive. There are now many practical, ready-to-implement, rigorously evaluated tutoring programs with positive impacts (Neitzel et al., in press). Why should we be using programs whose effects are unknown, when there are many proven alternatives?

Specificity is of particular importance in small-group tutoring, because very effective small group methods superficially resemble much less effective methods (see Borman et al., 2001; Neitzel et al., in press; Pellegrini et al., 2020). For example, one-to-four tutoring might look like traditional Title I pullouts, which are far less effective. Some “tutors” teach a class of four no differently than they would teach a class of thirty. Tutoring methods that incorporate computers may also superficially resemble computer assisted instruction, which is also far less effective. Tutoring derives its unique effectiveness from the ability of the tutor to personalize instruction for each child, to provide unique feedback to the specific problems each student faces. It also depends on close relationships between tutors and students. If the specifics are not carefully trained and implemented with understanding and spirit, small-group tutoring can descend into business-as-usual. Not that ordinary teaching and CAI are ineffective, but to successfully combat the effects of Covid-19 school closures and learning gaps in general, tutoring must be much more effective than similar-looking methods. And it can be, but only if tutors are trained and equipped to provide tutoring that has been proven to be effective.

Individual tutors can and do adapt tutoring strategies to meet the needs of particular students or subgroups, and this is fine if the tutor is starting from a well-specified and proven, comprehensive tutoring program and making modifications for well-justified reasons. But when tutors are expected to substantially invent or interpret general strategies, they may make changes that diminish program effectiveness. All too often, local educators seek to modify proven programs to make them easier to implement, less expensive, or more appealing to various stakeholders, but these modifications may leave out elements essential to program effectiveness.

The national experience of Supplementary Educational Services illustrates how good ideas without an evidence base can go wrong. SES provided mostly after-school programs of all sorts, including various forms of tutoring. But hardly any of these programs had evidence of effectiveness. A review of outcomes of almost 400 local SES grants found reading and math effect sizes near zero, on average (Chappell et al., 2011).

In tutoring, it is essential that every student receiving tutoring gets a program highly likely to measurably improve the student’s reading or mathematics skills. Tutoring is expensive, and tutoring is mostly used with students who are very much at risk. It is critical that we give every tutor and every student the highest possible probability of life-altering improvement. Proven, replicable, well-specified programs are the best way to ensure positive outcomes.

Mrs. Adelson was right about phonics, but wrong about how to teach it. Let’s not make the same mistake with tutoring.

References

Borman, G., Stringfield, S., & Slavin, R.E. (Eds.) (2001).  Title I: Compensatory education at the crossroads.  Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Chappell, S., Nunnery, J., Pribesh, S., & Hager, J. (2011). A meta-analysis of Supplemental Educational Services (SES) provider effects on student achievement. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 16(1), 1-23.

Neitzel, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (in press). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Reading Research Quarterly.

Pellegrini, M., Neitzel, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2020). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org

Tutors to Teachers: Could a National Tutoring Corps Help Hard-to-Staff Schools?

We are continuing to work with colleagues to propose to the incoming Biden administration a plan to fund tutors to elementary and secondary schools to work with students who are far behind in reading or math. Today, I wanted to expand on one aspect of our proposal.

As it currently stands, we are proposing that the federal government provide Title I schools with funds to hire tutors, who will be required to have a college degree and experience with children. If this proposal becomes reality, it would include a plan to help schools identify particularly effective tutors and offer them a rapid path to teacher certification.

One assumption behind this part of our proposal is that most tutors will be recent college graduates who do not have teaching certificates, most probably majoring in something other than education. Many of the tutors are sure to discover the joys of teaching. At the same time, school leaders are sure to notice that many of their tutors are doing an exceptional job. Our proposal is simply to facilitate a process in which excellent, successful tutors can become teachers.

There are several important advantages to schools and to society of this new source of teacher candidates. First, tutors would be concentrated in high-poverty inner-city or distant rural Title I schools. Such schools typically have difficulty recruiting top candidates. Often, the top candidates they do get are from the local area, often graduates of the very schools in which they hope to teach. We have noticed that tutor applicants (with college degrees) usually come from the local area.

Second, schools often struggle to find as many minority candidates as they would like. Tutors, in our experience, better represent the demographics of their schools than do teachers. Among the many college-graduate applications we typically get to work in Baltimore, about 80% are Black, and about 80% of hires have also been Black. This matches the percent Black of Baltimore City Public Schools students, but not of its teachers, 40% of whom are Black. If our Baltimore experience is typical, hiring tutors and then encouraging and supporting them to go for a teaching certificate may be one way to bring talented Black teachers into teaching.

We have seen a similar dynamic in majority-Hispanic districts and in rural districts. Local tutors with a strong tie to a local area, who have demonstrated their skills as tutors, may be an ideal group from which to recruit applicants whose commitment to teaching in that place is strong, and likely to be lifelong.

Many years ago, we were working on a study of our Success for All program in Baltimore, and in one inner-city school we noticed an extraordinary Black teacher. We got to know her, and discovered that she grew up near the school she taught in, and attended that very school. As a teacher, she could have chosen to live almost anywhere, but she chose to live in the house she grew up in, in an inner-city neighborhood. This was where she wanted to teach, where she wanted to make her contribution to her community. We’ve encountered many amazing teachers in rural places who are also teaching in the schools they attended. I cannot say exactly how this part of our tutoring plan will be accomplished, or what its effects might be on the teaching staffs of high-poverty schools. But bringing local college graduates into local schools as tutors and then helping the best of them to become teachers would be an important additional outcome of our National Tutoring Corps plan.

Photo credit: Shenandoah University Office of Marketing and Communications, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

Note: If you would like to subscribe to Robert Slavin’s weekly blogs, just send your email address to thebee@bestevidence.org