High-Dosage Tutoring Isn’t a Silver Bullet (Opinion)

Tutoring has received a lot of attention and millions in funding over the past couple years. Rightly so—when done well, high-dosage tutoring is one of the most promising strategies for helping students catch up academically.

Yet, the reality is that most students won’t receive high-dosage tutoring. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 1 in 10 students was getting high-dosage tutoring this year—a fraction of the need. The reasons for this vary from logistical factors—such as a lack of time, staff, or coordination—to financial constraints.

That’s why it’s important that while expanding tutoring, principals do so in the context of the larger systems and practices in their schools that can help or hinder the success of all students. For example, how is your school using data to identify and respond to early indicators of academic struggle, such as absenteeism? Is your school prioritizing relationships so that students feel cared for and connected to school? Is there a culture of collaboration, or are teachers working in silos?

We are part of a coalition working with schools and districts to strengthen that larger infrastructure of support through student-success systems. These systems are a way for schools to enhance their current supports for high school students by sharpening their focus on actionable data, supportive relationships, and evidence-based strategies to address schoolwide and individual student needs. Systems—like teams of teachers interrogating student data to identify students who are struggling—are necessary to ensure the success of all students.

Take, as an example, a challenge that many schools face: a large percentage of 9th grade students failing algebra. Recognizing this issue, a school might provide math tutors to work with students during or after school. But because of challenges such as not enough high-quality tutors or complications with transportation and scheduling, this strategy will not reach all the students in need of support.

Principals and district leaders need to provide teachers with the time and training to meet, analyze data, find root causes, and develop a plan of action.

A complementary approach would be for a school to look at the problem at a systems level rather than trying to address each student’s needs individually. That starts with analyzing student data and noticing patterns or trends that point to possible solutions. For example, data may show that some algebra teachers are more successful than others in teaching specific concepts. If so, professional development or targeted help for some teachers might be most effective and reduce the need for tutoring.

Are students failing because they need academic support, or are they not showing up to school, therefore missing instruction, assignments, and tests? In that case, attendance-boosting strategies are a necessary first step. Or are there specific skills or concepts with which a large number of students are struggling? If so, the school might add mini-units for the entire grade that target these skills.

This kind of systems-level approach doesn’t happen by itself. Schools need to have the leadership and structures in place to recognize and respond to the fact that many students are struggling with algebra. Principals and district leaders need to provide teachers with the time and training to meet, analyze data, find root causes, and develop a plan of action. Schools need the resources and partnerships to be able to use a variety of strategies that address the root causes.

Just as important, principals and teachers need to work together to build a school culture in which collaboration among teachers is encouraged, where relationship building is emphasized, and where solutions are rooted in problem-solving rather than blame or judgment.

We know this kind of system change is possible—and successful. Student-success systems have been critical to the steady rise in high school graduation rates in Chicago, improving by 20 percentage points over the past 13 years. Responding to research from the UChicago Consortium, principals in Chicago organized teacher teams to interrogate student data on a regular basis, to spot students starting to struggle, and to determine what interventions would be successful. We also know that when a school, or a set of schools, develops the systems to address one problem, they can build on that work to address other problems. In Chicago, creating systems to improve high school graduation is also leading to improvements in GPA—a key predictor of college enrollment and persistence.

Given the scope of the challenge before schools right now, a combination of both individual interventions like tutoring and system-level strategies is essential. School and district leaders can effectively address widespread student needs by improving their systems for analyzing data, fostering relationships, and employing evidence-based practices. Doing so will ensure more schools are organized to truly support the success of all students.

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