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