Ever since schools reopened and resumed in-person instruction, districts have been trying to help students catch up from pandemic learning losses. The Biden Administration has urged schools to use tutoring. Many schools have purchased an online version that gives students 24/7 access to tutors. Typically, communication is through text chat, similar to communicating with customer service on a website. Students never see their tutors or hear their voices.
Researchers estimate that billions have been spent on these online tutoring services, but so far, there’s no good evidence that they are helping many students catch up. And many students need extra help. According to the most recent test scores from spring 2023, 50 percent more students are below grade level than before the pandemic; even higher achieving students remain months behind where they should be.
The main problem is that on-demand tutoring relies on students to seek extra help. Very few do. Some school systems have reported usage rates below 2 percent. A 2022 study by researchers at Brown University of an effort to boost usage among 7,000 students at a California charter school network found that students who needed the most help were the least likely to try online tutoring and only a very small percentage of students used it regularly. Opt-in tutoring could “exacerbate inequalities rather than reduce them,” warned a September 2023 research brief by Brown University’s Annenberg Center, Results for America, a nonprofit that promotes evidence-backed policies, the American Institutes for Research and NWEA, an assessment firm.