Tens of millions of students may now be months or, in some cases, even a full year behind because they couldn’t attend school in person during the pandemic. 

Significant setbacks are especially likely for the most vulnerable students — kids with disabilities and those living in poverty, who didn’t have a computer, a reliable internet connection or a workspace to learn at home. Educators will have to do something different for the 2021-22 school year to make up for those losses. 

Schools are already spending big chunks of their approximately $190 billion in pandemic relief money on a range of strategies from after-school programs to cutting class size. But research shows that many of these ideas have had a spotty track record in the past. Schools will have to pay close attention to what’s worked — and what hasn’t — to maximize their odds for success with just about any strategy.

No catch-up strategy can possibly benefit all students. But studies do point toward which strategies are most effective, how they can best be implemented—and what approaches might be a waste of time and money. Here’s a rundown of the most relevant research.

High-dosage tutoring

Research points to intensive daily tutoring as one of the most effective ways to help academically struggling children catch up. A seminal 2016 study sorted through almost 200 well-designed experiments on improving education, from expanding preschool to reducing class size, and found that frequent one-to-one tutoring was especially effective in increasing learning rates for low-performing students. 

Education researchers have a particular kind of tutoring in mind, what they call “high-dosage” tutoring. Studies show it has produced big achievement gains for students when the tutoring occurs every day or almost every day. Less frequent tutoring, by contrast, was not as helpful. In the research literature, the tutors are specially trained and coached and adhere to a detailed curriculum with clear steps on how to work with one or two students at a time. The best results occur when tutoring takes place at school during the regular day.

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“It’s not once-a-week homework help,” said Jonathan Guryan, an economist at Northwestern University who has evaluated school tutoring programs. 

Back to Class: How schools can rebound

Educators know what will work to help kids catch up after the pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions to education. The Seattle Times is publishing a series of stories in partnership with The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee. This series explores how schools and districts have embraced best practices, or innovated to find new solutions, for back to school. 

A 2020 review of 100 tutoring programs found that intensive tutoring is particularly helpful at improving students’ reading skills during the early elementary years, and most effective in math for slightly older children. One 2021 study found tutoring led to strong math gains for even high school students, enabling those who started two years behind grade level to catch up. 

Many Washington school districts, community and volunteer organizations offer some form of tutoring before or after the school day — but “high frequency” or in-school tutoring hasn’t caught on here. Some districts, such as Everett School District, say that paraeducators are offering additional educational support. “But we have not hired ‘tutors’ to do this,” during the school day, said Kathy Reeves, director of communications at Everett Public Schools.

This fits with a frustrating pandemic trend, researchers say.

Nationwide data suggests that during the pandemic, many districts continued the same type of generalized tutoring that was available before schools shut down — but didn’t expand offerings to help all or most kids catch up. According to a new national Rand survey, for instance, only 6 out of 10 school districts offered small group tutoring, one-on-one tutoring, or both in spring and summer 2021.

That worries experts such as Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell. “It’s a concern to me because if there’s one thing we know … (it’s) that tutoring works. It’s the thing that works best for catching kids up, and specifically intensive, regular and small group tutoring,” she said.

It’s surprising that districts haven’t made more of an effort to bulk up their tutoring options, Lake said, especially given the large influx of federal relief dollars intended to help schools address lost learning time. But launching a new or expanded tutoring effort poses logistical challenges: hiring, training and coordinating tutoring schedules take time and planning. Districts should have begun these efforts months ago, Lake said.

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But there are some outliers. For years, several Washington state school districts have enlisted the help of AmeriCorps and other programs which assign tutors and mentors in classrooms and after-school programs.

Before and during the pandemic, these workers — many of them fresh out of college — filled a variety of roles, not just academic ones.

In the Port Angeles School District, on the Olympic Peninsula, tutors (also called “mentors” through the program) go from classroom to classroom at the elementary school level and run tutoring centers at the middle and high school level.

When school buildings closed in March 2020, the tutors ran daily homework help sessions for kids, often in the evening, and invited parents so they could also learn what was covered online.

As kids returned to classrooms, the tutors took on the role of easing children back into the flow of school life.

At the high school level, the tutors were also tapped to create enrichment programs to encourage socializing among students, including a cooking class or sewing class.

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Through a 23-year-old partnership with City Year, which receives funding from AmeriCorps, Seattle Public Schools deploys several dozen tutors in schools in areas with high populations of students of color and low-income families.

Each tutor is assigned to a classroom and responsible for everything from reinforcing content to helping students regulate their emotions. Tutors will often take a smaller group of students to work with after teachers deliver the lesson. They also run after-school programs at the schools.

At Southshore K-8 school, the City Year workers have been an important part of literacy groups and reading circles with students to work on listening and comprehension. The program has a strong focus on social-emotional skills, giving students a mood meter they can use to indicate how they’re feeling during a lesson.

