Give students the help they need to combat learning losses


By all evidence, America’s students suffered an unprecedented academic decline during the pandemic. To recover, President Joe Biden’s administration is urging schools to expand the use of tutoring to supplement classroom instruction. It is a good idea. But prudent safeguards are essential to ensure these well-intentioned efforts don’t turn into a government fluke.

Distance learning has set US elementary school students back by an average of half a year in math, and students in slum areas even further. Less than half of children in early grades have the basic skills needed to learn to read. At the current rate of recovery, it will take an average of three years for elementary school students to catch up; Students entering middle and high school might take five years or more.

Given these prospects, there is an urgent need to provide more students with regular tutoring. Research shows that such support can improve student performance across subjects and grade levels, and is less expensive than other interventions. But doing it well is not easy: students should meet with the same tutors for 30 minutes or more at least three times a week and for the duration of an entire school year. Tutoring must be personal, individual and part of a longer school day. Effective tutors don’t need to be professional educators, but they do require training, frequent assessment, and close coordination with class teachers.

By these 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. However, that number includes not only tutors, but also “mentors,” “integrated student support coordinators,” and “post-secondary transition coaches”—hardly signaling a rigorous focus on academic recovery. Even if the administration achieves its goal, it will not be nearly enough; By one estimate, just meeting needs in the nation’s lowest-performing K-12 schools would require 2.7 million tutors.

The good news is that states should have the resources to address this deficit thanks to the $190 billion in federal Covid aid money sent to them since 2020. The bad news is that school districts have poured much of that generosity into improving athletic facilities and paying teachers’ salaries — while only a fraction goes to addressing learning loss. Even in districts that have invested in tutoring, the approach has been haphazard. Many have contracted with providers to offer virtual tutoring that students can access “on demand” outside of school hours – which, unsurprisingly, students have shown reluctance to do so.

A more coherent strategy is needed. States should require districts to direct all unspent federal funds toward academic recovery and focus on schools where students are struggling the most. To increase the supply of tutors, they should expand partnerships between colleges and K-12 schools, increase financial support for college students applying for the job, and allow tutoring experience to count towards earning a full-time teaching license will. Schools in remote and high-poverty areas that rely on online tutoring to some extent should use evidence-based programs that offer students virtual one-on-one sessions with the same teacher — and integrate that tutoring into an extended school day, rather than onto it leave it for the students to access in their free time.

For its part, Congress should extend the deadline for using aid funds to the fall of 2024, when states demonstrate progress in implementing effective 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 providers.

Done right, tutoring could play a crucial role in helping America’s students get back on track. Done wrong, it could be an expensive waste of time. Few decisions will be more consequential for school districts in the years to come.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• Learning Loss is a National Crisis: Michael R. Bloomberg

• Schools have one last chance to repair Covid damage: The Editor

• Closing schools should be the last pandemic option: Stephen L. Carter

The editors are members of the Editorial Board of Bloomberg Opinion.

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