Tutoring Our Way to Excellence?

Back when I was in ed school—undergraduate and masters-level, in the 1970s—one of the seminal truths we read about and discussed at length was ‘individual attention:’ Why class size matters, how to reach students personally, and the superiority of one-to-one tutoring in knowledge acquisition.

No better way to learn than to have the undivided attention and expertise of a single teacher. If, of course, the family can afford private tutoring, and that tutor is a content expert, skilled in teaching techniques. And also—big point– compatible with the pupil. Tutoring is ideal, in other words, except when it isn’t.

I remember a band-director colleague telling me that in order to play in his select high school band, students were required to take weekly private lessons. He was working in a well-heeled suburban district, and many of his students were studying privately with members of the Detroit Symphony.  

It wasn’t clear how he was getting away with this demand—it wouldn’t fly in my school—but it was a dazzling thought: All of students’ technical issues, solved, on the parents’ dime, by explicit and targeted outside instruction. All he had to do was put these elite student musicians together with high-quality music, then conduct. Easy-peasy.

That’s not exactly right, of course—there’s much more to learning and playing music together than individual skills. In fact, learning, in every subject and in every classroom, depends on a stew of cooperation and community, in addition to dealing with diverse understandings, talents and proficiencies, led by the—caring, one hopes—person in charge.

There are, to put it succinctly, lots of things that cannot be precisely measured, when it comes to learning. The idea that we can accurately  diagnose what students have learned/not learned, and confidently prescribe the best of three strategies to ‘catch them up’ is folly. Student learning is not a statistics problem or a disease, where the correct number of ‘high-dosage’ tutoring sessions will guarantee a return to normal. Whatever that is.

That doesn’t mean that tutoring isn’t a useful strategy. It certainly is. There are plenty of stories about kids who struggle with something academic, then connect with a tutor who helps them over the hump—learning to read fluently or solve equations or whatever.

A friend’s son initially got mediocre scores on his ACT test, meaning he wasn’t going to be accepted at any of the colleges he was aiming for. The son’s English teacher recommended a local woman, a former teacher, who had created a business tutoring students through the college application process.

The boy was unenthused, but met with the tutor four times, then re-took the ACT, gaining nine points, more than enough to expand his college options. On the ACT writing test (now optional), he earned a six, the highest score.

My friend was grateful for the targeted assistance–her son’s self-concept as capable student improved enormously, as well. But she asked me—Why didn’t he learn to write an excellent essay in school? What did he learn in four hours that had not been conveyed in the previous 12 years?

There are lots of differences between working with a private coach vs. learning in a class of 30 or more. Motivation, for one. Privacy—not exposing a weakness in front of peers—is another. In the end, it’s the same stuff we talked about in my ed classes: reaching students on an emotionally neutral, personal level and a class size of one, where feedback and re-dos are immediate.

There have been bursts of enthusiasm around auxiliary tutoring for public school students in the past. Free tutoring was a part of No Child Left Behind’s efforts to help kids in schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, and were deemed ‘failing.’ We are all familiar with commercial ‘learning centers’ in strip malls that promise success in radio ads, before even meeting your child.

Michigan is now considering using $280 million in federal COVID recovery monies for tutoring to get kids ‘back on track.’ And I wish I saw this as a viable option for all children who have missed a lot of in-person schooling during the pandemic.

But the first thing I thought about when I read the Governor’s plan was: If we don’t have enough qualified teachers to fill our classrooms—where are all those skilled tutors going to come from? Because all the research on tutoring, while generally positive, is clear that small groups and expert tutors are essential.

I also remember the NCLB tutoring—private tutoring vendors scrambling to use federal money to set up yet another government-funded after-school program to fix kids who weren’t reading at grade level or were lacking the credits to graduate. The lack of oversight—or coordination with schools—made a lot of those programs useless.

So—who’s going to monitor these new tutoring programs? You guessed it:
It’s not clear what standards the state program would use to evaluate tutors or identify tutoring programs.

“It is a state responsibility to provide leadership and ensure that best practices are followed in this new effort,” said Jennifer Mrozowski, director of communications for Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy group that has called for an expansion of tutoring services. “The state also should have a plan in place to see to it that the dollars are actually being spent on best practices and districts are held accountable for the work.”

Of course. Districts are now supposed to locate and hire suitable tutors, set up programs, provide materials, find transportation, then evaluate student progress. Because, despite all their best efforts during a pandemic, students have ‘fallen behind’ benchmarks set by federal and state policy. The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.

