What Science Says about Helping Students Catch Up after COVID Closures

Writing for The 74, Jill Barshay recently reviewed the evidence behind COVID-19 recovery efforts in schools. Excerpts of the piece highlighting the most promising interventions appear below:


Research points to intensive daily tutoring as one of the most effective ways to help academically struggling children catch up. A seminal 2016 study sorted through almost 200 well-designed experiments on improving education, from expanding preschool to reducing class size, and found that frequent one-to-one tutoring was especially effective in increasing learning rates for low-performing students.

Education researchers have a particular kind of tutoring in mind, what they call “high-dosage” tutoring. Studies show it has produced big achievement gains for students when the tutoring occurs every day or almost every day. In the research literature, the tutors are specially trained and coached and adhere to a detailed curriculum with clear steps on how to work with one or two students at a time. The best results occur when tutoring takes place at school during the regular day.

A 2020 review of 100 tutoring programs found that intensive tutoring is particularly helpful at improving students’ reading skills during the early elementary years, and most effective in math for slightly older children. One 2021 study found tutoring led to strong math gains for even high school students, enabling those who started two years behind grade level to catch up.


Afterschool programs appear to be better at improving students’ social wellbeing than academic achievement. A meta-analysis of 68 studies of afterschool programs by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) found that students participating in an afterschool program improved their school-day attendance and were less likely to engage in drug use or problem behavior.

Another option is to make afterschool hours mandatory by extending the school day for everyone. That has worked well when the extra time is used for tutoring. 


One promising approach is to assign students who are far behind to both a remedial class and a grade-level class simultaneously. This double-dosing strategy has spread rapidly at community colleges but hasn’t been studied as much in elementary, middle, or high schools. One evaluation of double-dosing in algebra found that it worked in Chicago high schools but not in middle school math in Miami. Refinement and further study are warranted.


A May 2021 report by a nonprofit online math provider, Zearn, found that students learned more math during the 2020-21 school year when truncated review material was woven into grade-level lessons than when they were retaught many of the previous year’s lessons. This comparison of the two approaches using education technology is promising, but more research is needed. Though called acceleration, in practice, it can mean teaching less and slowing down the pace.

For more, see https://www.the74million.org/article/students-covid-learning-loss-science-catching-up/