Another viewpoint: Catching up tutoring programs costly, but needed to help students

Bloomberg Opinion

By all evidence, America’s students suffered through an unprecedented academic decline during the pandemic.

To recover, President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing schools to expand the use of tutoring to supplement classroom instruction. It’s a good idea. But prudent safeguards are essential to ensure this well-meaning effort doesn’t turn into a big-government boondoggle.

Remote learning set U.S. grade-schoolers back by an average of half a year in math with students in high-poverty districts even further behind. Fewer than half of children in the earliest grades have the basic skills required to learn to read. At their current pace of recovery, elementary school students will need, on average, three years to make up the ground they’ve lost. Students entering middle and high school could require five years or more.

Given that outlook, it’s urgent to provide more students with regular tutoring. Research shows that such assistance can lift student achievement across all subject areas and grade levels and is more cost-effective than other interventions.

But doing it well isn’t easy. Students should meet with the same tutors for 30 minutes or more, at least three times a week and for the duration of a full school term. Tutoring needs to be in person, individualized and held as part of a longer school day. Effective tutors need not be professional educators, but they do require training, frequent evaluation and close coordination with classroom teachers.

By those standards, Biden’s plan falls short. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has pledged to recruit 250,000 people for the effort over the next three years. Yet that number includes not just tutors but “mentors,” “integrated student support coordinators” and “postsecondary transition coaches” — hardly signaling a rigorous focus on academic recovery.

Even if the administration hits its goal, it won’t be nearly enough. By one estimate, merely meeting the need in the country’s worst-performing K-12 schools would require 2.7 million tutors.

A more coherent strategy is needed. States should require that districts devote all unspent federal relief dollars to academic recovery and focus on those schools where students are struggling most. To boost the supply of tutors, they should expand partnerships between colleges and K-12 schools, increase financial aid to college students who enlist for the job and allow tutoring experience to count toward obtaining a full-time teaching credential.

For its part, Congress should extend the fall 2024 deadline for using relief funds, if states demonstrate progress in adopting high-impact tutoring programs and conduct regular assessments of their performance. Such flexibility would give districts time to recruit and train qualified tutors and reduce incentives to turn their programs over to untested online vendors.

Done right, tutoring could play a vital role in helping America’s students get back on track. Done wrong, it could be an expensive waste of time. For school districts, few decisions will be more consequential in the years ahead.