Tutoring has become a popular prescription for academic recovery, thanks to lots of evidence showing that sustained tutoring blocks at least three times a week can boost students’ improvement trajectories.

Now, two new research studies conclude that one of the critical pieces is making sure it happens during school hours—not outside of them. What’s more, students themselves seem to want to come to school when they know they’re going to receive personalized attention.

In essence, the two findings suggest compounding benefits for embedding extra help in the school day: academic improvement and better attendance.

On March 27, researchers at Chicago University’s Education Lab released preliminary findings from a study of two school districts in Chicago and Georgia showing “meaningful” improvement in math scores for the 2,200 students in grades K-11 who received tutoring.

The gains equaled about two-thirds of a year of math learning—improvement that is in line with other studies on tutoring, even though students on average got less tutoring time than in other studies.

“These gains are strikingly like the ones we’ve seen in previous studies on tutoring. The difference is that the implementation was much lower [from other efforts]. … It shows that even tutoring done in a sub-optimal way can be beneficial,” said Monica Bhatt, a senior research director at the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, and one of the authors of the study.

Doing in-school tutoring can be challenging. So some principals have devised new support systems and designated on-site coordinators to organize the programs.

Those efforts have helped pay dividends for attendance, too. In the second study, released earlier this month, researchers with Stanford University’s National Student Support Accelerator found that students are 7 percent less likely to be absent on days they have scheduled tutoring sessions. The study, conducted over the 2022-23 school year, examined absenteeism rates of 4,478 students in 141 schools in the District of Columbia.

“There are lots of reasons why students are absent. Being disengaged in school is one reason,” said Nancy Waymack, the director of partnerships and policy at the NSSA.”Tutoring is one way that students can have one more meaningful relationship in school. Tutoring can be one tool to move the needle in the right direction.”

Taken together, the studies point out a growing connection between tutoring, student attendance, and test scores. The critical factor: Committing to tutoring at school, not as an add-on.

“It shouldn’t be ad-hoc, or on-demand. It’s not homework help,” said Bhatt. “The message to school leaders is to protect the tutoring block in school.”

Contrasting two types of tutoring

Bhatt’s team initially picked four sites to study tutoring interventions over the 2022-23 school year to contrast two different kinds of tutoring. Fulton County in Ga., and Chicago Public Schools offered tutoring in school, while the other two sites—schools in New Mexico districts and a mid-size urban California school district—respectively offered evening and weekend slots, or after-school sessions.

In New Mexico’s case, only 527 students signed up for evening or weekend classes out of a total 34,000 that were eligible, and only about two thirds actually attended. In California, the urban school district that the researchers wanted to study saw a much lower rate of participation. In both cases, the participant numbers were too low to conduct a random-assignment study.

“The districts found that after-school or weekend programs are dependent on kids or their parents raising their hands. And it’s not the same set of kids who may need this tutoring the most,” noted Bhatt. “If we want to ameliorate education inequalities, we have to meet kids where they are literally, and in terms of where they are academically.”

For the other two districts, Bhatt’s team analyzed test scores for 429 students out of the 548 K-11 students randomized across 13 Chicago schools. One group was offered the tutoring at least three times a week at school. Schools picked which students would be part of the sample and school leaders prioritized students in the bottom quartile in terms of performance. All the students were offered tutoring at least three times a week for 30-minute sessions.

In Fulton County, Ga., the team studied outcomes of 1,163 students out of the 1,500 selected across 17 schools. Reading help was offered to students in grades 3-8, and math help was offered to students in grade 9.

In both cases, the treatment group received a much higher number of tutoring sessions, on average. (The control group also received some tutoring sessions).

As for the Stanford study, it’s part of an ongoing look at tutoring sponsored by the District of Columbia’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, examining who received tutoring and how much it boosted learning.

“One of the things that stood out was the impact on attendance,” said Wymack. “We were able to compare how often students came to school on days when there was tutoring vs. days there wasn’t a session planned.”

The studies both point towards the benefits of fitting tutoring in during the school day. It means a more diverse set of students will have access to additiona help. And if instruction is differentiated for everybody, Bhatt added, students who need tutoring support the most will feel less stigmatized. And the findings are also good information as recovery dollars begin to dwindle.

“We felt an urgency to release these preliminary results because school leaders are making decisions about where to spend their remaining ESSER dollars,” said Bhatt., referring to the federal aid for schools.

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