Help Wanted: Strategies to Recruit a Tutoring Workforce on a Large Scale

A man helps a schoolchild with a worksheet

The job of “tutor” is now the fastest-growing position in the K–12 sector. Partly to address unfinished learning that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic disruptions to education, schools have increasingly turned to one-on-one or targeted small-group instruction to help students. In fact, tutoring has a strong track record in improving student learning, especially when it occurs frequently and in small groups, a type of delivery known as “high-dosage tutoring” (typically several times a week with four or fewer students, throughout the whole school year).

But as tutoring has grown rapidly, a tight labor market for tutors has districts scrambling to find enough of them. Districts’ inability to find tutors has become a major hurdle to implementing tutoring programs. Approximately 40 percent of schools reported difficulties in hiring tutoring during the 2022–2023 school year. This emerging tutor shortage is not entirely unprecedented, given persistent shortages of similar positions such as substitute teachers. These shortages pose major challenges to states and school systems looking to prepare and launch tutoring programs.

The challenge of hiring tutors is multifaceted. Tutor hours are often limited (that is, some schools do not have a need for full-time tutors and many do not offer summer hours), tutors need to be trained and supported to deliver instruction, and budgets for hiring tutors are often insufficient. The average wage for tutors was about $18 an hour in 2022, a wage that is exceeded by alternative employers such as Target, where starting workers can expect to earn hourly wages of as much as $24 an hour along with options not commonly available to tutors such as access to benefits and extra hours.

MDRC has partnered with the University of Chicago’s Education Lab on the Personalized Learning Initiative study to investigate how states and districts are attempting to expand tutoring rapidly, on an unprecedented scale. This blog post discusses four strategies the study has encountered so far: approaches states and districts are taking to find tutors on a large scale. While it is too early to tell which strategies work best, other leaders in education may find it helpful to see these options and their various trade-offs as they seek to expand similar programs.

The Strategies

New Mexico: virtual tutors paid $50 an hour. New Mexico has a substantial rural population, with many small schools serving large geographical areas. When the state began developing its algebra tutoring program, it therefore designed a virtual program where students log into online video spaces to meet with their tutors. Virtual tutoring allows the state to deliver services to more remote schools, and allows many individual tutors to provide services to more than one school. Additionally, remote tutors may be willing to work in smaller increments than in-person tutors, which is beneficial as schools often need to fit tutoring into short sessions scattered throughout the day. In the hopes of recruiting and retaining the best tutors and avoiding shortages that would lead to an inconsistent program, the state offered $50 an hour. It recruited heavily among retired teachers and with college students by using websites such as Handshake. These tutors are contractors, meaning that although they are hired directly by the state, they are responsible for their own taxes, saving the state some administrative burden.

This model has allowed the state to staff tutors in very rural areas where hiring would have been especially difficult. It has also allowed the state to centralize hiring, taking that burden off schools. There has been an effort to recruit tutors from New Mexico, to provide important local jobs and to improve the connection between students and tutors. There may be a trade-off involved in that virtual tutors may not be able to build relationships with students as readily as in-person tutors. However, in rural areas where hiring in-person tutors is challenging, this potential drawback is largely a moot point.

Fulton County, Georgia: working with tutoring vendors. Centrally creating permanent tutoring positions and then hiring and managing tutors can be a major hurdle, especially for large-scale programs where many tutors are needed. But in the last decade tutoring has become a booming private-sector business, with a sharp increase in the number of tutoring companies on the market. While some Fulton County elementary schools staffed their tutoring programs with school-based, district-employed paraprofessionals, discussed next, schools in Fulton County could also opt to work with several tutoring contractors, or “vendors,” to hire, train, place, and manage tutors. Some tutoring companies offer in-person tutors who go to schools physically, while others offer virtual tutors who attend via a digital platform.

This option puts a lower burden on schools and districts as the bulk of the hiring, training, accounting, and supervisory tasks are shifted to the vendor. The tutoring companies can focus on hiring and maintaining a tutoring workforce, and may be able to adjust more quickly than districts can to shifts in the tutor labor market. Many tutoring companies offer a bundled package of services including a tutoring curriculum and learning software, in addition to the tutors, which may save schools time. While potentially a promising option, there are also challenges with using vendors including lengthy procurement and approval processes to establish the tutoring contracts. Tutors may not be able to use the schools’ resources or see student data. Without frequent and clear communication, there may be difficulties in alignment between school and tutoring-company curricula. Last, vendor tutors may be less able to become members of the school community, and depending on the vendor’s hiring practices, may have higher turnover rates, hampering the students’ ability to form relationships with their tutors.

Fulton County, Georgia: paraprofessionals as tutors. Fulton County also offered tutoring using central funds to have school-based and district-employed teacher’s assistants or “paraprofessionals” tutor in elementary schools. Some schools hired new paraprofessionals while others reallocated the time of those already on staff. The tutoring paraprofessional role is typically a full-time position. When they were not tutoring, some paraprofessionals filled other roles in the building, such as substituting, assisting teachers, or covering lunch duty, thereby allowing tutors to become full members of the school community.

The full-time hours, the integration with the school community, and the potential for career advancement within the district may be enticing to tutors and beneficial for tutors and schools alike. But allocating school staff members to tutor means they cannot assist with other tasks, and some schools may feel that an extra paraprofessional is more needed elsewhere. Schools that go the paraprofessional route may need to devote more resources to the hiring and managing of a new staff position. At the same time, they may be able to use the person in that position more efficiently by having the tutor assist with other school functions during down time in a way that virtual or vendor tutors cannot.

Chicago: a district-wide hiring effort. Chicago Public Schools centralizes the management of its Tutor Corps program in its district office, allowing it to conduct its recruitment and hiring on a large scale. The district is able to advertise widely and to partner with local universities to recruit tutors. Schools are still able to participate in the recruitment process if they desire, with some schools recruiting community members and parents to tutor in their schools. Once hired, tutors are trained and mentored by district-level staff members and supervised by school-level coordinators.

One potential trade-off to hosting any initiative centrally in a large district is that it risks sacrificing school-level autonomy. Should the district fail to hire enough tutors, some schools may not be able to engage in the tutoring program fully. Since schools can recruit their own tutors if they desire, however, some schools can draw on connections in their communities while the district covers recruitment for those schools that cannot. Recruiting from the community may result in a tutoring workforce that is more representative of the student population. Some schools have shared that their tutors have become integral parts of their community with renewed interests in education careers, which could help with retention and recruitment.

Looking Ahead

These examples illustrate some of the trade-offs districts and schools are facing as they seek to recruit enough tutors to meet their students’ needs. As the Personalized Learning Initiative study continues, it will report on how these strategies unfold in the field.