As bills to reauthorize No Child Left Behind multiply, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has proposed legislation to preserve a provision requiring failing schools to offer federally funded tutoring to poor students.
Several NCLB reauthorizing bills from other senators eliminate NCLB’s Supplemental Educational Services (SES) program, but S. 1570 would retain and amend it.
“There are a lot of really good [tutoring] providers,” said Sharon Kruse, a University of Akron education professor. “Whether that will show up in better math scores, there are too many variables to say.”
Private tutors work extremely well for children from wealthier families, and there’s no reason they can’t do the same for children from poorer families, said Stephanie Monroe, who served as assistant secretary of education for civil rights during the George W. Bush administration.
“We somehow think that some people in our society can’t learn—therefore you can’t teach these kids,” Monroe said. “It’s completely false, and it’s prejudicial.”
Increasing Flexibility, Oversight
School districts currently must place 20 percent of their Title I funds in “escrow” to ensure these federal dollars aimed at low-income districts and students are available for SES. McCain’s bill instead requires states to direct 10 percent of Title I funds to districts with tutoring programs, which would free approximately $800 million for schools to use elsewhere.
It also seeks to strengthen tutoring program oversight by evaluating providers “on their impact at improving student academic achievement,” according to a bill summary. The bill has been referred to committee.
“We can improve the coordination, making sure the principals are more engaged, making sure plans are developed collaboratively with teachers” and eliminate “bad actor” providers using S. 1570 provisions, Monroe said.
The federal law currently requires SES programs for schools that have not made adequate yearly progress (AYP) on state tests for three consecutive years and enroll high percentages of students eligible for free-and-reduced-price meals.
Current Oversight Poor
Several studies have questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of using federal funds to require school districts to pursue programs that effectively compete with their own. Baltimore has spent $55 million on NCLB-mandated tutoring since 2001, but with little evidence that student learning has improved, concluded an Abell Foundation report.
“The federal law is flawed in the way it doesn’t allow proper regulation,” said report author Joan Jacobson.
Maryland officials have refused to analyze and publish test scores of SES students when evaluating the tutoring program, claiming it is too varied in number of hours and type of instruction and that the sample size of tutored students is too small to accurately measure progress.
Jacobson blames a lack of state oversight in areas such as the varying hourly fees private tutoring services charge and their autonomy.
Transparency Assists Parent Decisions
Other states have taken steps to improve SES when contracting with tutoring providers.
Ohio recently published effectiveness reports for the more than 200 providers that offer tutoring services to low-income children in 663 schools statewide, which helped parents find good providers and weed out the ineffective ones. Of the 20 rated “Not Effective,” six no longer provide tutoring.
Whereas Jacobson could not name even a single tutoring provider she considered effective in Maryland’s program, the new Ohio report found 101 of its 200 providers “effective.”
Tutoring programs that significantly improve student achievement “do it in a way that focuses on integration, coherency, alignment and consistency,” Kruse said. “It’s the idea that everything they’re working on is working toward a focused goal.”
Prefers In-School Tutoring
Schools, not single-contract providers, are best equipped to provide the additional instruction poor kids often need, said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
“If these low-income kids are doing badly in school, you need an intervention in school that’s greater than meeting them at a storefront or a church basement,” Hunter said.
Federal regulations complicate and discourage schools from offering tutoring themselves, he said.
“The overall association between SES participation and achievement gains was statistically significant in both mathematics and reading” in five districts granted waivers to serve as SES providers themselves: Boston, Chicago, Hillsborough County, Florida, and Anchorage, Alaska, a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report stated.
Calls for Parental Control
The most important element of the current federal tutoring requirement may be the parental choice aspects of the program, which should be maintained, Monroe said.
“How much more local control can we get than letting a parent using some of the dollars going into that system to choose their providers?” she said. “But if everything around you is failing, federal tutoring gives you a good choice because in most of these districts, they don’t have a single school that has made AYP.”
A RAND Corp. study considered seven districts with Title I tutoring programs, finding “on average, participation in supplemental educational services had a statistically significant, positive effect on students’ achievement in reading and math. Students participating for multiple years experienced larger gains.”
Tutoring offers more immediate help than the five-year school-turnaround models of many federally mandated reforms for consistently failing schools, Monroe said.
“I think SES is about making sure the kids have a support system” with immediate results, she said. “We cannot foreclose on poor kids’ education while adults play in the sandbox.”
Image by Tulane Public Relations.