Giovanna feels confident and capable of learning mathematics. As a fifth-grade student in Guanajuato, Mexico, she is one of the more than 8,500 students participating in remote tutoring programs in 10 Latin American countries. Developed collaboratively by regional Ministries of Education, universities, and civil society organizations, these programs are supported technically and financially by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
For eight weeks, Giovanna received a text message and a call from her tutor, Virginia, who is based in Veracruz (Mexico). Thanks to the additional support, students like Giovanna have improved their performance in basic math skills by 30% more than those with similar characteristics who attended school but did not receive tutoring.
A new IDB publication, Multiplying Learning: Remote Tutoring to Empower Schools, documents the experience of students like Giovanna, describes the rigorous evidence on the cost-effectiveness of remote tutoring programs, and offers lessons learned for governments and civil society interested in implementing these programs at scale.
The Region’s Learning Crisis Demands Innovative Approaches and a Sense of Urgency
In Latin America and the Caribbean, most 15-year-old students do not reach basic performance in mathematics, reading, and science on the PISA assessment. On December 5, 2023, the OECD released the latest assessment, PISA 2022, in which 14 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean participated. PISA 2022 results depict a stark picture: The region’s learning gap is estimated at five years of schooling compared to the OECD and over a decade compared to the global leader (Singapore).
It’s as if the average 15-year-old student in Latin America and the Caribbean, who should be attending 9th grade and soon completing compulsory schooling, scored as well as the average 10-year-old attending fourth grade in a typical OECD country. The extreme characterization might be shocking, but it is helpful to give us an intuitive idea of the magnitude of the challenge and, therefore, instill in all of us the sense of urgency needed to act today.
Latin America’s performance is particularly low in mathematics, as three out of four students are low performers. However, the results in science and reading are also disappointing (half do not reach the basic performance level). To reverse this learning gap requires a profound change of mindset and a collective commitment to educational improvement, which we can demonstrate by talking to our children about school, enacting policies and declarations about school’s importance, and governments investing to ensure equitable educational opportunities for all.
The natural question is: Where to start? What can the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean do to start moving in the right direction to reverse this situation?
Remote Tutoring to Quickly and Broadly Relaunch Learning Improvement
Implementing large-scale remote tutoring programs can be a concrete first step in supporting those who are currently struggling and falling behind, eventually improving performance across the board and, at the same time, contributing to narrowing learning gaps between and within countries.
Remote tutoring addresses basic or foundational skills, allowing students to build the foundation they need to continue learning. These programs can target the most vulnerable students in specific contexts.
Tutoring is a complement to schoolwork, not a substitute. Students who receive remote tutoring and attend school regularly progress 30% faster than those who do not receive it. To illustrate, if a student without tutoring can master the basic math operations in 9 months, one with tutoring can acquire them in only six months.
Building on the human connection between tutor and student over a relatively short period, the program positively impacts the students’ overall emotional well-being. The data suggests that this personalized, frequent, consistent human interaction enhances student motivation, confidence, and self-esteem. Family engagement and involvement, as they actively accompany the tutoring process, are crucial factors in the success of the tutoring program.
Four Contributions of Tutoring to Reverse Educational Gaps
Recent OCD reports build on the new data from PISA 2022 to measure resilience among schooling systems. These studies propose ten targeted actions to foster resilience at an individual and systemic level. Here, we highlight four characteristics of resilient systems, particularly relevant in explaining how and why remote tutoring programs work so well:
1. Motivate autonomous learning. Promoting autonomy and the ability to motivate themselves fosters student performance in PISA. According to PISA 2022, only 60% of students were confident in motivating themselves to do school tasks. Tutoring provides a safe space for students to feel supported by their tutors and parents. The tutoring sessions allow students to enjoy a successful educational experience and realize what they are capable of. Repeated over time, such experiences strengthen student self-confidence, encouraging them to believe in themselves, and the impacts of the tutoring can extend beyond mathematics to learning at school in a broader sense.
