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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 students need more time.

The education system is generally designed with the optimistic model that all kids keep up with the class. But what happens when they don't?

To support a student who needs more help, nothing beats one-on-one time with a well-prepared tutor. A qualified personal tutor can help a student focus on learning exactly what they need to know to catch up, or move ahead.

Tutoring is costly

The operational premise of school is that students can learn together efficiently. One-on-one tutoring is a powerful way to help a student on a temporary or emergency basis, but it is prohibitively expensive, and schools don't have unlimited staff. Most of the time, teachers have little choice but to power through the curriculum, explaining subjects as best they can in a way that will work for most kids. Mostly they "aim for the middle," pulling aside kids who need extra help. But there is only a certain amount of time in the day.

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 - 2002-2015) 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, an increasing number of schools and districts qualified SES. This led to a boom in business for tutoring services. Some districts created their own tutoring programs; others hired outside firms. At its peak, the program 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, beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

Improving the use of time in school

A central problem of education is that students need different things at the same time. Teachers have to slice their attention to make the best use they can of the time they have with students, mostly in groups. Educators take many approaches to cope with challenge of educating students at different levels at the same time. Perhaps because the challenges are so complex, educators can become very philosophical about them.

When educators become philosophical they tend to invent new jargon. Buckle up.

Tracking decisions can be biased

Tracking: The term tracking (or, more neutrally, grouping) describes the approach of separating students into groups based on what they are ready to learn. This approach assumes - or acknowledges - that not all kids advance through school with comparable skills, knowledge, and speed. Tracking is efficient — it enables groups of strong, motivated students to learn and progress quickly, unencumbered by slower learners. It also allows students who need more time to have it. Large classes can function if students are ready for the material.

A disadvantage of placing kids on tracks is that placement decisions tend to be permanent. Students can easily down-shift to a slower track, but the decision is one-way. Once placed on a slower track, it is fiendishly hard to catch up, especially in math, sciences, and world languages. Another important disadvantage is that placement decisions involve judgment, and judgment can be clouded by bias.

Differentiated instruction: Because tracking decisions are hard to reverse, most teachers try to avoid grouping students based on ability if they can. It's not easy. Teachers have to be creative to meet the authentic needs of students at varying levels of learning readiness. It 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 aren't.

To intervene effectively before students fall seriously behind, schools need ways to detect problems and act on them in timely ways. To do this systematically, it helps for teachers to use consistent approaches to teaching and testing.

Jargon related to grouping and supporting students

Schools and districts have taken many creative approaches to giving students extra help. As you might expect, each program gets a new name, which makes for a glorious alphabet soup of acronyms. As of 2023, the currently ascendent term appears to be Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS). The California Department of Education has declared the related term Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtI²) out of vogue. Grouping students is also a common tactic for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

Decades ago, California schools used to set aside time specifically for students who were identified as Gifted and Talented (GATE). These programs have been almost entirely eliminated. If there is a gifted program in your school, it is because your school district committed local funds for it. (See the Ed100 blog for much more about this.)

Leveraging technology to make learning time more effective

Blended learning personalizes education with technology

Technology has become increasingly important to the effective use of time for learning. Web-based systems can help teachers give students the instruction and practice that they need to understand and master some academic skills. When technology is deeply incorporated into the operation of the school day, it's sometimes called blended learning. Rocketship Schools, a charter school network, received a lot of attention as an early pioneer of this approach.

Preston Smith, the co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, 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 unequal role of summertime in education.

This lesson was updated December 2023


​​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
LeeAnn Corral March 6, 2024 at 5:01 pm
Smaller class size would help with this problem. Having more time to work with and sit with students while they are working makes a big difference. I was also a job share teacher and was able to "run things by " my partner and address problems sooner.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 10, 2022 at 10:46 pm
In 2022 the College Corps launched — it will provide tutoring services
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 8:23 pm
To help students recover from learning loss during the pandemic, the 2022-23 state Budget creates a Learning Recovery Emergency Fund ($7.9 billion) to support initiatives through the 2027–28 school year . The money can be used for :

• Instructional Learning Time

• Closing Learning Gaps

• Pupil Supports such as the health, counseling, or mental health services, including community schools .

• Instruction for credit-deficient pupils

• Academic Services—Providing additional academic services such as diagnostic, progress monitoring, and benchmark assessments of pupil learning.
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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