How many tutors would it take to fully close educational gaps in Seattle Public Schools?

Mike Preiner
4 min readDec 11, 2023

We’ve spent the last couple of years at The Math Agency gathering data to show that we have the tools to fully close educational gaps in math at individual schools. However, there are some important questions about the scale at which we can do it. In this post we’ll look at the feasibility of getting enough tutors to fully close educational gaps at every elementary school in Seattle.

For those who want just the takeaway, some basic calculations show that it would take a little over 5,000 tutors, which looks to be a feasible number after analyzing a range of potential sources of tutors.

For those who want the details, keep reading!

In our program, we use the term “coaches” instead of tutors as it better describes the actual work: there is more of a focus on general learning skills than on teaching specific content. We’ll use the terms coaches and tutors interchangeably for the rest of this post. In any case, let’s start by estimating how many coaches we’d need to fully serve every elementary school in Seattle.

Data from OSPI shows that in 2022–23, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) had a little over 3,800 5th graders, and 44% of them did not meet basic math standards. This means roughly 1,700 students “graduate” from elementary school each year without the basic math skills required for middle school. We’ve shown that even at the most challenged schools, it’s possible to get the vast majority of struggling students back to grade level with two years of high-intensity tutoring. If we thus assume we need to work with those 1,700 students for two years (say 4th and 5th grade), that corresponds to working with 3,400 students per year.

Our current program (2–4 students per coach at each session, and 2–4 sessions per week) uses about 1.5 coaches per student per year. This means that it would take about 5,100 coaches per year to hit our goal of working with every at-risk student. This is shown in the diagram below.

Figure 1. Based on Washington state assessment data, it would take roughly 5,100 coaches to work with all of the at-risk 4th and 5th graders in Seattle Public Schools, assuming it takes 1.5 coaches work with each student.

5,100 coaches is certainly an ambitious number, but is it even possible? In the next section, we’ll put that number in context by looking at some potential sources of those coaches. Of course, the training and management of those coaches is another matter, but we’ll leave that for another post.

Current volunteers in the school system. Seattle Public Schools already has over 20,000 volunteers. Of course, not all of those would want to (or be able to) serve as academic coaches for elementary students. On the other hand, in my personal experience there are also a lot more potential SPS volunteers out there. For example, my wife is a research professor at the University of Washington. Several years ago she offered to volunteer at our children’s elementary school. When she showed up they asked her to open milk cartons at lunch time. It didn’t seem particularly meaningful to her, and she didn’t return. While milk cartons clearly need to be opened, we suspect a decent number of additional parent volunteers could be engaged with a program that was making clear progress closing educational gaps.

High school students. A recent paper appropriately called “A Blueprint for Scaling Tutoring and Mentoring Across Public Schools” analyzed the feasibility of a national tutoring program. A key component of the proposal involved leveraging high school students as tutors for elementary schools. We have a number of very successful high school coaches in our program, and many local schools (including SPS) have mandatory service-learning hours. There are roughly 4,000 students in each grade of high school in Seattle. Assuming high schoolers could coach for two years, this corresponds to 8,000 potential coaches.

Local education majors. There are many small-scale success stories (like this one) of public school systems partnering with nearby universities to get education majors involved in tutoring. Data from the Department of Education’s College Scorecard shows that Seattle’s various colleges and universities have over 1,500 graduating education majors each year. If those students tutored for two years each, it corresponds to 3,000 potential coaches.

Other community members. Currently, most of the coaches in our program don’t come from any of the sources mentioned above. They are members of the community who simply want to help solve a very important societal problem. We don’t have a good estimate of how big this pool is, but we suspect it is larger than most people would think.

Figure 2. Various potential sources of coaches, compared to the total number of coaches needed to work with every at-risk 4th and 5th grader in Seattle.

Of course, it would only be possible to successfully engage a fraction of these potential coaches. However, it doesn’t look crazy for the right program, with the right outreach, to find enough coaches to fully close gaps in Seattle’s public schools.

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Mike Preiner

PhD in Applied Physics from Stanford. Data scientist and entrepreneur. Working to close education gaps in public schools.