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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Virtual tutoring won't work if students don't use it

On-demand virtual tutoring has the potential to help students catch up in school, concludes a recent study of California students in Aspire charter schools. But most students don't benefit because they don't use it.

Furthermore, the weakest students were the least likely to try it, notes Hechinger's Jill Barshay. "Among the students who needed tutoring the most because they had failed a class with a D or an F in the fall of 2020, only 12 percent ever logged on. Students who were doing well at school and not at risk of failure were twice as likely to take advantage of the free tutoring."

"Schools are required to spend 20 percent of their $122 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds on helping students catch up academically," writes Barshay. There is "strong scientific evidence of academic gains" from tutoring three or four times a week, known as “high dosage.”

“Good tutoring also means working with the same tutor over time and building a relationship, which isn’t usually possible with an on-demand sort of support,” said Amanda Neitzel, assistant professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University and research director for ProvenTutoring, a coalition of organizations that provide evidence-based tutoring programs.
Neitzel advises schools not to spend their pandemic recovery money on 24/7 online tutoring. “I think in most cases, no,” she said. “There is very little evidence to support this, and plenty of better alternatives.”

Schools across the country are having trouble recruiting, training and scheduling in-person tutors, so they're trying virtual services such as Paper.

Paper’s CEO Philip Cutler told Barshay his company's on-demand tutoring is better because it can serve many more students.

At first glance, on-demand online tutoring would seem to be more economical. Cutler said his company charges a flat fee of $40 to $80 per student, depending on the size of the school district, regardless of hours used or how many students log in. By contrast, evidence-based high-dosage tutoring can run $4,000 per student for the year. However, given the low usage seen in the California study, per-hour costs can be similar.
. . . Terry Grier, the former schools superintendent of Houston and a mentor to school leaders around the country, said schools that want to offer on-demand tutoring should negotiate tighter deals and pay only for the hours used and only if student test scores increase. . . . In his own experience with “high-dosage” tutoring in Texas, he said that the in-person, intensive version was very effective, especially in math. He said he also tried online tutoring, but it didn’t work well. “Kids wouldn’t use it,” Grier said.

The flexibility of on-demand tutoring is a strength and a weakness, write researchers Susanna Loeb and Carly D. Robinson. Aspire students could get help from well-trained tutors in any subject at any time. "Accessing the opt-in tutoring increased the likelihood of students passing all of their courses." But the students who needed help the most didn't try.

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