Federal funds will go to online tutoring despite pandemic failures

“A key part of tutoring is that social connection with a caring adult,” said Amanda Neitzel, assistant scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Educational Research and Reform. “How can you create this in an online format?”

Her worry, she added, was that the federal push for tutoring would amount to “a costly disaster.”

Virtual tutoring is a big business opportunity for the edtech industry. According to market research of Reach Capital, a venture capital firm specializing in education.

Now some online tutoring start-ups get half of their new business from federal funds, according to Reach partner James Kim. Districts typically pay $1 to $100 per student who will use tutoring services over the course of a year.

Educational technology investors and entrepreneurs say the academic and social failures of distance schooling have little to do with the services offered by these companies. They point out that their platforms are meant to complement in-person education, not replace it, and that being able to get a tutor anytime, from anywhere has benefits.

“Online tutoring is one-on-one communication,” said Myles Hunter, chief executive of TutorMe, which pairs students with tutors — mostly recent college graduates — via audio, video or instant messaging. “It’s not something where you’re trying to make sure 40 college students don’t fall asleep watching a Zoom video for eight hours a day.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Kim, a former teacher, understood the doubts.

“I think the cynicism is warranted,” he said. “I’ve been offered a lot of tech products that just didn’t belong in my classroom. Especially during this pandemic where there was a lot of money in this market, we have seen people looking to make a quick buck.

Some cities and states — like Chicago, New Mexico and Arkansas — are launching a body of in-person tutors. But hiring has been difficult due to labor shortages, a key reason district leaders said they are turning to online tutoring.