Virtual schooling hurt students. So why is the federal government paying for virtual tutoring?

When Education Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared before Congress in September to promote the Biden administration’s stimulus funding for schools, he promised tutoring to help students make up missed learning, as well as an end to instruction through screens.

“Not only as an educator, but as a father, I can tell you that learning in front of a computer is no substitute for in-person learning,” he said.

The stimulus bill, known as the American Rescue Plan, will send $122 billion to schools over three years, and a sizable portion of that money will go toward tutoring. But because of labor shortages, the high cost of quality tutoring and the influence of a growing ed-tech industry, much of the tutoring will take place through a computer screen — and not always with a human on the other end.

The idea of online tutoring as a fix “confounds me,” said Laura Vaughan, a parent in Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington that had some of the nation’s longest school closures. “Just watching my son trying to pay attention to virtual anything is hard,” she said.

Critics say online tutoring rarely matches up to in-person tutoring, and that only a few such services replicate strategies that research has shown to be most effective: a paid, trained tutor who has a consistent personal relationship with a student; sessions during the school day, so that students do not skip lessons; and at least three sessions per week.

“A key piece of tutoring is that social relationship with a caring adult,” said Amanda Neitzel, an assistant research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform in Education. “How can you build that in an online format?”

Her worry, she added, was that the federal tutoring push would amount to “an expensive disaster.”

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