A cautionary tale from Kenya: Designing educational pandemic recovery programs to minimize unintended consequences

October 2021


How did a well-intentioned tutoring intervention designed to provide individualized learning support for hard-to-reach children reduce math achievement? 

In this brief, researchers Beth Schueler and Daniel Rodriguez-Segura discuss their study of an effort to deliver supplemental remote instruction to students in Kenya that should provide an important caution to school system leaders in the U.S. and beyond who may want to use remote tutoring to help address the impact of missed learning time during the pandemic.

The bottom line: a small amount of supplemental remote instruction may not be enough to meaningfully improve student learning, and worse, it may cause unintended consequences, such as reducing the amount of time students devote to other educational activities.

What lessons can educational leaders currently in the midst of rapidly trying to figure out how best to spend relief funds—many of them through tutoring interventions—take away from this study? Four key recommendations:

  1. Align program design with high-impact interventions. The intervention we studied was different in some important ways from the gold standard tutoring programs that have repeatedly demonstrated impressive results.
  2. Target programs to those most likely to benefit. In the case of the teacher-student phone calls we studied, it was relatively lower-achieving students who benefited from the program.
  3. Don’t give up on virtual tutoring. Targeting at the student level without stigma may be easier to accomplish via virtual programs than in-person ones.
  4. Monitor and evaluate programs. The phone call interventions we studied seemed like they would be effective—or at least do no harm.

Leaders should continue prioritizing tutoring programs in the coming year, but designing high-quality programs that are appropriately targeted is paramount.