A lot of the literature and articles around tutoring refer to an Annenberg study on ‘recovery design principles.’ When you see the phrase ‘high-dosage tutoring’ in a ‘recovery’ plan, someone’s been using the Annenberg research to support a plan for additional instruction. The study is actually useful—it lays out the factors necessary for tutoring to have real impact:

One meta-analysis found that high-dosage tutoring was 20 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring in math. In reading, high-dosage tutoring was 15 times more effective than low-dosage tutoring. Simply providing students with access to tutoring is unlikely to be effective for all students. Paraprofessionals and volunteers may be better suited to one-to-one tutoring because they are less likely to have developed the skills in behavior management and group instruction that are needed for working with multiple students. Tutoring interventions often are not successful when there are no minimum dosage requirements, little oversight, and minimal connections with the students’ schools. A key element of successful tutoring programs is being able to establish a rigorous and caring culture.

It turns out that the most effective tutoring happens three or more times a week, at school, in very small groups or one-to-one. And the most effective tutors are trained educators familiar to students. Which takes us right back to what we have always known about instruction—small class sizes and individual attention from a trusted teacher work best. No surprise at all.


  1. I’ll relate my experience. The problem is getting this at scale.

    In retirement, I have volunteered as a GED math tutor at an adult high school. GED math = algebra and geometry. All learning in all subjects at the school is self-paced. Students progress as rapidly as their ability and time availability allows (most have children, jobs, and other outside commitments.

    All the tutoring is one-on-one in a public area. I tried one-on-two and found that to be much less successful.

    My math background included four semesters of honor calculus in college and three in statistics in grad school — none of that is needed for this.

    Over the past seven years, I have developed a deep understanding of what works. For instance, percentages are learned one way: part/whole = %/100 where part, whole, or % may be the unknown. The students do not learn one way to solve when part is unknown and a different way when the whole is unknown. This has worked well since I learned it from an experienced adult ed educator.

    I have learned that, for math, language is not a great barrier. Many of the Spanish-language students complete the math first — months before they pass language arts, social studies, or science.

    I have observed that a sixth-grade education from some poor village in Mexico is adequate preparation for high school math. Many students could not go further than that without going to a different village, so they didn’t.

    Many students who grew up in the US simply had life happen to them — pregnancy, drugs, bad choice in friends, home unschooled, etc. GED is their second chance, and it happens at their pace. No prom, no football, less drama. If you can only attend on Monday and Thursday, that’s cool. Every student has an IEP of sorts.



    1. My son is extremely bright but has autism. He could not deal with the traditional school model. He ended up finishing with a GED through testing. He wasn’t ready for the math portion, but a wonderful volunteer from a different high school tutored him in the evenings (this was perfect, because he has sleep issues, and could never get up for school). After a couple of months (I was surprised how quickly!) he was ready. He passed all sections with no problem. He didn’t care about the social stuff of high school, but he wanted that GED for work. These adult programs are excellent and a great service. Thanks for being part of it!



  2. I couldn’t agree more! I’m a credentialed teacher who needs to work part-time for many reasons. I’m an expert in English Language Arts, so I tutor homeschoolers in that subject. I help students with learning disabilities, ELL, or just ordinary students whose parents want support in that area. When I started hearing this idea of tutoring everyone to make up for “lost learning,” I was skeptical for the same reasons you mention. When I worked in public school, our district served mainly at-risk kids. We were always told we needed to meet them where they were at (not the best grammar, but that’s what they said). Can’t we do that now? Instead of stressing about “being behind” an artificial timeline that we created, let them be a year behind. If they’re younger, the gap may slowly close. If they’re in high school, they may need a year or two of community college (my son graduated in 2020 and that’s what he’s doing). Is that the end of the world? New kids coming to Kindergarten will soon be non-COVID kids, assuming no further quarantines, and eventually, we will get back to “normal.” Maybe I’ve just been out of the system too long, but in the homeschool world, we just think about learning, not so much about deadlines.



  3. “The phrase ‘actually being spent on best practices’ is particularly insulting.”

    That phrase got to me, too, as if quality instruction was rather iffy in the regular classroom. Since I was a “learning specialist,” what was best practice for one student was clearly not “best” for another. I think IEPs were initially a recognition of that fact although I think blanket legislation of more recent years has made it increasingly difficult to write a plan that is sensible and actionable.

    Liked by 2 people


    1. I remember the NCLB tutoring well. In several of the articles, ‘experts’ (mostly folks who work at ed non-profits hoping to get a big federal grant to run a tutoring program) noted that most districts did not mention tutoring in their grant requests for federal dollars. The experts were huffy–why didn’t they want tutoring? Perhaps it’s because we’ve been there and done that and it didn’t really have much impact.



      1. While I was a special ed resource teacher at the 7-8th grade level, I taught small group for English and math. I also had resource classes that dealt with individual needs across the curriculum. In my “spare” time, I went into mainstream classes to support students on my caseload and invariably ended up serving as an aide for all the students. In short, whatever the need I tried to fill it. I have often jokingly said that I could ace 7th and 8th grade if I had to do them again. So in a sense tutoring worked but only because it was embedded in the school culture.

        Liked by 1 person

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