One of the few replicated findings in education research is that daily, individualized tutoring during the school day really helps kids catch up academically. The problem is that this kind of frequent tutoring is very expensive and it’s impossible to hire enough tutors for the millions of American public school students who need help.

In theory, educational software could be a cheaper alternative. Studies have shown that computerized tutoring systems, where algorithms guide students through lessons tailored to their individual needs, can be effective when kids use them. But kids are tired of learning over screens and the kids who are the most behind at school are the least likely to have the motivation to learn independently this way.

What if you were to marry humans with technology? Could you substitute some of the tutoring time with time on ed tech without sacrificing how much students learn? That’s exactly what a team of University of Chicago researchers tried with 1,000 students in six high schools in Chicago and New York City. This blend of tutors and technology yielded results in ninth grade algebra equivalent to daily human tutoring alone at a much lower cost: $2,000 per student versus $3,00.

The study has not been published or peer reviewed, but I heard Bhatt present her team’s findings at a briefing in New York City on April 26, 2023. I thought it was worth writing about this research because it shows one approach to bringing tutoring to more students. That’s a matter of current urgency given how far behind grade level so many students have fallen during the pandemic. And ninth grade algebra is such an important milestone. Students who fail it are five times more likely to drop out of high school, according to one estimate.

This is just one study with only a year or so of evidence. Bhatt says there’s a lot that researchers still need to figure out about mixing human tutors and technology to reduce costs without losing potency. This particular study had tutors working with students in a one-to-four ratio five days a week while using ed tech half the time. But $2,000 per student remains prohibitively expensive for most public schools, especially after $122 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds run out in 2024.

Bhatt is now studying how to further increase student-to-tutor ratios and time on ed tech to lower costs even more. She suspects that time needed with a human tutor varies by student and is currently partnering with schools in Illinois, Georgia and New Mexico to identify which students need more human attention and which need less.

Read the full article about tutoring through education technology by Jill Barshay at The Hechinger Report.