Not all tutoring is successful

When the No Child Left Behind law was first passed in 2001, schools got extra money to tutor students who were behind. But there were many reports of tutoring fraud and fiascos. Sometimes tutors weren’t properly trained and there wasn’t a clear curriculum. Often when tutoring was scheduled after school, many students didn’t show up.

Even thoughtfully designed tutoring programs can fail. A randomized control trial of math tutoring for fourth through eighth grade students in Minnesota was a flop. There have been other disappointments too. 

In effective math programs, for example, tutors don’t simply reteach the previous year’s lessons. Instead, tutors know what is being taught in the students’ regular classes that week and give their students extra practice on those topics or review prerequisite concepts.

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Much as corporate America relies on just-in-time deliveries, several effective tutoring programs rely on just-in-time review. Determining what those key underlying concepts are isn’t obvious; curriculum experts need to be involved to create materials that guide tutors on how to diagnose each student’s knowledge gaps and what to teach each student. 

In a successful algebra tutoring program in Chicago, researchers highlighted how effective it was for tutors to be able to pull different practice problems to match each student’s weaknesses. 

To accomplish this, the tutors themselves don’t need to be highly trained educators, but they do need training, coaching and monitoring. The late Robert Slavin, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, calculated that college-educated teaching assistants produced learning gains that were at least as high as those produced by certified teachers and sometimes larger. Even paid volunteers, such as AmeriCorps members working as tutors, were able to produce strong results, Slavin found. 

After-school programs

After-school programs might seem like a good idea because they give teachers extra time to cover material that students missed last year. But getting students to attend faithfully is a chronic problem. For students who attend regularly, high quality after-school programs sometimes produce reading or math gains, but many programs operate with poorly trained teachers and lessons that are disconnected from what students are learning in class. When researchers look across studies, they usually don’t see meaningful gains in reading or math achievement.

Summer school programs don’t fare well in evaluations, either. Kids don’t want to miss out on outdoor fun with their friends and often don’t show up. 

After-school programs appear to be better at improving students’ social wellbeing. A meta-analysis of 68 studies of after-school programs by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning found that students participating in an after-school program improved their school-day attendance and were less likely to engage in drug use or problem behavior. 

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Another option is to make after-school hours mandatory by extending the school day for everyone. That has worked well when the extra time is used for tutoring. But research evaluations have also shown longer school days can be an academic bust. Schools don’t always use the extra time effectively with well-designed classes targeted at students’ specific academic gaps. And learning is taxing; students’ brains might need a break after almost seven hours of classes. 

Retention and remediation

Repeating a grade, what educators call retention, might make intuitive sense, especially for students who missed most of the past year at school. Before the pandemic, research outcomes for retention were generally miserable. Having students do the same thing twice didn’t help. A successful exception was shown in a study of a Florida program in which the most commonly repeated year, third grade, was accompanied by tutoring and extra support. It’s possible that these students would have fared just as well, or better, if they had received tutoring and proceeded to fourth grade.

It’s not clear if the retention research is a good guide right now. We don’t really know how students will fare if they repeat a year in-person that they effectively missed because they were learning remotely. However, educators point out that being held back is demoralizing and many students lose their enthusiasm for school.

Historically, remedial classes have also been a bust. The argument for them is that teachers can give lower-achieving students the correct level of instruction so that the students aren’t overwhelmed in classes that are too challenging. But in practice, students often don’t progress. Instead, they get stuck at the bottom, learning less each year and falling further and further behind the rest of their classmates. 

Online credit recovery classes, which allow students to retake classes that they have failed, have been popular with high school administrators in recent years. Studies show that students are more likely to pass a course when they can click their way through it, and such classes are helping more students graduate from high school, but students do not seem to improve their academic skills as much as they would in face-to-face classes. 

One promising approach is to assign students who are far behind to both a remedial class and a grade-level class simultaneously. This double-dosing strategy has spread rapidly at community colleges but hasn’t been studied as much in elementary, middle or high schools. One evaluation of double-dosing in algebra found that it worked in Chicago high schools but not in middle school math in Miami. Refinement and further study are warranted. 

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Acceleration

Teachers know that students in remedial classes get discouraged and lose their motivation to learn. This year, an anti-remediation sentiment spread quickly among educators, who’ve adopted a mantra: “Accelerate, don’t remediate.” What they mean by acceleration is fuzzy.

Teachers at one elementary school in Washington state described it as promoting kids to grade-level material with extra support, such as a preprinted multiplication table to help them follow along in class, while also asking teachers to somehow find time to do catch-up review when breaking the class into small groups. A charter school network recently described acceleration as interweaving review material with grade-level content.

A May 2021 report by a nonprofit online math provider, Zearn, found that students learned more math during the 2020-21 school year when truncated review material was woven into grade-level lessons than when they were retaught many of the previous year’s lessons. This comparison of the two approaches using education technology is promising, but more research is needed.

The extra review material can push out some topics that would traditionally be taught this coming year. Though called acceleration, in practice, it can mean teaching less and slowing down the pace. 

This story about catching up was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.