Could Tutoring Be a Standard Part of the School Day?
A conversation with Professor Matthew Kraft
Tutoring is often thought of as an add-on to classroom learning, a tool to bolster a student who lags in the group instruction that is at the heart of US public education. That’s giving it short shrift, according to Matthew Kraft, who teaches economics and education at Brown University. He argues that one-on-one or very small group instruction should be professionalized, woven into the school day, and made available to a wider range of students.
Kraft’s research shows that among modes of teaching, tutoring stands out as an intervention that improves the student achievement and that predicts success in the labor market. When applied widely, targeted tactics like tutoring that help students build up their own human capital could contribute to a more dynamic labor force with higher participation rates—one way to grow the economy’s productive potential and what economists would call maximum employment.
In contrast to classroom instruction where teachers, understandably, may feel the need to teach to the middle, tutoring is more intensive and facilitates instruction tailored to individuals. Kraft hypothesizes that tutoring also nurtures connections that can motivate students to engage and want to live up to tutors’ expectations. Another big potential benefit of an increased emphasis on tutoring programs is that it could lead to developing a corps of tutors from local communities who would become part of a pipeline of future educators who are more diverse than the current workforce in K–12 public schools.
I recently spoke with Kraft about his efforts to promote a larger role for tutoring in public education. Kraft thinks that previous efforts to scale tutoring nationally, such as America Reads in the 1990s and elements of No Child Left Behind in 2000s, dwindled because they were after-school initiatives involving only a select group of students and thus not part of the core approach to education. If educators want tutoring to accelerate learning on a broad scale, Kraft says, they need to integrate it into the school day, as part of a spectrum of instruction delivered in public schools.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.
Tutoring and mentoring promotes active learning
What do you think is the issue or the problem that tutoring and mentoring can help solve?
I think educators face a considerable challenge in showing up every day, in front of a group of 20, upwards of 30, even 35 students in a single class. And one only has to have one or two kids to know that wrangling more than one is a major challenge. So I think the intuition behind tutoring is very simple: When you create a context for adults to work one-on-one or in small groups with kids, it reduces the dimensionality of the problem. It also, I think, creates an opportunity to form closer personal connections because you can actually get to know someone.
And so tutoring is a vehicle that's really just built on the foundation of what is a long history of mentorship in the community, of one-on-one private tutors, throughout times of antiquity, working with students. So the idea is that, well, rather than trying to potentially teach to the middle of the distribution of skills in a class, or to differentiate in a way that addresses students’ learning needs where they are, can we come up with more of a spectrum of instruction within public schools where we continue to deliver the group instruction that is the hallmark of how we've designed education today but we also move the needle on that distribution towards the more personalized end as well, so that it complements what we can achieve in group instruction?
What one does in a small group—two-to-one, three-to-one, or even one-on-one—setting is a very different type of pedagogy. It is about asking students questions. The amount of student talk, the teacher talk can completely flip. And it also gives a tremendous amount of at-bats for the student. They can try something, immediate feedback, try it again, immediate feedback. And so, I think that there's a combination of both major change and pivot in the pedagogical exchange between students and teachers. And this is more of a hypothesis for which there isn't as strong evidence yet—that tutoring is about the relationship between the tutor and the student. And when that context allows for a caring connection between the two, it can help to motivate the student to want to engage, to be able to live up to the hope and expectations of their tutor, to be able to really have that “aha! light-bulb moment,” and to see the instant gratification of their tutor, to be like, “we got this, we're making progress.”
And so I think there's a unique combination of both much more individualized pedagogy and that personal connection that helps to motivate and get those students who may, in a larger class setting, fade into the background.
There is strong evidence on the effectiveness of tutoring
So, one of the stylized facts in education research is that it's incredibly hard to move the needle on things like student performance on standardized tests. And, of course, there's been really exciting studies that have found that this policy, or that intervention, or that program really was impressive. But what happens, more often than not, is we try that approach again, and it underwhelms the next time. Or another context, it doesn't quite deliver the same bang for the buck.
