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Wendy Cukier is the founder of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University and academic research lead for the Future Skills Centre. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Wilfrid Laurier University. Karen Mundy is a professor of international and comparative education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and director of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.

Canada prides itself on a strong system of public primary and secondary education. But when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and educational equity, we have fallen far short.

Little has been done to ensure that students do not face lasting educational and social harms from pandemic disruptions – even as we face the next round of challenges associated with the Omicron variant. The pandemic has disproportionately worsened already significant disparities in educational outcomes for racialized and Indigenous students, as well as those living in poverty or with disabilities. This neglect is setting the stage for a generation with depressed lifetime incomes, increased social inequality and national productivity losses estimated at $1.6-trillion.

These effects are preventable. There is good evidence that social and educational interventions – including early childhood education and wraparound supports – can improve outcomes, especially for students facing barriers. Tutoring in particular, compared with almost all other alternatives, stands out for its ability to close the gaps in learning that COVID-19 has widened.

One-on-one or small-group tutoring is designed to support – not replace – the more complex work of classroom teachers. Our forthcoming Future Skills Centre report highlights how other countries, such as the United Kingdom and United States, have made investments in tutoring central to their pandemic recovery. But rather than investing in system-level educational recovery, Canada has relied on unsupported front-line educators to meet students’ growing needs while grappling with new technologies and delivery modes, pandemic outbreaks and their own individual struggles, stress and burnout. Teachers recognize students are falling behind and won’t catch up, but they have limited capacity to intervene.

A recent review and policy brief for the Nobel-Prize-winning Poverty Action Lab highlights key lessons for effective tutoring programs that support public education. Tutoring that uses paraprofessionals – trained educational assistants or full-time youth-service program members – has positive results at a much lower cost than teacher-led tutoring. More frequent tutoring (three or more times a week) has almost twice the effect of tutoring that occurs only once or twice a week. Most studies focus on literacy in the early years, but there are strong results throughout kindergarten to Grade 12: One study showed that disadvantaged students working with a college-grad tutor three times a week gained 2.5 years of learning in one year.

While the pandemic has triggered major growth in private tutoring, the relatively high upfront cost – one report estimated an annual cost of US$1,462 a student for high-frequency tutoring by college grads in U.S. public schools – represents an obstacle to providing support for those who need it most.

But we must not let sticker shock overshadow the evidence that investing now will pay back later with measurable benefits – which even outstrip the gains associated with early childhood education. Tutoring delivered through a youth service/work-integrated learning initiative may provide an additional 4:1 return on investment in terms of economic benefits.

In Canada, Alberta has committed $45-million to support students who are falling behind during the pandemic. Ontario and Quebec are offering some free tutoring on demand, but our forthcoming ecosystem map of community tutoring in Toronto highlights the fragmented nature of public support for these initiatives.

All of us have been advocating for ambitious and innovative responses to the devastating educational disruptions of the pandemic since it began, pointing to the need for supports to be directed toward students facing the greatest educational challenges and inequities.

Large-scale, targeted, school-based tutoring should be a key point of leverage to accelerate learning recovery and improve equity. Although education is primarily the responsibility of provincial governments, the federal government could support tutoring as a part of its significant investments in the inclusive-skills agenda, youth employment and work-integrated learning.

For example, Ottawa could fund work-integrated learning that sees diverse recent graduates assist students with the greatest needs. This targeted, high-dosage approach would support both students and teachers. An infusion of recent grads would also help jump-start badly needed diversity into the teaching profession pipeline.

Well-designed tutoring programs are powerful interventions that can accelerate learning, especially for students facing barriers. Canada needs to develop an ambitious educational recovery strategy that has evidence-based tutoring models at its heart. If we do not invest in student success, we should not be surprised at the lack of diversity in the work force and leadership in the years to come.

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