Donors bet on recovery strategy despite major challenges
A new multimillion-dollar effort will fund K-12 tutoring projects, experiment with new models and clarify what works and what doesn’t, and create a tutoring network connecting dozens of districts and some States.
Unveiled on April 5, the venture will be led by a newly created organization, Accelerate, and will receive initial funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the Overdeck Family Foundation and Kenneth C. Griffin, who runs Citadel, an investment firm. So far, the partners have raised $65 million of a $100 million goal.
The effort will be led by CEO Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee State Superintendent of Education. Janice Jackson, the former leader of Chicago Public Schools, will serve as executive chair.
“The goal, if we are successful 10 years from now, is that high-quality tutoring is part of what students can expect to get in a school system. That can only happen if we figure out how to do it right, if we address some of those personnel challenges,” Jackson said. “And it can’t cost $3,000 per student.”
Students need intensive help, but the blueprint is unclear
The organization will immediately begin seeking districts, tutoring providers and states to join its network. He plans to work with a dozen districts and two to three states.
The need for tutoring programs that work at scale is clear. Numerous studies reveal that the growth of student learning has slowed during the pandemic, which has exacerbated the already gaping opportunity gaps among students. And the latest of three rounds of federal pandemic relief funding for schools ordered districts to dedicate at least a fifth of their funding cuts to tutoring and other evidence-based ways to catch up with students.
As recently as his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called on districts to prioritize tutoring and others to volunteer to become tutors.
“We can all play a part: sign up to be a tutor or mentor,” he said.
But nearly two years after the pandemic first hit schools, several big challenges with large-scale tutoring have become apparent.
- Recruitment. Many districts have reported difficulty finding tutors, although the shortage is not as severe as that of bus drivers, substitutes and other positions. Yet the same forces that have caused widespread labor market disruption are complicating districts’ ability to hire and adequately compensate tutors.
- Capacity. Earlier this year, vendors struggled to launch programs as the rapid spread of the omicron variant led to massive staff disruptions. And some state initiatives, like the New Jersey Tutoring Corps, have relied heavily on outside partners, in part because school districts often simply didn’t have the bandwidth to oversee programs with fidelity.
- Absorption. As with the Extended Learning and Summer School options, many tutoring programs are voluntary, and it is not always clear that students who need extra help the most are getting it. For reasons of logistics and flexibility, tutoring is often offered as a voluntary supplement rather than integrated into the regular school schedule.
- Lack of research on online tutoring. Most tutoring research does not reflect the constraints school districts face in getting programs up and running now. And very few of them are specifically about online tutoring, which is increasingly taken into account by the districts.
The landscape of online tutoring is particularly variable. Some of the larger online providers do offer on-demand homework help with a tutor, not the kind of sustained mentoring that most previous research has found to be a successful practice. And other providers who built their reputation on in-person tutoring are now experimenting with hybrids, such as ed-tech software that leverages artificial intelligence or other forms of computational learning, to complement traditional modes.
Partly because of the plethora of options, leaders of the new organization say they will work with partners who are launching both in-person and online tutoring models.
“Some children, in certain subjects, in certain contexts, need a little in-person, high-dose tutoring. Some can do really well with the hybrid where they’re a bit inline and a bit beefed up in person,” Huffman said. “Some students might do very well with technology-enabled tutoring if there’s a well-researched program that works for them.”
A research and philanthropic program
But the end goal, leaders say, is to shape the market to support efficiency and ease the burden of quality control on overworked school and district leaders.
“There are all these actors out there with no incentive to research their programs and see how effective they are,” Jackson noted. “We have to bring certain parameters into this space. If I hear one more [online tutoring company] saying “We went from X to Y million students enrolled” as a marker of success, I’d be ready to jump out the window. We need to make sure they fill those gaps.
There’s already an implication that schools and districts aren’t spending their relief funds quickly or wisely enough, she noted; the project could help counter this narrative.
“One of my concerns is that the public school systems were struggling financially before the pandemic, and I don’t want this injection of money to be seen as a waste. I want to be able to do things to show how effective it is,” Jackson said.
The new project will contain a significant research component: The University of Chicago will work with the new organization to conduct a randomized experimental study as part of the project, although details on how this will work are not yet available. Accelerate will also work with the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which has launched its own tutoring and research initiative..
Accelerate supporters have a long history of philanthropy in K-12 education. The Gates Foundation has supported hundreds of millions of dollars in projects aimed at improving the quality of teachers, using an effective curriculum and learning. Arnold Ventures, formerly the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, supported blended learning initiatives in schools. (Education Week currently receives operational support from the Gates Foundation.)
The Overdeck Family Foundation, meanwhile, has helped fund statewide tutoring programs in Tennessee and New Jersey, among other investments.