Schools keep buying online drop-in tutoring. Research doesn’t support it.

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% more students are below grade level than before the pandemic; even higher achieving students remain months behind where they should be.

Low uptake

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%. 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.

In January 2023, an independent research firm Mathematica released a more positive report on students’ math gains with an online tutoring service called UPchieve, which uses volunteers as tutors. It seemed to suggest that high school students could make extraordinary math progress from online homework help.

UPchieve is a foundation-funded nonprofit with a slightly different model. Instead of schools buying the tutoring service from a commercial vendor, UPchieve makes its tutors freely available to any student in grades eight to 12 living in a low-income zip code or attending a low-income high school. Behind the scenes, foundations cover the cost to deliver the tutoring, about $5 per student served. (Those foundations include the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Overdeck Family foundations, which are also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

UPchieve posted findings from the study in large font on its website: “Using UPchieve 9 times caused student test scores to meaningfully increase” by “9 percentile rank points.” If true, that would be equivalent to doubling the amount of math that a typical high school student learns. That would mean that students learned an extra 14 weeks worth of math from just a few extra hours of instruction. Not even the most highly regarded and expensive tutoring programs using professional tutors who are following clear lesson plans achieve this.

The study garnered a lot of attention on social media and flattering media coverage “for disrupting learning loss in low-income kids.” But how real was this progress?

Gift card incentives

After I read the study, which was also commissioned by the Gates foundation, I immediately saw that UPchieve’s excerpts were taken out of context. This was not a straightforward randomized controlled trial, comparing what happens to students who were offered this tutoring with students who were not. Instead, it was a trial of the power of cash incentives and email reminders.

For the experiment, Mathematica researchers had recruited high schoolers who were already logging into the UPchieve tutoring service. These were no ordinary ninth and 10th graders. They were motivated to seek extra help, resourceful enough to find this tutoring website on their own (it was not promoted through their schools) and liked math enough to take extra tests to participate in the study. One group was given extra payments of $5 a week for doing at least 10 minutes of math tutoring on UPchieve, and sent weekly email reminders. The other group wasn’t. Students in both groups received $100 for participating in the study.

The gift cards increased usage by 1.6 hours or five to six more sessions over the course of 14 weeks. These incentivized students “met” with a tutor for a total of nine sessions on average; the other students averaged fewer than four sessions. (As an aside, it’s unusual that cash incentives would double usage. Slicing the results another way, only 22% of the students in the gift-card group used UPchieve more than 10 times compared with 14% in the other group. That’s more typical.)

At the end of 14 weeks, students took the Renaissance Star math test, an assessment taken by millions of students across the nation. But the researchers did not report those test scores. That’s because they were unlucky in their random assignment of students. By chance, comparatively weaker math students kept getting assigned to receive cash incentives. It wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison between the two groups, a problem that can happen in a small randomized controlled trial. To compensate, the researchers statistically adjusted the final math scores to account for differences in baseline math achievement. It’s those statistically adjusted scores that showed such huge math gains for the students who had received the cash incentives and used the tutoring service more.

However, the huge 9 percentile point improvement in math was not statistically significant. There were so few students in the study – 89 in total – that the results could have been a fluke. You’d need a much larger sample size to be confident.

A caution from the researcher

When I interviewed one of the Mathematica researchers, he was cautious about UPchieve and on-demand tutoring in general. “This is an approach to tutoring that has promise for improving students’ math knowledge for a specific subset of students: those who are likely to proactively take up an on-demand tutoring service,” said Greg Chojnacki, a co-author of the UPchieve study. “The study really doesn’t speak to how promising this model is for students who may face additional barriers to taking up tutoring.”

Chojnacki has been studying different versions of tutoring and he says that this on-demand version might prove to be beneficial for the “kid who may be jumping up for extra help the first chance they get,” while other children might first need to “build a trusting relationship” with a tutor they can see and talk to before they engage in learning. With UPchieve and other on-demand models, students are assigned to a different tutor at each session and don’t get a chance to build a relationship.

