Tutoring could fill pandemic education gaps
One-on-one support could help students catch up, but it’s expensive
In the computer lab of a North Carolina recreation center, Nastassja Ortiz oversees online school for six or seven students each day. She reminds them not to play video games, leads crafts like paper weaving and painting flowers, and helps with homework. Since January, Ortiz has worked for the North Carolina Education Corps, which launched in November to recruit and train workers for a variety of school support positions, including tutoring.
In response to the pandemic’s education disruptions, a growing number of lawmakers and researchers have proposed creating a national tutoring program. Intensive, personal academic support boasts impressive results. Some states, like North Carolina, have moved forward with similar plans on their own. But one-on-one instruction is expensive, and many students still don’t have access.
Research suggests tutoring could effectively combat learning loss, though not without significant expense. A study of public school students in Chicago found daily 55-minute sessions reduced math class failures by half. Though the study estimated a larger scale would bring down costs, the program cost $3,800 per student. Chicago spends around $13,000 total per student each year. Private tutoring services have reported explosive growth during the pandemic, but price tags of $25 to $60 per hour shut out many families.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., proposed a plan to provide volunteers to work with 1,000 New York City public school students for free. But those kinds of efforts still serve only a fraction of the nation’s almost 51 million K-12 public school students.
For a more comprehensive solution, lawmakers and researchers have suggested creating a national tutoring program bankrolled by tax dollars. Last summer Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and others introduced an act to double the workforce of AmeriCorps, which offers personal academic support alongside other services. An AmeriCorps tutoring program begun in 2003 in Minnesota has spread to 12 other states, and extra funding could move it into more. American Enterprise Institute scholar Katharine Stevens argues the United States should imitate England, which last year set aside about $486 million to screen and subsidize private instruction for its public school students.
Despite backing for a national tutoring corps from three former U.S. education secretaries, Stevens doesn’t think it will materialize. “I think for this to happen, the administration would need to make it a priority,” Stevens said, explaining that teachers unions will likely oppose diverting funds from public schools and the Biden administration will probably follow their lead.
But state-level initiatives have already taken root. States pay most education costs in the United States and are motivated to help students catch up, Stevens said. “If kids are struggling and repeating grades and all kinds of things, it costs the state and localities a lot of money,” she said. “So they have an interest in spending money on solutions.”
The Tennessee Tutoring Corps paid about 600 college students up to $1,000 each to offer educational support last summer. North Carolina’s program is recruiting more workers to follow Ortiz’s cohort. Though the federal government may not establish its own tutoring corps, it could support state efforts: The American Rescue Plan Act currently in Congress earmarks $128 billion for K-12 schools and requires them to set aside 20 percent to tackle learning loss. It also sends an extra $620 million to AmeriCorps.
Churches have also stepped up. Oakton Church of the Brethren near Washington, D.C., has offered free private tutoring for three years. The pandemic has posed challenges, coordinator Debbie Seidel said. A few volunteers left when the program moved online, along with a handful of students who struggled with internet access. But it also has advantages: A volunteer who moved to Oklahoma kept participating. About 25 students now log into Zoom each week, splitting into breakout rooms for one-on-one or small group sessions. Seidel said their many Tibetan and Korean students have lost English language skills during the pandemic, and the program gives them a chance to practice. For the church, tutoring is an opportunity to serve, Seidel said: “We want to embody radical generosity.”
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Debbie Seidel’s name.
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