In Tutoring, As in Teaching, Structured Programs Work Best

Published December 1, 2006

The Tutoring Revolution: Applying Research for Best Practices, Policy Implications, and Student Achievement
Edward E. Gordon, Ronald R. Morgan, Charles J. O’Malley, and Judith Ponticell
Rowman & Littlefield Education, November 2006
Cloth, 262 pages, $29.95, ISBN 1-57886-532-8

A structured curriculum is one of the key features of proven high-quality tutoring procedures. So concludes a new book, co-authored by tutoring expert Edward E. Gordon, that reviews both tutoring research and theories of learning.

This finding for tutoring parallels what University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers reported for classroom instruction five years ago: that higher-achieving teachers use explicit instruction rather than student-centered experiential learning.

Tutoring has become a high-growth industry over the past five years, since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That law identified “supplemental educational services” (SES), such as private tutoring, as one of the options that persistently failing public schools could use federal funds to offer parents.

Although a maximum of $2 billion of Title I funds could be directed to SES, current spending is about $400 million and growing at about 20 percent a year, according to Tim Wiley, senior analyst at Boston-based Eduventures, a leading information-services provider for the education marketplace.

The private tutoring industry, excluding SES, has a long-term growth rate of 4 to 8 percent, according to Wiley, and served 1.9 million K-12 students in 2004-05 on revenues of $2.2 billion.

Finding Tutors

To help families find reliable tutors, in 2002 Gordon drew on his 35 years of experience in tutoring to produce a timely, useful book, Tutor Quest: Finding Effective Education for Children and Adults.

Now, concerned about ineffective tutoring programs that fail to raise student achievement, he has co-authored The Tutoring Revolution, which describes what research says about tutoring best practices.

Gordon’s co-authors are Ronald R. Morgan, an educational psychology professor at Loyola University, Chicago; Charles O’Malley, an independent education consultant; and Judith Ponticell, professor of educational leadership at the University of South Florida, Lakeland.

“Tutoring needs to be based on solid research, not commercial advertising hype,” Gordon explained in an interview for this story. “There’s no recognition that there is a body of research that actually shows that tutoring works. This is the first research book ever published on tutoring, and it begins to show what works.”

Aiming at Professionals

Unlike Tutor Quest, which was aimed at parents, the new book’s target audience is school district administrators, teachers, tutors, education policymakers, and researchers.

The first two chapters provide a historical perspective on tutoring, with particular emphasis on the policy changes wrought by NCLB. The next two chapters describe different theories in educational psychology and their application to learning, teaching, and tutoring.

However, many of the ideas covered–such as pedagogy of place, constructivism, and postmodernism–add little to an understanding of the proven tutoring practices discussed later in the book.

Making it Work

The authors then review tutoring research and proven methods. The last two chapters of the book provide details of trade-practice standards for tutoring, model state regulations, and suggested areas for further research.

The authors note that while many citations of tutoring exist in the education literature, few involve empirical research findings. Most are simply case studies, testimonials, or narratives.

The most important research finding identified in the book is that “well structured [tutoring] programs work best,” a conclusion reported by many reviewers, including Barak Rosenshine and Norma Furst.

This finding suggests the six-function teaching model developed by Rosenshine and Robert Stevens for classroom instruction is equally applicable to tutoring. (See sidebar.)

Assessing Effectiveness

In the book’s most important chapter, the authors ask, “Has Tutoring Worked?” In an all-too-brief response, they describe 12 proven tutoring procedures and list 10 key components of high-quality tutoring programs. These tutoring “best practices” include:

  • Design and implement highly structured programs, usually with specifically crafted curriculum scripts.
  • Don’t focus on narrow, isolated instructional activities. The use of a tutoring curriculum script with a checklist helps diagnose specific skill deficiencies and identify poor learners.
  • There should be a strong connection between what the student knows and the skills that need to be learned. Again, this often involves the use of a tutoring curriculum script covering a well-defined set of skills.
  • Tutoring at the student’s home often maximizes long-term student achievement. Home-based tutoring allows remediation of student skills and helps parents improve the learning environment in the home.
  • Spend an adequate amount of time on task. Time is needed to assess which skills are missing, to change study habits, and to improve motivation.

“If we now know what works, we should begin training teachers at the undergraduate level in how to tutor using these proven procedures,” Gordon said in an interview. “And the way to get at more of the things that work is to do more practitioner-based research.”

George Clowes ([email protected]) is the former managing editor of School Reform News and a senior fellow for The Heartland Institute.