Education Opinion

A Belated Friday Guest Column - Is SES Exec Carter Sincere or “Shocked, Shocked”?

March 19, 2008 3 min read

Nancy Van Meter is Deputy Director, Office of the President, American Federation of Teachers.

My younger son’s favorite scene of all time is in Casablanca, when Claude Rains, as Captain Renault, tells Rick that he’s “shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.” Even though he’s seen it dozens of times, Ben always cracks up when the croupier walks over, hands Captain Renault a large wad of cash, and says “Your winnings, sir.”

Without knowing Alan Carter, Vice President of the Education Industry Association and CEO of the tutoring provider, University Instructors, Inc., I can’t tell if he is sincere or “shocked, shocked” when he laments that Republican Congressional leader Buck McKeon recently warned SES providers that their business survival hinges on “election results” rather than evaluations proving that SES contributes to raising “academic achievement.” After nearly eight years of George Bush’s “War on Science” it’s hard to take at face value anyone who expresses surprise that policy decisions in Washington – on climate change or afterschool tutoring - are made based more on political grounds than scientifically based research. Carter seems so confident that the evidence on the effectiveness of SES would lead to its reauthorization. He says SES providers are under attack not because they “aren’t effective” but because opponents in the education world are just plain hostile to private for-profit companies. If entrenched education interests hate you, he implies, it doesn’t matter how good your results are. Carter blames the amorphous education establishment for not giving for-profit providers a “fair shot” at proving their value. He suggests that SES entrepreneurs should strive for results that meet scientifically based research and research based targets in the future, but asserts that the current discussions are “red herrings” designed to distract SES providers from building their businesses the old fashioned way.

Dismissing skeptics of SES as zealots is an easy way to get around the lack of evidence six years in to the program without responding to legitimate issues. The law states that SES must be “high quality, research-based, and specifically designed to increase student academic achievement” (Title 1, Section 116 (e) (12) ( C )). In NCLBworld, every thing is judged on whether it improves student achievement; SES doesn’t get a pass on the accountability because it’s a “market-based reform.”

But SES providers are in a bind. The program has built in limitations, both in terms of how much effect it may have on achievement given the limited amount of hours offered annually and how difficult it is to measure whether test score improvements are attributable to SES or other school initiatives. Paradoxically, some of these limitations are explicitly included in the law or regs by market-friendly SES promoters to insure the lowest possible barriers to entry for providers, such as no requirements for a specific number of hours or no requirements to use highly qualified teachers. And states receive no additional funding for monitoring or evaluation of SES to help parents or policymakers determine if providers are succeeding in raising achievement.

In the GAO study of 2006 37 of 49 states indicated that it was seriously or moderately challenging to determine the effectiveness or quality of SES providers. The USED may have thought it was doing SES supporters a favor by producing descriptive reports and case studies rather than commissioning a national evaluation of whether SES raised student achievement.

One analysis of SES in 30 states found that only two rigorous studies had been completed analyzing the impact of SES on achievement score gains since the program began, with mixed results. The Minneapolis study found that students receiving SES did not perform as well as the matched samples. In Chicago, researchers found that students who received SES made greater learning gains than students who did not receive SES.

Recent headlines from Wisconsin aren’t very promising either. Study finds tutor plan lacking Federally funded program doesn’t show better results.

Perhaps Carter’s post was part of the strategy of the SES providers. They are working to paint their critics as zealots; and lower the public’s expectations for what SES is supposed to accomplish. The Education Industry Association website has an updated fact sheet which cites Steven Ross, Director of the Center for Research in Education Policy at the University of Memphis, on SES: “No one should expect 30 to 40 hours of after-school tutoring during the course of a school year – the equivalent of one week of classes – to magically boost student scores on standardized state tests.”

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