2. Strengthening the partnership between school and family. Involved families who are actively engaged in their children’s education can trigger improved student performance and well-being. Students who performed better in PISA 2022 report that their families regularly dine together, engage in conversations with them or show interest in their school activities. During tutoring sessions, parents are asked to work on the math challenges they receive by text and to stay present during the tutoring phone calls. In doing so, parents can demonstrate their interest in their children’s education and, perhaps even more importantly, directly observe their kid’s success and potential. Additionally, we have anecdotal evidence that teachers have noted that students who receive tutoring tend to perform and behave better in regular classes, showing increased interest in what happens at school.
3. Additional support yes, repetition no. Systems with fewer students repeating a course tend to have higher scores and more significant equity. Repeating a grade is expensive as it involves investing an additional year of schooling for each student held back. Furthermore, the evidence on the effectiveness of grade repetition is scarce or null. Tutoring allows for complementary support, and remote tutoring provides an opportunity for one-to-one interaction that can be tailored to the students’ level of knowledge and particular needs. Only some students in the region need one-on-one personalized tutoring. Many learn well in school or small groups, but a significant proportion of students need to catch up and for whom the support they receive at school and home is not enough. Remote tutoring democratizes access to a resource often reserved for the most privileged students.
4. Technology in service of learning. For technology to be effective in education, it must be effectively integrated into the learning process with a clearly defined educational purpose. While devices can serve as teaching tools, they can also be sources of distraction. For instance, students using devices for learning in class score, on average, 14 points higher in mathematics in PISA 2022. However, 65% of students in the OECD report being distracted by devices during some classes. Remote tutoring represents a technology-based solution that leverages cost-effective, widely available technologies. Remote tutoring, however, emphasizes creating meaningful human connections and pedagogical objectives rather than technological sophistication. Importantly, it has zero costs for participating families who do not need to pay for the phone call or have to travel with their kids anywhere. Furthermore, the tutor adapts to the available and preferable time for the call. As such, remote tutoring is a solution that can flexibly adapt to varying contexts, even some of the most challenging ones. And as the experiences in Europe and the US attest, tutoring can be easily adjusted for higher levels of connectivity.
How Much Investment is Needed to Expand Remote Tutoring in the Region?
The evidence suggests remote tutoring is cost-effective. Providing remote tutoring to all students experiencing educational delays at a critical stage, specifically during the transition from primary to secondary school, accounts for only 0.02% to 0.60% of the total educational spending in the region’s countries.
The PISA 2022 report estimates that, coupled with regular school attendance, an additional investment of US$100 per student in eight tutoring sessions over two months can achieve as much as 40% of a school year’s learning in foundational skills in mathematics.
The IDB supports developing context-specific remote tutoring programs in 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries. To achieve this goal, the IDB works hand-in-hand with Ministries of Education and local civil society organizations (CEES, CEPE-Di Tella, Corpoeducación, Dequení, Grade, Grupo Faro, MIA-CIESAS y World Vision). These programs have reached more than 8,500 students, trained more than 1,000 tutors, and carried out more than 45,000 effective tutoring sessions. The results of the evaluations have been positive and consistent with those found with similar interventions in other countries around the world.
Furthermore, the experiences in Latin America and the Caribbean underline that the challenge now lies in transitioning from proven results to implementation at scale. The report argues that to achieve this goal, it is crucial to focus on the ABCs of effective scaling of remote tutoring programs:
- Accelerate learning by focusing on and monitoring results
- Balance cost-effectiveness using readily available technologies at zero cost to families.
- Coordinate with schools and families to ensure quality implementation.
Latin America and the Caribbean need more girls like Giovanna. While remote tutoring is not the only solution to remedy all the structural challenges of education in the region, it does have the potential to become a first step towards achieving a crucial goal: closing learning gaps in foundational knowledge and skills in the most vulnerable students. We invite you to learn more about remote tutoring to accelerate learning and how it can be an innovative, scalable solution for the region. Don’t miss it!