Zachary Carr hadn’t known Victor for long. Carr, 21, began tutoring the rising fifth grader in mid-June, shortly after wrapping up his junior year at Middle Tennessee State University. But Carr had spent enough one-on-one time with Victor to discern that the boy was unusually fidgety during their latest morning session. 

Victor had made lots of progress in math since he began meeting twice a week with Carr at a Nashville-area Boys & Girls Club through an ad hoc, statewide tutoring initiative. The more Victor improved in arithmetic, the more he engaged with the tutoring sessions. Yet this session was “a little rocky,” Carr said later. Victor was antsy, regularly losing focus; he often tripped up on equations the two had rehearsed seconds prior.  

Realizing something was off, Carr playfully asked Victor, “Why are you so hyper today, man?” Turns out Victor had gotten his hands on some coffee. He had the caffeine jitters. 

The rest of the morning, the two would chuckle from behind their masks whenever Victor hit a roadblock. “I got you — we’re friends,” Carr said as the boy stumbled through his five times table. Frustrated, Victor asked for help. “Can we do the box thing?” he asked, referring to a multiplication technique Carr had taught him earlier. Carr nodded, saying they could return to rote exercises after. 

Later, as they packed up their things, Carr pointed to a sheet of problem sets for the following week. “You think you can do this by yourself?” he asked. Victor nodded. “Cool. Awesome work, man,” Carr responded, high-fiving the boy from a distance. “And no coffee next time!”

Tutoring is one of the oldest forms of education. A growing body of research shows that, when done right, it’s also one of the most effective means of lifting student achievement. And yet, while broad swaths of U.S. students participate in tutoring, it has historically been reserved for the moneyed elite and is often cost-prohibitive for children like Victor, who attends an elementary school where three in four students receive discounted meals. 

The value of mass tutoring initiatives, whether in-person or virtual, in addressing the academic problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic remains untested. But experts say making tutors available to more kids — especially those least able to afford to hire one themselves — could be vital to combating learning losses that resulted when the coronavirus forced schools to shut down and transition to online-only instruction. The toll on students’ attainment and engagement has been dire; it will almost certainly be compounded by the usual slide in learning many kids experience over summer vacation. The challenges are bound to be especially pronounced among disadvantaged children.

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