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Lesson 4.5

Extra Time and Tutoring:
When Kids Need More Time and Attention

It’s unreasonable to expect all kids to learn at the same pace.

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Sometimes a student needs more time.

That reality doesn’t fit with the organizational premise of school: put groups of kids together based on their chronological age, and expect them to proceed at about the same pace. Most of the time, teachers have little choice but to "aim for the middle," teaching through the curriculum in a way that will work for most kids. If they can, teachers try to pull kids aside for extra help or tutoring time. But there is only a certain amount of time in the day.

Improving the Use of Time

Many education buzzwords relate to differing approaches to the challenge of educating students at different levels simultaneously. In high schools particularly, the term "tracking" describes the approach of separating students into groups based on where they are academically. This approach assumes - or perhaps acknowledges - that not all kids advance through school with comparable skills and knowledge. One problem with tracking is that it tends to be a one-way ratchet: students can more easily be shifted to a "lower" track than moved to a "higher" one. Another problem is that the placement of students can be fraught with biases about expectations.

"Differentiated instruction" is an alternative that tries to avoid grouping students based on ability. This approach requires teachers to change how they teach to meet the needs of students with varying learning readiness. The goal is to teach everyone, without tracks or batch distinctions. This can be a difficult feat even for experienced teachers, in part because it is not always easy to tell which students are "getting it" and which are not.

Giving Some Kids More Time

In elementary grades especially, a relatively new version of this approach attempts to differentiate instruction based on data. Sometimes known as Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtI²), this approach combines high-quality instruction with a set of strategies for identifying kids who need extra help or tutoring time. The process focuses on individual students who are struggling and provides a vehicle for teamwork to strengthen their performance early, before educational problems increase in intensity. This strategy requires ongoing data about how well students are learning and what each student needs to be successful. By monitoring the data, educators seek to identify students who need extra help and respond with an intervention such as small group or one-on-one tutoring time. This might mean extra support in areas of identified need, extra time on a topic or skill, or perhaps support through technology. In some cases it will involve a more intensive approach, up to placing a student in some kind of academic workshop or support class for an entire school year. Data gathered from RtI² can be used in the identification process to determine if a student requires special education services.

It’s unreasonable to expect all kids to learn at the same pace.

Similar data monitoring could be used to identify children who are gifted or ready to accelerate. However, in-school "gifted" or "GATE" programs have become increasingly rare. State and federal program funds for gifted programs have been eliminated. If there is a gifted program in your school, it is because your school district committed funds for it. (Note: See the Ed100 blog for much more about this.) Some teachers do try to differentiate their classes in ways that enable such students to remain challenged.

Tutoring time is perhaps the ultimate time-related intervention, as it puts a student and an instructor together one-on-one. From a systemic perspective, the great problem with tutoring is that it is tremendously expensive. America briefly flirted with wide-scale publicly-funded tutoring -- it didn't work out. Here's what happened:

A provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) guaranteed children in some low-performing schools access to tutoring services, known as Supplemental Educational Services (SES), at a parent’s request. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but over time, as the requirements of NCLB were raised, an increasing number of schools and districts were classified as "low-performing," which led increasing numbers of students to qualify for SES. Of course, this led to a boom in business for firms that offered tutoring services. Some districts created their own tutoring programs; others hired outside firms. The program at its peak diverted billions from schools to tutoring companies, with results that harmed more than they helped. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) eliminated the mandate to provide tutoring time, effective in the 2017-18 school year.

Leveraging Technology

More and more computer programs have become available to help teachers provide extra supports and interventions, which may expand their ability to engage students effectively in learning. When fully incorporated into the school day, and used with all students, this approach is sometimes called “blended learning.” Rocketship Schools, a charter school network based in California, has received a lot of attention for its use of this approach, which in its way is all about using student learning time better.

Rocketship CEO Preston Smith explains it this way. “We should all focus on personalized learning and obsessing daily with how we ensure our students are spending large chunks of their day (80%+) in their optimal zone of learning—meaning exactly at their level. I would bet that students in countries that lead the world in achievement spend maybe 25-40% of their time in these optimal zones. Technology is an incredible tool in this work as there are online programs that immediately allow a student to access content in their optimal zone. Again—technology is not the complete answer, but it is definitely part of the solution.”

The next lesson examines the use of time for learning in summers, and the role that this season plays in the unequal learning results of high-wealth families and families in poverty.

Updated May 2017


"Tracking" separates students into groups based on their academic readiness. What are the risks of this approach?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 3, 2021 at 10:38 am
In 2021 SB 723 (Rubio) would direct funding to create a K-8 tutoring program.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 17, 2019 at 12:45 pm
Intervention is tricky. Our school district flirted with "academies" for the spring break which would be used to catch students up--it was dropped very soon because what is needed is ongoing regular intervention--say tutoring twice a week every week, not a big lump at any point (but especially not towards the end of the year). This goes back to the ounce of prevention concept writ large!
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 3:56 pm
This is excellent. I wish we had more
user avatar
Brandi Galasso April 24, 2015 at 9:13 pm
Student who are behind they pull them out 4 days a week for last hour and a half to read 180. Which from my personal experience causes some kids to fall behind and they never catch up. It seems it works at 1st for a little while, but then it seems to plateau.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 5, 2015 at 6:54 pm
I was disheartened to learn that one approach schools in our local district is to have substitute teachers come in to teach the class 2 days a week while the permanent teacher took the kids who needed extra help with reading. While the extra reading help is greatly needed for these students, I question the impact this has on the 20 other students in the classroom.
user avatar
Tay Fe April 23, 2015 at 2:52 pm
The worst part is that the substitutes come, teach, and still do not receive a contract. The substitute teacher should have a part time contract for teaching these classes.
user avatar
Mamabear March 19, 2015 at 11:49 pm
The "leveraging technology" process is only helpful if the online programs being used provide good reporting so parents, teachers and students are all aware whether it is helping. Our school is currently using a very primitive version of Success Maker which is very outdated. So, it's also important for schools to budget for new and improved technology tools.
user avatar
Steven N June 23, 2014 at 6:13 pm
The California School Boards Association, backed by the Packard Foundation, had a relatively large trial of a program called Summer Matters. The 12 pilot districts, with a very wide range of organization options (NGO, city/school, teacher led and all combos), have demonstrated how to organize and support this! What is the cost and outcomes? (ROI) I don't know! The efficiency of the programs are really going to depend on the particulars of the curriculum and instructors (both credentialed and non, volunteer and paid).
The 2013 CSBA Convention in SanDiego had a number of workshops - I expect the coming CSBA Convention in SF will also cover this. Ask for their outreach coordinators to address your Boards! INFO: under "Summer Learning Programs"
user avatar
Laurie Inman April 12, 2011 at 11:04 am
The U.S. Department of Education reports that only about 15% of the hundreds of thousands of students who are eligible for free tutoring are actually receiving services. Yet, there are many, many organizations and schools that provide after-school programs here in the Los Angeles area, and surely in other parts of the nation.
So why are students not receiving this free help? There is a range of answers, but more importantly what solutions exist? Actively promoting the opportunities throughout the community is vital to parents and students knowing and understanding their choices. Schools can enter into partnerships with non-profits that provide the human resources that are often times unavailable. Schools must also be creative in thinking about the when and how to offer tutoring whether it be on-site and/or in conjunction with a community organization. In addition, corporate professionals are willing to mentor students, if they are provided enough information to coordinate their time. It is imperative to be innovative when considering how to increase the number of students receiving free tutoring services and strengthen the system that supports them.
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