The Texas Retired Teachers Foundation has launched an online tutoring program to offer 250,000 hours of live tutoring by retired educators to students in classrooms or learning from home. This past fall Sal Khan started Schoolhouse.world to connect students to teachers, peers, and professionals to get personalized help with learning questions.
On a smaller scale, high school and college students around the nation have started tutoring services to help their peers and younger students. Private tutoring services have also adapted to better serve students during the pandemic. All these examples have something in common — they are bottom-up, community or privately driven, successful approaches. And yet some are calling for the exact opposite approach, risking the gains made and the quality offered.
Tutoring is a remarkable example of how families and communities have come together to meet the needs of individual students. These efforts are especially commendable when you consider that tutoring is a highly effective education intervention. A recent meta-analysis of 96 studies found that a wide variety of tutoring models had large positive outcomes on student learning.
Yet, there are still significant gaps where many families do not have access to tutoring and other enrichment activities. Evidence on learning loss shows that the most disadvantaged families have been more negatively affected during the pandemic because they lack sufficient resources to find tools and support.
Against this backdrop, education leaders and some policymakers have called for a “Marshall Plan” for tutoring, seeking a national tutoring corps to be funded by the federal government based on the “AmeriCorps” model of national service. Education advocates have held up the example of the United Kingdom’s national tutoring program as a model to follow in the United States. Given the ongoing challenges from the coronavirus in 2021, the incoming Administration may pursue a $5 billion to $20 billion federal expenditure on a national tutoring program.
A national, centralized tutoring program would create a slow response, where politics and process will stand in the way of students’ needs. Why wait? Students need immediate access to quality resources, now. Standing up a new program from scratch will be unnecessarily more expensive than immediately giving students access to a portion of their per-pupil dollars to access tutors already available across the country, both in person or online. We need to meet the immediate crisis and give every kid access to the myriad of education solutions currently available.
The U.K.’s national tutoring program offers a cautionary tale of how a national tutoring program would likely roll out in the U.S. An analysis of the program found that only one in six low-income students would benefit from a national effort in 2021 and that more than 1.1 million of the poorest students would not have access to tutoring because of scarce resources and slow implementation.
More troubling, a national tutoring program implemented in our public schools would be likely to mirror many of the access issues students already face as they are assigned to schools based on their family’s ability to afford housing in the home-to-school pipeline.
Traditional public-school inequities will carry through to an add-on tutoring program within the same public schools that may have already contributed to learning loss during the pandemic. This also likely will lead to a one-size-fits-all approach to tutoring based on our current standardized factory model that ranks and sorts students based on test scores. The top-down national approach misses opportunities to offer students a much more diverse set of enrichment opportunities driven by their individual needs rather than top-down standardized priorities.
In other social programs, from the earned-income tax credit to housing and food support, research has recognized the importance of cash assistance paired with families making decisions making to meet their own needs. Why do we treat education differently?
In the case of tutoring, we do not need to reinvent the wheel to find high-quality opportunities for students. Tutoring is a robust marketplace of private, nonprofit, individual volunteers, philanthropic and community-based efforts. The expedient path forward is to repurpose some public education funding to provide families with more access to these existing services.
More-advantaged families are often thriving due to the out-of-school opportunities they have discovered for their children. Whether it is paying for enrichment classes or having resources to buy additional tutoring time beyond free resources, disadvantaged students should have access to the same diversity of solutions as their more affluent peers.
Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to rethink education and return to the purpose of education, and that should extend to our approach to tutoring and other enrichment activities. The purpose of education needs to shift to help all children rise and discover, develop, and apply their abilities.
We need to embrace the bottom-up efforts to serve students and allow diverse models of service to flourish rather than perpetuating a two-tiered tutoring system where one set of students have access to the open-source world of learning options and another set can access support for learning loss based only on the traditional model and all its flaws.
Lisa Snell is director of K-12 policy partnerships at Charles Koch Institute. Its sister organization, the Charles Koch Foundation, is a supporter of the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, which sponsors Education Next.
Last updated January 19, 2021