Initiative aims to create high-impact tutoring programs at schools across the U.S.

In the face of the pandemic, the Brown University-based National Student Support Accelerator will work with schools and tutoring organizations to expand access to tutoring for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted teaching and learning at elementary, middle and high schools across the United States, leaving millions of already disadvantaged students in danger of falling further behind academically. But with help from researchers and education leaders, led by a team at Brown University, many of those students may soon get assistance.

In winter 2021, Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform launched the National Student Support Accelerator, a multi-institution initiative aimed at equalizing access to high-quality tutoring. The accelerator team — a diverse group of education faculty from Brown and across the U.S., current and former school district administrators, tutoring organization leaders and consultants from education nonprofits and think tanks — plans to support more than 4,500 American school districts and nonprofits over the next five years, equipping them with the tools to use research-based practices to implement and improve tutoring programs. 

“The pandemic closed a lot of schools and in the process created even greater inequalities in the access students have to good educational opportunities,” said Susanna Loeb, a professor of education at Brown who directs the Annenberg Institute. “Many students weren’t able to connect, both metaphorically — as in, they found virtual learning very difficult — and literally — as in, they didn’t have internet access or the right technology. We came in thinking: ‘What is out there that could really accelerate the learning of students in need so that they don’t lose months or years of progress?’”

Loeb said that after an exhaustive review of recent research and interviews with approximately 50 experts in the field, faculty and staff affiliated with the Annenberg Institute found overwhelming evidence that tutoring is the most effective way to boost learning outside of the classroom, particularly in elementary school reading and high school math. At least a dozen major studies from the last decade have shown that consistent, high-quality, one-on-one tutoring has not only significantly boosted students’ standardized test scores but has also provided them with the equivalent of several months of additional classroom time.

“Of all the academic interventions people have studied in-depth, tutoring has been shown to be the most effective,” Loeb said. “That one-on-one connection with another person can help students really get the material they haven’t gotten before. It improves their performance in certain subjects by whole grade levels, and it can also improve their attendance and their performance in other subjects. Students think, ‘Oh, if I can do math, maybe I can do English and science, too.’”

But private tutoring — estimated to be a $173 billion global industry in 2020, according to the market research company Global Industry Analysts — has traditionally not been accessible to many students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. And even when it is available, Loeb said, it isn’t always high-quality or effective. Research shows that the most effective tutoring programs give tutors advance training on best practices and require them to meet with students three to four times a week — but in many programs, tutors’ training and teaching approaches are scattershot, and one-on-one instruction doesn’t happen often enough for students to see progress.

“ That one-on-one connection with another person can help students really get the material they haven’t gotten before. It improves their performance in certain subjects by whole grade levels, and it can also improve their attendance and their performance in other subjects. ”

Susanna Loeb Director, Annenberg Institute for School Reform

Loeb said that the National Student Support Accelerator’s goal is to provide all American students with access to the kind of high-impact tutoring that children from wealthier families have enjoyed for generations.

In Fall 2020, the accelerator team worked with nine school districts in California, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Texas to implement research-based, high-impact tutoring programs, with funding from the Walton Family Foundation, the Zoom Cares Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the districts themselves. Since January, the team has monitored these “pilot sites” for effectiveness, along with more than 40 other tutoring sites across the country that are run by the organizations Saga Education and Amplify. By the time their monitoring period ends in June, the team hopes to better understand what factors contribute to a quality tutoring program.

“These pilot sites will help us determine what methods and focuses work best,” Loeb said. “We’re answering questions like: What grades should we serve? What subjects should we concentrate on? What kind of person makes a great tutor, and what support do they need to do well? What should happen in the tutoring sessions? Should the tutors use the same curriculum as the school’s teachers, or should they develop their own curriculum?”

March 2021 also marks the launch of a web-based toolkit for schools, districts, nonprofits and tutoring organizations to use to improve existing tutoring programs or develop new ones. Specific tools include a calculator that helps educators estimate the cost of various models of tutoring programs, a database of information about existing programs, and guidance for how to design tutoring programs, recruit and support tutors and address safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Loeb says that in five years, she hopes to have developed a nationwide “community of practice” — a widely embraced set of tutoring standards and methods, proven effective by research, data and on-the-ground testing, that will help millions of students find scholastic success.

“Tutoring is an approach that really works — it’s just that we haven’t been able to scale effective tutoring on a national level,” Loeb said. “Through the accelerator, we hope to provide the research-backed tools and support that schools and tutors need to keep students on track during the pandemic and beyond.”