How Schools Are Using Tutoring to Fix Pandemic Learning Loss

The trio of third graders at Tennessee’s Trousdale County Elementary School begin working on their multiplication tables as soon as they sit down for tutoring, quietly penciling in answers. Kelsey Harris is their math tutor and reminds them they need to be able to multiply any number from 0 to 10 this year.

The students review math vocabulary and identify different multiplication equations, getting a jump on some of the concepts they’ll cover in math class the next day. “If I ask you to find the product, what are we going to do?” Harris asks. Multiply. “If I ask you what the sum is, what are we going to do?” Add.

It’s one of three tutoring sessions these students will have each week with Harris, a certified teacher who is now the lead math interventionist at the school in Hartsville, Tenn., a town of about 12,000 people an hour northeast of Nashville. This tutoring program is offered during school hours and is part of the school’s efforts to get students back on track after the Pandemic that disrupted education for some.

“It’s going to bridge the gap of learning loss,” says Toby Woodmore, who supervises instruction across the district. The math curriculum, in particular, requires students to build on their skills each year, from addition and subtraction in second grade, to multiplication and division in third grade, to fractions in fourth grade—and it’s difficult for students to keep progressing if they haven’t mastered those earlier concepts. “It’s a building process,” he says. “We’re trying to get them ready every day for the next day of class.”

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While students across the country are back at schools that have now lifted masking and COVID-19 testing requirements, the pandemic is still affecting their academic achievement, and experts say it’s urgent that schools prioritize recovery. It will likely take middle school students at least five years, and elementary students for three years on average to recover fully. “Education has been forever impacted,” says Demetrice Badru, the principal of Trousdale County Elementary School.

The district—which returned to in-person school full-time in fall 2021 after a year of hybrid learning—is using state and federal relief funding to pay for the tutoring program, hiring certified teachers as tutors and focusing on math instruction. The district leaders discovered that virtual learning was particularly difficult for students because they couldn’t show their teachers the work or have their peers solve problems. Some didn’t have a parent available to assist with remote learning; others lived with grandparents who lacked the technology skills to help them with online assignments.

Focus on tutoring

There’s strong evidence that tutoring, when delivered frequently and in groups of no more than three or four students, can lead to significant learning gains. A meta-analysis of 96 tutoring research studies in 2020 found that tutoring can help students learn for three to fifteen months. Tutoring is most effective when it’s delivered by teachers or paraprofessionals during school hours. One 2017 study concluded that tutoring is the best intervention to improve academic achievement in elementary and middle school students with low socioeconomic background.

Trousdale County was one of the more than 80 Tennessee school districts that participated in the $200 million TN All CORPS tutoring program. This initiative launched last year, and aims at serving 150,000 students for the next three-years. The tutors provide intensive support to three or four students in elementary school and four students in middle school. They meet for 90 minutes per week to give personalized assistance.

More than 40% of school districts and charter schools around the country planned to use some of their federal COVID-19 relief funding on tutoring and academic coaching, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s FutureEd. Arkansas and Tennessee, however, went even further. Tennessee leaders said they wanted to establish a statewide tutoring corps that aimed to “dramatically increase the amount of learning time” for students.

Leaders in the state have cited early evidence to show that efforts to combat learning loss including tutoring corps are succeeding. The state’s English language arts proficiency level in 2022 was 36%, which is an increase over 2021, according to the data.

Academic recovery has also been a priority in other states and school districts. At Los Angeles Unified School District, the leader of the country’s second-largest school district foreshadowed the imminent release of low test scores. “It is going to reflect all the fears that we have felt—meaning significant declines in achievement performance, particularly in reading and mathematics, across the board, all grade levels,” superintendent Alberto Carvalho, told the Los Angeles Times, saying this school year would be a “year of acceleration.”

Biden’s Administration announced last month a new national program to find 250,000 mentors and tutors that can support students with their learning and mental health needs.

Learning loss is a lingering pandemic

Student achievement was lower in spring 2022, compared to spring 2019, with students’ median scores in math declining 5 to 10 percentile points and 2 to 4 percentile points in reading, despite signs of improvement during the past year, according to the nonprofit NWEA, which analyzed the test scores of 8.3 million students in third through eighth grade. It will likely take middle school students at least five years, while average elementary students may need three years.

Districts that spent more time learning remotely also saw lower achievement growth, especially in high-poverty schools, according to Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research. Although there have been some encouraging signs that students are beginning to recover, data at the close of last school year showed students still have much to learn.

“If 2020-21 was a nosedive, we’ve at least pulled out of it,” says Karyn Lewis, director of the Center for School and Student Progress at NWEA. “But we still have a lot of altitude to regain, if you will, to get us back to that place where kids are at the achievement level where we want them to be.”

This pandemic increased achievement gaps between students in high-poverty or low-poverty schools as well between white students and black students. That is a serious problem, according to data.

“We already had an education system that was only serving some students well prior to the pandemic,” Lewis says. “The last two years have really shone light on those cracks in our system. And my biggest fear is that we will just continue to have these wide inequities that will last and persist with us for years and years to come.”

Signs of improvement are already evident

School districts have taken a range of approaches to helping students recover academically, and Lewis notes that there’s no “one-size-fits-all band aid” for the problem. Some districts expanded summer programming to keep kids learning and prevent what’s often called the “summer slide.” Others are prioritizing small-group instruction during class time. Like Tennessee, other districts have turned towards tutoring.

“Going back to how we did business in 2020 is insufficient. We must level up,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a call with reporters on Thursday, highlighting some of the ways districts are using federal funds to help students catch up, from recruiting more teachers to expanding counseling services to improving access to tutoring and after-school programs.

Although students still have a low level of proficiency in mathematics, Tennessee students showed some improvement this year. For example, 30% of Tennessee students meet grade-level expectations for math. This is compared with 25% in 2021. In 2019, 37% of students achieved grade-level standards.

There were similar results in Trousdale County, where superintendent Clint Satterfield credited high-dosage, low-ratio tutoring with “moving the needle for our students.” In math, 44% of all Trousdale County students met expectations in 2022—up from 27% in 2021, though still down from 53% in 2019. Students showed slight improvements over the pre-pandemic English language arts scores, with 46% meeting expectations.

“We just really tried to identify the kids who are not proficient, and tried to build a program where we can reach every child during the school day,” Satterfield says. “That’s kind of been the secret sauce for what we’ve been doing so far.”

For tutors like Harris, that’s a sign they’re making progress. Harris says that success is not just measured by improved test scores but in students not dreading math class and not being scared to ask questions in front of peers.

“It’s just building these kids’ confidence back. These kids have lost so much, and now I’m able to build them back up,” she says.

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