And so, one of the things that we do in research is we try to ask, “What is the weight of the evidence across the full body of research that's been conducted?” And when we do that in studies, like meta-analyses, we start to see the forest for the trees and what rises to the top in terms of consistently delivering and supporting student learning. And in my decade plus of research, the evidence from meta-analyses of rigorous randomized controlled trial evaluations of tutoring stand out as one of the most compelling bodies of evidence we have on an education intervention to improve student achievement.
How to scale tutoring and mentoring across public schools
You're thinking a lot about public education. But you have this article with Grace Falk entitled, “A Blueprint for Scaling, Tutoring, and Mentoring Across Public Schools.” I'd really like to talk about that article
In the article, you talked about changing how people even conceive of tutoring in schools, that in a lot of cases, people will think of tutoring as this add-on, temporary intervention—somebody needs help with this specific thing.
And you're thinking about this as this long-term expansion in public schools. It would probably take place over a long period of time. I'm wondering if you could describe that bigger picture and how you are thinking in this article—at least, what you would think would be an ideal way that this would happen.
So, tutoring is something that all of us have heard of, many of us may have experienced in some form. And, more often than not, we think about it as this afterschool program that is just childcare, and there's some college students who are helping out, and they may help us get our homework done. And that's kind of the tutoring that we have in our mind's eye. And that has a role in a place. But if we're talking about tutoring as a tool to accelerate learning, I think we need to really reframe it as something that we integrate into the school day as another approach to this spectrum of instruction that we deliver inside of public schools.
And that's important because this current moment isn't the first time that our country has embarked on an ambitious effort to scale tutoring nationally. We can look back to the efforts under President Clinton to build America Reads through this huge volunteer army of community members who would go into schools and help students develop their literacy skills. And then we can also look at the efforts under No Child Left Behind to fund supplemental educational services that were largely dollars that families could use to contract with private tutoring companies that schools would help to facilitate.
And those happened after school, outside of the school day. For various reasons, neither of those two initiatives really were sustained or showed much evidence of moving the needle for students. And part of what I think the pivot here around tutoring that I'm hoping we can spark during this post-pandemic moment is that, it's not seen as this add-on, it's not seen as this and-by-the-goodwill-of-the-community-through-volunteers. It's just part of the infrastructure that we are going to integrate into schools. And I think the analogy that's helpful is to remind ourselves that back in the 1960s, kindergarten was not a regular feature of our public school system. We did not do K–12. We did 1–12.
And I think we need to pivot to a whole-school commitment to thinking about tutoring as just part of what we do and what we deliver. When tutoring is for just a small subset of students in a school, there's less motivation to fundamentally change the architecture of the school day. You think, “oh well, we've got a handful of kids, let's pull them out of this class,” or “let's keep them after that class.”
Scaling requires training for the tutors doing the work
Who's going to be doing this? How do you think about the training of the people providing the tutoring and the mentoring?
My interest in tutoring started when I had the opportunity to be a tutor in college. But my understanding of what the vanguard of high dosage, impactful tutoring programs look like was when I had the opportunity to work with Michael Goldstein and the Match Charter School, which helped to pioneer, through the Match Corps, this kind of intensive within-the-school-day tutoring program that was delivered via AmeriCorps members. And one of the things that I've taken away from that is they invested tremendous amounts of time and energy in continuously improving the program via observing tutors, giving them feedback, and providing them with guidance and pedagogical maps of how to approach a tutoring cycle.
They would have this kind of self-building structure, where one of the best tutors from their first year would stay on and they'd be the lead tutor and help develop the next cohort. I think we often rush past that type of thing, like, “oh, let's just create this tutoring program, we'll get the tutors in here and…” Boom! They're off and running. And it's hard work. It's not glamorous. But it's probably one of the most essential ingredients for taking tutoring programs to scale. Because the only way they're going to scale is by bringing in a whole bunch of folks, whether they be peer, near-peers in high school or college, or the community, and they're not going to have a lot of real educational training or experience. And so we're going to have to provide that intensively on the job. And so that's about high quality instructional materials. And that's about an ongoing infrastructure of support to watch what they do and give feedback and say, “I love this. Did you think about that?”
