COVID School Spending: Addressing Learning Loss with High Impact Tutoring

Written by Charity Gardner

Policy Analyst, A+ Education Partnership



Throughout the pandemic and shutdowns, students have missed a significant amount of instructional time: research from McKinsey & Co. shows that, on average, students were 5 months behind in math and 4 months behind in reading because of the pandemic. High-impact tutoring is a means to address the loss of learning from the pandemic that can be implemented in a variety of settings.  Within our COVID School Spending Series, we will dig into the most promising strategies emerging in Alabama and nationwide of how schools are effectively addressing learning loss.  This blog post is the third in this “Addressing Learning Loss” series.

What is High-Impact Tutoring?

There are many new names for different kinds of tutoring, including targeted intensive tutoring and high-dosage tutoring, but what all of these names stress is that the tutoring programs they represent are effective. 

States like Tennessee are investing heavily in high-impact tutoring programs to recover student learning loss from the pandemic in the core subjects of math and English Language Arts. The program, which will impact 150,000 students that score below grade level in core subjects, will cost the state $200 million of its COVID relief funds. Click here to read more about this evidence-based investment. 

In the state of Alabama, a number of school districts are also investing in tutoring programs as a way to increase student achievement from the pandemic. Birmingham City Schools, for example, is using over 100 college students from the area in partnership with United Way of Central Alabama to tutor students who need help in math and reading. Read more about this program here

Because so many districts are looking to tutoring programs as a means to recover students, it is important to understand what features of a tutoring program lead to a high impact on student achievement. Not all tutoring programs are made equal, and there are clear differences in the structure and features of various programs. High-impact tutoring is so named because it is meant to have a significant effect on student achievement.

Features of High-Impact Tutoring

Research shows that tutoring programs with the biggest effect on student achievement all have the same critical components: 

  • High-Dosage. High-Dosage tutoring refers to how much tutoring a student is receiving in a given period of time. Providing tutoring sessions 3 or more times a week for 30 minutes to an hour is significantly more effective than holding sessions once or twice a week. For younger students, shorter, more frequent sessions may be better. Ideally tutoring programs last the duration of the school year, but absolutely should be no less than 10 weeks. 
  • 1-on-1 or Small Groups. One-on-one tutoring sessions are the most effective, but for cost-effectiveness, two to three student groups still provide a significant impact on learning, with some studies saying up to four students is acceptable. However, more students than this is considered small group instruction and requires more skill and training on behalf of the tutor. 
  • Scheduling. The most effective tutoring sessions occur during the school day, when students are most likely to attend. 
  • Training. Teachers and paraprofessional educators make the most effective tutors, but for large scale programs, those during the school day, or simply those unable to afford to hire teachers, volunteers, college students, or other staff can be effective provided that they are given ongoing training, coaching, and support. 
  • Data-Driven. Like classroom instruction, measuring student learning throughout the tutoring program is critical because it allows the tutor to tailor instruction to the student’s or group’s needs. Read our blog on data and assessments as a way to address learning loss here. 
  • High-Quality Instructional Materials. Tutors should utilize high-quality instructional materials that are aligned to state standards as well as the classroom curriculum. Tutors, and even trained teachers, are more effective when they use a high-quality curriculum. Read our blog on high-quality instructional materials here. 
  • Tutor-Student Relationships. Providing a student with a consistent tutor throughout their time in the program allows them to build a relationship with them. This has been proven to be positive for classroom teachers as well as tutors. 

Effectiveness of High-Impact Tutoring

High-impact tutoring, delivered three or more times a week for over 36 weeks, has been shown to increase achievements an average of three to fifteen months across grade levels. In one meta-analysis of different types of learning interventions, high-impact tutoring was shown to be the most effective at improving student achievement. One study of a math tutoring program showed that benefits lasted at least one to two years after the tutoring year. The National Student Support Accelerator has a district playbook for those interested in implementing high-impact tutoring and a research database that allows the user to search studies by study design, grade level, tutor type, and subject. 


There are a number of considerations for district leaders to keep in mind when designing tutoring programs that can impact their effectiveness: 

Will students miss class time to attend tutoring sessions?

Tutoring sessions should be in addition to regular classroom instruction, not in place of them. Sessions could occur during personalized learning periods, independent study times, or during extracurricular or elective classes. 

Which students will attend optional tutoring sessions? 

District and school leaders should consider if the students who need the most support will opt-in to tutoring programs, and if not, how to encourage them to do so or require it. 

Will targeted tutoring for students needing support stigmatize the program?

Requiring or offering to tutor only to struggling students could stigmatize their participation in their program, which could exacerbate social and emotional difficulties students may have returning to school. 

Addressing Equity

Tutoring is the most common and most effective intervention for elementary and middle school students from low-income backgrounds. One study of a tutoring program in New York showed growth in achievement for Black and Hispanic students as well as an increase in attendance, even as the program was less effective for the general student population. High-impact tutoring can be a great way for school districts to address learning loss for populations disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as required in ARP ESSER regulations. 

So What? Takeaways for Families and Communities

Questions for Parents and Families: 

  • Is my district using high-dosage tutoring as a means of addressing learning loss due to the pandemic? 
  • Who is available to receive tutoring? Are the students who need it most receiving it? 
  • Is the tutoring program offered by my district aligned with all the features of a high-quality tutoring program? 

Questions for Educators:

  • Which of my students need tutoring the most? 
  • How can I encourage students and families to participate in optional tutoring programs? 
  • Are tutors using materials aligned to my class’ curriculum? 
  • Will my students miss classes to attend tutoring sessions? 

Questions for Decision Makers:

  • Do students need additional support to make tutoring possible, like transportation?
  • How will tutors be selected and trained? 
  • What materials will be used and are they aligned with classroom curricula and state standards?  


  • This guide from the Education Trust, FutureEd at Georgetown University, and EdReform Now, explains how states play a role in districts’ use of ARP funds, research on high-impact tutoring, and provides further resources as well as case studies from other states. 
  • Another resource from the Education Trust and MDRC is part of a series on “Strategies to Solve Unfinished Learning”. This first issue of the series provides information on the most and least effective features of “intensive tutoring,” as well as critical questions for district leaders to take into consideration and lays out what other programs are doing. 
  • TN SCORE released a Planning and Implementation Guide for using “high-dosage tutoring” as a means to address learning loss, which includes worksheets for district leaders to fill out when planning their tutoring programs. 
  • Another document from TN SCORE explains what high-dosage tutoring is, lays out the keys to effective tutoring, and gives examples from districts in Tennessee. 
  • The National Student Support Accelerator released a paper that goes in-depth on the research behind high-impact tutoring as well as what still needs to be learned. 
  • The National Student Support Accelerator’s website has toolkits for districts looking to start tutoring, a cost calculator for district leaders, a research database (mentioned earlier), and they partner with districts implementing high-impact tutoring.
  • This is a great list of potential evidence-based, high-quality math instructional materials for tutoring programs, compiled by the Education Development Center after the publication of their 2019 report on Strengthening Math Intervention, linked here.