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Finding good tutors (and why any warm body won’t do)

Successful tutors forge a personal connection with students.

6 min read


Finding good tutors (and why any warm body won’t do)

Prateek Katyal/Unsplash

Tutoring has become a pandemic-related necessity to combat learning deficiencies for at least 33% of US students, but 76% of districts say it’s difficult to find qualified tutors, according to a recent study from Education Week and Kelly Education. 

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Education Week/
Kelly Education survey

Fredericktown Local Schools in Ohio is one of them — postponing its tutoring program until at least January as it struggles to find enough applicants to meet the needs prompted by the chaos of the pandemic. 

“Don’t focus on how you’ve always done tutoring before. Focus on what students need in order to make academic progress,” Blakely Meyers, vice president of Kelly Education’s Tutoring Solutions, tells SmartBrief. 

Where can school districts find tutors?

Formal, research-backed programs that train their own tutors and/or tap current or former teachers and paraprofessionals have proven to be “the most effective intervention and deliver the biggest bang for the buck,” in part because they’ll bring with them professional development, coaching and a structured tutoring model, Nancy Madden, the CEO of the Success for All Foundation and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Research and Reform in Education, tells SmartBrief. Paying tutors provides more consistency than using volunteers, and that consistency leads to better learning outcomes. “Why grow your own tutoring program when effective ones already exist?” she asks.

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Education Week/
Kelly Education survey

More than a third of respondents to an Education Week/ Kelly Education survey thought trained tutors who weren’t certified teachers could be a good solution, but fewer than 10% of pointed to such programs as a possibility. The vast majority of educators surveyed expected to seek tutoring help from teachers and paraprofessionals already working at the school.

Tutoring by university students and volunteers can be fruitful, but their impacts may be smaller. Tapping education majors, however, can build a pipeline of college students who could graduate to become a school’s long-term teachers. This could be an ideal choice for after-school tutoring, and places like Nashville, Tenn., are creating their own model with college students. Retired teachers may have more flexibility to help during regular school hours. High-school students may be best for small, periodic subject-matter hiccups. 

“Some districts and schools have had success leveraging the support of community organizations and local universities to identify individuals who are a good fit,” Madden says.

Universities and corporations such as Microsoft are jumping on the tutoring train, and initiatives like Khan Academy offer video lessons that can fill in small gaps.

A personal connection is vital

No matter how a school chooses to rethink tutoring, the human connection is key. 

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Education Week/
Kelly Education survey

“Tutors should have a strong background and understanding of specific subject matters, but also be very warm and relatable and connect well with children both emotionally and socially,” Meyers says. “The connection that’s built between those two over time is helping students learn how to gain support, how to cope and how to mentally navigate challenges.

Relationships like that take time to develop. “It is often easier to train a tutor on content than it is to train a tutor on relationship-building and tutoring approach,” Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University and education professor, tells SmartBrief, noting that content knowledge is more of a factor when working with upper-grade math students or multilingual students. 

The Annenberg Institute’s “District Playbook” features a Recruiting and Selecting Tutors section. The Toolkit for Tutoring Programs offers sample tutor job descriptions and other templates and resources. 

Other tutoring factors to consider 

When: About 60% of survey respondents said they planned for tutoring to take place during the school day, and the rest expected out-of-school tutoring as needed.

Where: “Administrators prefer tutoring in school because it’s the most equitable option. Otherwise, there are going to be people that cannot afford to attend a third-party location after school or cannot get transportation to the third party location,” Holly Kurtz, director of the Education Week Research Center, explained to SmartBrief.

Live, synchronous, virtual tutoring can work too: An online program with live, 24/7 tutors — one that created personalized plans for each student — has worked well for Victor Valley Union High School District in California, according to Ratmony Yee, the assistant superintendent of educational services, in a recent SmartBrief Originals article.

How: One-size-fits-all doesn’t work with tutoring — not within a district, a school or a classroom. Consider a combination of tutoring models as you look at student needs. Many programs offer full- to partial-service options. 

Some states have built their own tutoring programs. Loeb points to the Illinois Tutoring Initiative, which works with universities to provide tutors, and the North Carolina Education Corps, which recruits and trains the tutors.

How much: The average district is prepared to invest $25 an hour per tutor and a median $750 per student this school year alone, and most educators surveyed for the study anticipate tutoring lasting at least through 2022-23, Kurtz says. 

Washington, D.C., Public Schools is spending $41 million for tutoring. An Abell Foundation report shares tutoring options for the Baltimore City Public School System and suggests ways to scale a tutoring program to serve as many as 18,000 elementary-school students.

Several variables can affect price. Financial help from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Education Relief Fund makes tutoring more affordable now than ever. A calculator from the National Student Support Accelerator that can help school staff with an estimate. Some programs suggest a pay-for-success model works best. 

Other resources:

Americorp Schools of Hope

Annenberg Institute’s Tutoring Research

Annenberg Institute’s Policy Considerations for Tutoring

Education Week

Johns Hopkins University’s nonprofit ProvenTutoring

Kelly Education

National Bureau of Economic Research

US Department of Education

Infographic citations
* Ed Week research commissioned by Kelly Education
*** National Student Support Accelerator
**** McKinsey & Company


Diane Benson Harrington is a copy editor/writer for SmartBrief. As a freelancer, she has covered various industries. Connect with her on LinkedIn.


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