Chojnacki also walked back the numerical results in our interview. He told me not to “put too much stock” in the exact amount of math that students learned. He said he’s confident that self-motivated students who use the tutoring service more often learned more math, but it could be “anywhere above zero” and not nearly as high as 9 percentile points – an extra three and a half months worth of math instruction.

UPchieve defends “magical” results

UPchieve’s founder, Aly Murray, told me that the Mathematica study results initially surprised her, too. “I agree they almost seem magical,” she said by email. While acknowledging that a larger study is needed to confirm the results, she said she believes that online tutoring without audio and video can “lead to greater learning” than in-person tutoring “when done right.”

“I personally believe that tutoring is most effective when the student is choosing to be there and has an acute need that they want to address (two things that are both uniquely true of on-demand tutoring),” she wrote. “Students have told us how helpful it is to get timely feedback and support in the exact moment that they get confused (which is often late at night in their homes while working on their homework). So in general, I believe that on-demand tutoring is more impactful than traditional high-dosage tutoring models on a per tutoring session or per hour of tutoring basis. This could be part of why we were able to achieve such outsized results despite the low number of sessions.”

Murray acknowledged that low usage remains a problem. At UPchieve’s partner schools, only 5% of students logged in at least once during the 2022-23 year, she told me. At some schools, usage rates fell below 1%. Her goal is to increase usage rates at partner schools to 36%. (Any low-income student in grades eight to 12 can use the tutoring service at no cost and their schools don’t pay UPchieve for the tutoring either, but some “partner” schools pay UPchieve to promote and monitor usage.)

The downside to homework help

Helping students who are stuck on a homework assignment is certainly nice for motivated kids who love school, but relying on homework questions is a poor way to catch up students who are the most behind, according to many tutoring experts.

“I have a hard time believing that students know enough about what they don’t know,” said Susanna Loeb, a Stanford University economist who founded the National Student Support Accelerator, which aims to bring evidence-based tutoring to more students.

For students who are behind grade level, homework questions often don’t address their gaps in basic math foundations. “Maybe underneath, they’re struggling with percentages, but they’re bringing an algebra question,” said Loeb. “If you just bring the work of the classroom to the tutor, it doesn’t help students very much.”

Pre-pandemic research of once-a-week after-school homework help also produced disappointing results for struggling students. Effective tutoring starts with an assessment of students’ gaps, Loeb said, followed by consistent, structured lessons.

Schools struggle to offer tutors for all students

With so little evidence, why are schools buying on-demand online tutoring? Pittsburgh superintendent Wayne Walters said he was unable to arrange for in-person tutoring in all of his 54 schools and wanted to give each of his 19,000 students access to something. He signed a contract with for unlimited online text-chat tutoring in 2023-24.

“I’m going forward with it because it’s available,” Walters said. “If I don’t have something to provide, or even offer, then that limits opportunity and access. If there’s no access, then I can’t even push the needle to address the most marginalized and the most vulnerable.”

Walters hopes to make on-demand tutoring “sexy” and appealing to high schoolers accustomed to texting. But online tutoring is not the same as spontaneous texting between friends. One-minute delays in tutors’ replies to questions can test students’ patience.

On-demand tutoring can appear to be an economical option. Pittsburgh is able to offer this kind of tutoring, which includes college admissions test prep for high schoolers, to all 19,000 of its students for $600,000. Providing 400 students with a high-dosage tutoring program – the kind that researchers recommend – could cost $1.5 million. There are thousands of Pittsburgh students who are significantly behind grade level. It doesn’t seem fair to deliver high-quality in-person tutoring to only a lucky few.

However, once you factor in actual usage, the economics of on-demand tutoring looks less impressive. In Fairfax County, Va., for example, only 1.6% of students used If Pittsburgh doesn’t surpass that rate, then no more than 300 of its students will be served.

There are no villains here. School leaders are trying to do the best they can and be fair to everyone. Hopes are raised when research suggests that online on-demand tutoring can work if they can succeed in marketing to students. But they should be skeptical of studies that promise easy solutions before investing precious resources. That money could be better spent on small-group tutoring that dozens of studies show is more effective for students.

This story about drop-in tutoring was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Proof Points and other Hechinger newsletters.

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