In February, the Ontario government made a $176 million commitment to tutoring as part of its learning recovery action plan in the wake of COVID-19.

The release of this plan and significant additional resources to address the harmful impacts of COVID on education is welcome, if overdue. However, the plan has flaws and should be improved.

The priority it sets on tutoring reflects strong evidence that well-designed tutoring programs are one of the most effective educational interventions. As my colleagues from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and I highlighted in a recent evidence review for Ryerson’s Diversity Institute/Future Skills Centre, powerful tutoring happens in school when it is done at least three times a week in small groups led by teachers, trained educational assistants or full-time recent graduates.

A meta-analysis released at the beginning of COVID by a team from MIT’s Nobel Prize-winning Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) shows that tutoring has a strong track record for early reading, and for math in middle and high school.

Strong test scores in one study suggest tutoring can result in struggling students gaining more than two years’ worth of additional learning relative to those in a regular program and closing gaps in achievement in challenging courses, graduation and post-secondary access.

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However, the Ontario government investment seems unlikely to achieve similar impressive outcomes for many reasons.

First, the plan fails to set any priorities. The pandemic’s harms and schooling disruptions have been difficult for everyone. But there have been disproportionately negative effects in schools in areas with lower-income and racialized populations. Disabled students also experienced exceptional difficulties.

The funding guidance for the action plan does not put any framework in place to ensure tutoring investments get to the students who need it most. There are no academic criteria in place and no comparable assessment data on which to base them. Nor are there socio-economic criteria to ensure that disadvantaged students or schools get priority.

This is particularly problematic because evidence suggests the pandemic has seen an increase in private tutoring for those who can afford it.

Second, the provincial tutoring investment fails to put in place any guardrails on program design beyond a suggested maximum five-students-to-one-tutor ratio.

According to the government backgrounder, boards may provide tutoring “before-and-after school, during school hours, on weekends, and in the summer” and may offer “programming for targeted, culturally appropriate, and at-risk students by connecting families to local organizations that support learning in a trusted environment grounded in the language, culture and community norms for students where needed.”

There is no requirement that tutoring be provided on a “high-dose” basis – at least three times a week – although evidence cited in our study makes it clear that frequency is a key driver of effectiveness. Tutoring on a weekly or occasional basis has some impact – but on average, less than half of that associated with very regular sessions.

A powerful J-PAL meta-analysis found that school-based tutoring is more than twice as effective as community-based tutoring. Notably, however, there is less high-quality evidence available about community-based tutoring, particularly programs where tutoring is tied to other activities to boost engagement.

After-school tutoring – as a system-wide intervention, even with large-scale public investments – is associated with low-take up and significant attendance challenges. Evaluations of the multi-billion-dollar supplementary educational services in the U.S. consistently highlight concern that the students who need the most support are least likely to participate in the out-of-school programs.

Our team’s recent ecosystem map shows there is very limited infrastructure to support community tutoring, especially if the province is hoping for a major expansion. It is not clear there is capacity to rapidly scale up in the community sector.

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Another concern is the timelines. The province took 23 months to respond to the pandemic. It allowed only weeks for local school boards to develop and implement a plan for tutoring, suggesting in February that it wanted tutoring in place by the end of April.

It’s true that learning needs are urgent. But experience from Britain and the U.S. suggests it takes time to implement high-quality programs.

Ambitious tutoring programs require school boards to hire, train, place and supervise a large number of people; to prioritize and select participants; and to work out the legal, logistical and educational connections between schools, individual teachers within schools and tutors. This requires far more time that what the government has provided.

As a result of this timing, there is a serious risk that these significant recovery funds will not be spent at all or spent much less effectively than they should be.

The government plan does require that boards evaluate the tutoring programs they put in place. But there is no guidance about key measures of effectiveness or program design that should be tracked to help figure out what model works best and to allow improvements. There were also no additional resources provided to support school boards’ highly overtaxed research departments or contribute to stronger data infrastructure. Finally, there has been no commitment to transparency, to ensure evaluations are publicly available.

Our team produced a universal evaluation toolkit that highlights the types of survey and achievement data that can contribute to institutional learning, but these systems, too, require up-front planning and investment in system-level data.

Perhaps the $175 million announcement is a way to shore up votes ahead of a summer election. Maybe something really is better than nothing. But failure to plan for effectiveness and equity after denying the harms being done to education during COVID disguises low expectations for success with appealing packaging, since tutoring is popular and there is a wide consensus that academic supports are required.

Ontario students – and all of us – deserve better.

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Kelly Gallagher-Mackay
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is an assistant professor in the faculty of liberal arts at Wilfrid Laurier University. Twitter @kgalmac

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