Some places are already experimenting with scaling tutoring programs
Is this something that has been tried in any states before? Even thinking smaller, like a city or a large district, have any of them tried this? Because maybe that would offer some guidance going forward.
There's clearly going to be these tradeoffs for whoever policymakers are that are deciding between tutoring and mentoring programs and some of the other alternatives. Tutoring and mentoring looks like it's very effective, but it's costly. And so, when you think about the actual decision that policymakers are going to have to make, are there any examples of these larger scale adoptions of this or something along these lines that you could point to that might offer some evidence of how things might play out?
So, right now, we are currently undergoing that type of scaling experiment. And there's really only a handful of studies that exist that evaluate tutoring programs that are larger than 1,000 students. So we just don't have a lot of evidence.
That said, Texas has passed laws mandating that students scoring below proficient receive tutoring. And places like Houston and Dallas and Ector County are innovating around how they approach that work. Now, that law did not come with a substantial amount of financial resources to make that happen, so there's challenges.
Tennessee has also invested heavily at the state level to support tutoring. Michigan has also attempted to support districts to scale tutoring. So there's movement in that direction. But I think we're at a critical point where districts are facing this weird, perverse incentive where they've got money, but the money isn't going to last. And so they're like, “How do I spend money to grow tutoring in a way that I don't have to pay these incredible costs of restructuring my whole education system, and then, if the money goes out, tear that all down and go back to what we started with?”
And so, I think there's not quite the infrastructure to support this kind of fundamental change to how we deliver education, as much as there is money to support tutoring as a scaffold that we build up around the unchanged core of public education. And my worry is that if and when that money runs out, we just take down that scaffolding and go back to the status quo.
Tutoring programs can also have beneficial effects on the tutors
I actually think that it [tutoring] really helps the mentors as well. I think there's a couple of things that it does for kids. One is, I think it instills this sense of civic pride and civic service. So, I think it's just a good thing. And the other thing is, I think it gives kids a sense of agency and this consciousness that their example matters for other kids, that they're able to teach other kids that their effort in their own education matters. And so, I'm curious if you could speak about that. Because I think that's something where it might be perceived as maybe a cost saving measure, but I actually would think of it as maybe something that could even increase the benefits of the program.
I think there is a clear theory of action here for how being a tutor would benefit a high schooler, a middle schooler, a college student. We have some evidence from the psychology literature about one's own sense of self and the self-actualization of being a mentor and a role model that you embody that when you're set up to act in that way. We've got less evaluation-based evidence of the impact of that on student’s life outcomes or career trajectories or academic achievement.
But I think there's a real hope here that we could develop a corps of tutors that are from local communities to potentially create a pipeline of future educators that are more diverse than our current workforce in K–12 public schools, and that have a much better understanding of the local community and background and culture of the students that they work with because they are from that same community and went to school there. And so, I think there's a real potential there.
I think there are programs such as the Read Alliance in New York City that pay high schoolers to tutor. And it's a job, and it's real work experience. And you not only make money, but you can put an important line on your CV. And so, I think there's real workforce benefit potential as well. And so, in my mind, I hope that this kind of peer element of taking tutoring to scale grows as a key feature. I think it's one of the least developed ones because it takes a lot of work to build that infrastructure. You can't just take someone out of the community and hire them off and running. But I'm excited about it.
Hal Martin and Andrew Zajac contributed to this article.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Associate Professor of Education and Economics
Matthew Kraft is an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University. His research and teaching interests include the economics of education, education policy analysis, and applied quantitative methods for causal inference. His primary work focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K–12 urban public schools. His scholarship has informed efforts to improve teacher hiring, professional development, evaluation, and working conditions; changed how scholars interpret effect sizes in education research; and shaped ongoing investments in school-based tutoring and mentoring programs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt’s research has received numerous awards. Previously, he taught eighth grade English in Oakland USD and ninth grade humanities at Berkeley High School in California. He holds a doctorate in quantitative policy analysis in education from Harvard University and an MA in international comparative education and a BA in international relations from Stanford University.