What We’re Learning: Ingredients for a high-quality math tutoring program


When many of us think of “tutoring”, we picture the “homework help” model, where a student brings assignments for a tutor to coach them through. However, this type of model is not what every student needs to deeply learn new concepts. In fact, an effective tutoring program often looks very different. 

Effective tutoring programs involve regular small-group instruction, consistent use of high-quality instructional materials and formative assessments, and committed tutors who receive frequent coaching and support. They are also about so much more than just learning impacts. The tutoring environment should help students feel safe about taking intellectual risks, confident in their math identity, and supported by caring adults and peers who affirm their abilities. Programs should also be accessible and equitable, and thus implemented in close partnership with districts and schools.

That’s what we learned when we asked students who are Black, Latino, and/or experiencing poverty and their families, teachers, and principals, what mattered to them in a math tutoring program. Their stories and insights – combined with provider interviews and a review of tutoring’s extensive evidence base – form the foundation of a Target Program Profile, or TPP, for math tutoring. This TPP is a working hypothesis, informed by research and stakeholders, about what makes an effective math tutoring program.

When our K-12 Education team first learned about TPPs, it was in the context of work that our global health colleagues were leading to define minimum and ideal conditions for vaccine delivery based on the needs of recipients. Despite the vastly different context, we were intrigued by the power shift that TPPs enable; by having those closest to the program tell providers what they’re looking for, it centers their needs in the innovation process. In many cases, this requires tutoring organizations to think differently about how they operate and who they serve.

By taking this demand-side approach, we were also able to better understand the conditions that need to be in place for tutoring to be sustainable. We found that buy-in and engagement at all levels – students, families, school staff, and district leadership – is critical to successful program adoption. Saga Education, for example, works closely with school partners to integrate their high-dosage tutoring model into the rhythm of a student’s school experience. Tutors maintain close relationships with students and families, and receive ongoing coaching by site directors who are in constant communication with teachers and school leadership.

Our conversations with school and district leaders also reinforced that sustainable, scalable tutoring needs to be relatively inexpensive: ideally between $800 and $1200 per student per year. Creative approaches to technology use, student groupings, and tutor pipeline have the potential to reduce program costs while increasing the quality of the experience. For example, the United Kingdom’s recently launched National Tutoring Programme experiments with a range of different models (in-person and online) and tutor types (teachers, university students, and trained volunteers), all with the goal of providing schools with high-quality and affordable options. The TPP and accompanying reflection guide can be a resource for providers to take stock of their strengths and areas for growth, while also considering opportunities to experiment with different levers to enhance quality, lower cost, and drive innovation.

As more schools and districts look to adopt learning acceleration strategies like tutoring, particularly in the wake of COVID-19’s inequitable impacts on our K-12 education system, we hope that the TPP can be a guidepost for organizations to provide tutoring that is effective, accessible, and student-centered.

Kysie Miao is an associate program officer on the K-12 Education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her work is focused in two areas: catalyzing innovation in the middle years math space (grades 3-9), and developing infrastructure to advance actionable knowledge for practitioners.