The American K–12 public school system looks nothing like it did two months ago. Educators are scrambling to adapt to virtual environments, while too many students have not yet engaged with online learning at all. These access issues do not affect all students equally but instead play out along familiar lines of social class and race. Given all that educational researchers know about economic downturns, absenteeism, disruption, trauma, and learning time, the pandemic will have devastating effects on student learning and widen race- and class-based educational opportunity and outcome gaps.
School-system leaders rightly focused first on addressing students’ immediate needs: their health and safety, access to basics like food and shelter, and emotional wellbeing. But they quickly pivoted to determining how best to support students academically, now and once in-person schooling resumes. Many are touting this as an unprecedented opportunity for innovation. Remedying learning losses will require new solutions, but it would be a mistake to ignore tried-and-true, evidence-based strategies. What practices are most promising for catching up students who will re-enter school the farthest behind? One answer may lie with an old strategy that is backed by a rigorous and consistent body of research: tutoring and small-group instruction.
Tutoring—a format dating back to at least the ancient Greeks—is hardly a novel innovation, but research consistently shows its effectiveness. Comprehensive reviews of “gold standard” randomized controlled trials on a variety of educational programs reveal that tutoring—particularly intensive “high-dosage” tutoring—demonstrates profound results. A recent evaluation of the Match Corps tutoring model implemented with academically disadvantaged high-school students in Chicago showed large impacts. These programs involve a screening process for tutors with a college degree, training and ongoing support for tutors, one-on-one or small-group instruction, and student-tutor pairings that last a full year. Tutoring partly explains the success of high-performing charter schools, as well as efforts to improve low-performing traditional public schools.
So why haven’t all districts adopted high-dosage tutoring? Despite research showing these programs have impressive cost-benefit ratios, they still come with a high upfront price tag. Therefore, while tutoring should indeed be one of the tools used to address coronavirus-related learning loss, other approaches to individualized instruction might provide an even more affordable and scalable alternative. One option is “vacation academy” small-group programming, for which districts select teachers they consider to be highly effective and offer them the opportunity to instruct groups of roughly ten struggling students in a single subject over weeklong vacation breaks. This strategy has demonstrated strong results in rigorous studies.
The vacation-academy model could be implemented to minimize learning loss for those students most likely to fall behind due to coronavirus learning disruptions and tailored to the timing and nature of school re-openings in a given context. Vacation academies could be deployed this summer, either in-person where safe or virtually with adaptations, to make up for lost spring time. They could also be implemented, in-person or virtually, in the weeks leading up to the start of the academic year to help students readjust, or during vacation breaks in the 2020–21 school year to supplement instruction for those students in need of extra support. Vacation academies could even make up for future lost time in the event of rolling school closures.
Why is this model particularly well-suited to the time of coronavirus?
First, such a program can target the students most affected by school closures. Low teacher-to-student ratios allow instructors to tailor to the range of needs students will have due to variation in out-of-school experiences while in-person schooling was on hold. Further, virtual small-group instruction may be more feasible than managing large groups on online platforms, and in-person small-group instruction may be safer than large gatherings, from a public health perspective, for engaging students once shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
Second, educators can opt in or out, which is important since some teachers will have less capacity to participate—for example, if they are caring for their own young children or those affected directly by the disease, or if they themselves are vulnerable—while others have greater flexibility. There is also potential to enlist instructors from beyond the pool of traditionally certified teachers, as Match Corps does, and access a supply of unusual talent given record unemployment numbers. Centralized recruitment for academy instructors could facilitate teachers from one district serving students from another, as has been done in places like Massachusetts. This is especially true for virtual academies that do not require geographic proximity, providing rare opportunities for disadvantaged students to receive instruction from their state’s most effective educators.
Vacation academies would not only benefit students academically but also support their broader well-being. Program participants in Springfield, Massachusetts, saw both gains on test scores and reductions in suspensions when they returned to school after the program. The improvement on disciplinary outcomes was especially pronounced for students assigned to the same instructor for the duration of the program, suggesting the importance of relationship-building. Support from a caring adult could be more impactful than ever at a time when many students have been feeling otherwise disconnected.
We should avoid repeating past mistakes, however. The underwhelming results of No Child Left Behind’s Supplemental Educational Services provision highlight that not all individualized-instructional programs are created equal. Ensuring high quality must be top of mind. For example, all model programs emphasize instructor selection. Furthermore, given the unique circumstances, no existing approach will work without modification, and evidence is needed on how to carry out individualized instruction online successfully. Researchers should stand at the ready to help leaders learn from the resulting experiments.
Vacation academies alone will not eliminate coronavirus learning loss and may not be right for every student. They should therefore be part of a broader strategy. Implementing such efforts will require clearing legal, logistical, financial, and political hurdles, which vary from place to place. However, parents with the means are already providing their children with supplemental learning experiences. States, districts, and schools should take inspiration from creative, individualized approaches to minimize the educational gaps this pandemic is likely to exacerbate.
Beth Schueler is an Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Virginia studying K-12 education policy, politics, and inequality. You can follow her on Twitter at @BethSchueler.
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Last updated May 21, 2020