Interview with Susanna Loeb (Part I): How High-Impact Tutoring Helps At-Risk Students Impacted by COVID-19
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the combined consequences on health, the economy, and K-12 schools started to take their toll. Students around the country found themselves attending classes online from home, but while some thrived, many experienced hardships and struggled to stay engaged. The pandemic’s effects were especially hard on students from low-income families, with impacts such as more profound learning loss, wider knowledge gaps, and increased absenteeism.
The country is now well into its third year coping with this continuing crisis, and many valuable lessons have been learned along the way. Several academic organizations have researched the above-mentioned impacts that remote learning has had on at-risk students and have explored ways to address the damage of learning loss and mitigate it moving forward. One such institute is the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in Rhode Island, whose director, Dr. Susanna Loeb, is featured in a Pearls of Wisdom webinar on our YouTube channel (full video embedded below).
This article will summarize some of the key points on high-impact tutoring that Dr. Loeb made in the January 2022 webinar with our CRO Nate Casey. In the webinar, Dr. Loeb noted that “studies across the nation have shown that students this year are significantly behind similar students in their pre-pandemic learning.” Among the many studies which support her claim is one from curriculum provider Amplify. Amplify’s research revealed that of ~400,000 kindergartners whose data was reviewed, only 37% were on track in their early reading skills, equating to an 18% drop from pre-pandemic years. It further observed that students’ learning loss “due to COVID may have life-long consequences if they are not provided with additional instructional support.”
McKinsey and Company published an equally alarming report entitled “COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning” last year. McKinsey’s analysis concluded that K-12 students were left an average of “five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the  school year.”
The McKinsey report further cited that the “pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.” Black students experienced particularly harmful effects, with “six months of unfinished learning” in math alone (and seven months for those in low-income schools).
As a result, McKinsey projected that affected high school students are more likely to drop out and seniors are less likely to attend college. As a result, long-term effects might likely include significantly lower lifetime earnings and putting future generations at risk by perpetuating a cycle of educational and economic obstacles.
To break the cycle, Dr. Loeb has met with educators and education leaders to discuss and identify solutions. Chief among the listed possible solutions is tutoring. “Tutoring rose to the top,” asserted Dr. Loeb in the webinar, “because of the large body of research pointing to its effectiveness in catching students up across grade levels and content areas.” She praised tutoring as a “high-potential option for catching students up, re-engaging them in school, and broadly reducing some of the striking and expanding inequalities.”
However, tutoring is not without its own challenges, which is why Dr. Loeb and others aim to avoid the mistakes of past decades. “Many of us remember the No Child Left Behind era in which billions were spent on a type of tutoring that turned out not to be terribly effective or equitable,” she cautioned. She also acknowledged the challenge of scaling tutoring efforts to a magnitude large enough to make a difference.
To address these hurdles, Dr. Loeb suggests a method known as high-impact tutoring. “Effective tutoring requires more than just high-dosage (the amount of tutoring a student participates in). The consistency of the tutor, the tutor’s training and ongoing coaching, and the use of data and high-quality materials for instruction are also important to ensure effectiveness.”
In the webinar, Dr. Loeb reviewed the hallmarks of high-impact tutoring, which include:
- Embedded tutoring – done during the school day, a minimum of 3 days per week
- Use of small groups – up to 3 students
- Use of student learning data – to inform tutoring sessions and focus lessons on student needs, thus accelerating learning
- Consistency – using tutors who are trained and supported, resulting in positive and effective tutor-student relationships
Discussing these highlights, Dr. Loeb noted the key element of maintaining quality while scaling. “The desire to increase scale tends to come with a push to decrease quality, increasing the number of students per tutor or decreasing the number of times per week or not providing coaching for tutors.” For this reason, she emphasizes “high-impact instead of high-dosage” approaches.
“High-impact programs provide a lot of tutoring with quality,” she stated in the webinar. “It is clearly better to give a smaller number of students really high-quality tutoring than all students low-quality tutoring to increase equity.”
“The benefit of tutoring,” she continued, “comes from two mechanisms: the close relationship that students and tutors develop, and the focus on the individual student’s specific needs. The tutor has to have the data and take the time to know what the student knows and doesn’t know.” Homing in more on the importance of data, she pointed out that “high-impact tutoring uses formative assessments to understand what students know and don’t know.” Thus, data is vital “to identify and address issues and to continuously improve.”
In closing, Dr. Loeb reiterated how modern research offers ample proof in support of her proposals. “Rarely in research do we have so much evidence pointing to the promise of a specific intervention. High-impact tutoring is really the only intervention that has proven effectiveness across a range of grade levels, content areas, and locations. The driving force behind its effectiveness is the excellent relationships tutors and students develop. Our goal at the Annenberg Institute is to provide all students with the same access to high-impact tutoring.”
Stay tuned for Parts II and III of our recap of Dr. Susanna Loeb’s webinar with Pearl’s Nate Casey. These upcoming articles will review how the Annenberg Institute’s National Student Support Accelerator aims to help students recover from learning loss (in Part II), and will offer a comparison of online and in-person tutoring effectiveness and how to find the most effective tutoring strategies (in Part III).
You can also watch the full webinar below and be sure to sign up to be notified of upcoming webinars!