Education Opinion

The Letter From: Why the Tough Times Ahead for SES Providers?

March 20, 2008 9 min read

This is a discouraging time for advocates of NCLB’s Supplemental Educational Service (SES) provisions, SES providers, and especially anyone who invested in an SES firm. For the same reasons, things are looking up for those who opposed a provision of the law that has come to symbolize the introduction of competition into federal education policy and private sector involvement in public education on a national scale.

Edbizbuzz readers can explain the fears and hopes:
First, the facts. Most SES providers do satisfy the parents of their students -but, why not, the service is free. Studies have established “statistically significant” improvements in student performance; i.e., they can attribute higher student test scores to tutoring. But, so far and in general, the size of these improvements is not educationally meaningful.

Second, the politics. Six years without demonstrations of efficacy that are both statistically significant and educationally meaningful have strengthened the arguments of those who opposed SES when it was still part of the negotiations over NCLB. With Democrats in control of the House and Senate, and objective reasons to hope for a Democrat in the White House, teachers unions, school boards, superintendents, and state boards have every reason to believe the SES program will be curtailed severely, perhaps to the point of a mere nuisance.

Third, the bottom line. Addressing SES providers last month, Rep. Buck McKeon, the House Education Committee’s ranking Republican, could hardly have been more discouraging when his best guess for the likely future was bounded by something close to the draft NCLB produced by Chairman Miller if a Republican becomes President, and “you will be laying off people” if a Democrat wins the White House.

If you are an SES provider, you might well be planning to lay off employees even if a Republican wins in November. If you are opposed to SES, there is every reason to press for a delay of NCLB reauthorization until after the election. Moreover, opponents can use McKeon’s admission to cut the legs out from under the arguments of moderate Democrats like Miller that SES must be part of a reauthorized NCLB. McKeon’s prognosis implies that Republicans understand that they will lose significant ground on SES.

I favored NCLB’s SES provisions in 2001. Students in schools that are not making adequate yearly progress towards 100 percent proficiency in key subjects against standards chosen by their states as measured by tests chosen by their states, need help that their schools have been unable to provide, and they need it immediately. School system administrators need the threat of competition, including its financial consequences, to overcome intertia, including their own. I understood why conferees agreed to hold large scale tutoring to a lower evidentiary standard than other, more mature school reform programs.

But I don’t see competition or private sector involvement in public education as an end in itself. I favor the SES program solely as a means of raising student achievement, and I suspect most people without a direct financial stake in public education share my view. If tutoring offers an educationally significant increase in student performance at a reasonable price, I’m for it. If after spending over $1000 per student I have to use a magnifying glass to see the improvement over letting students do nothing, I don’t think I’m the only reasonable person who might be skeptical about the program’s value.

Yes, schools have students for the whole day, and SES providers might have them for four hours. But that’s an “apples to fruit basket” comparison. An “apples to apples” approach would assess hours spent on math and/or literacy in school vs. after-school tutoring on the same subjects. One estimate of the combined in-school total at the elementary level is on the order of eleven hours per week. Under NCLB, tutoring services are intended to supplement classroom instruction rather than compete for it, so presumably SES providers reinforce classroom teaching by adding roughly 33 percent to time on task.

The question is, given the allocation of 10-plus percent of total spending on a student to SES tutoring, what’s a reasonable amount of improvement in student performance to expect from an additional 33% of time on task? I posit that mere statistical significance is not a sufficient payoff to the taxpayer. We need educational significance at least equal to what we might get from any other comparable expenditure on a school improvement program.

I have not stopped favoring markets, nor have I ended my support for an SES program in NCLB. Nor do I discount the effect of administrators bent on making it as hard as possible for SES providers to do business on school districts’ and states’ home turf. I still believe kids need help that schools can’t always provide - and ASAP; that private sector involvement can meet the need effectively; that school districts will ultimately improve under competitive pressure; and that under the best of circumstances six years isn’t long enough to effect substantial change in a system with dysfunctional features that have been in place for several generations. I do believe that, properly managed, the SES program would have a much better record than the one we face.

The history of evaluation in SES was hardly inevitable, but has been entirely predictable. With one plausible exception, it has followed the course of every market-based school reform since 1990. Over time, advocates and leaders of independent charters schools, Education Management Organizations (EMOs), Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) and SES providers have employed precisely the same set of talking points: “Please let us get started before asking how we are doing;” “You know, this is hard, there are no silver bullets;” “We’re about to start a study, but what’s the right measure of effectiveness for our unique offering - and do test scores truly capture our real value?;” and finally, “Evaluation doesn’t really matter to our future; it won’t be interpreted fairly, and it won’t change anyone’s mind.”

As one who has had some kind of a direct role in each of these efforts, I find this repetitive story disheartening; very hard to stomach; and more than a little hypocritical (particularly when it is familiar to anyone with knowledge of public education and public school reform prior to 1990). The poor performance of the existing public schools as measured by test scores or improvements to test scores and the promise of doing better is the reason these reforms were adopted. It is precisely because I believe in the complete phrase “market-based education reform” that I find efforts to change the scorecard unacceptable. Substituting one set of ineffective providers for another is not education reform; it’s just a transfer of wealth.

In each case, only after criticism about the lack of evidence jeopardizes continued political support from the responsible middle do advocates and operators get serious about evaluation. By then they have lost much of the benefit of the doubt enjoyed when the reform was first implemented. As a result, the inevitably problematic reviews are not interpreted as signs of progress and ongoing improvement, but as evidence of another in a long series of questionable reforms. Those who support real reform move onto the next new thing, opponents breathe a sigh of relief, and educators become even more cynical.

The one plausible exception to this more than twice told tale is Comprehensive School Reform. Just as today, a handful of foundations acting in concert are the only game in town for those pursuing the nonprofit Education Management Organization model for charter schools – the CMO, New American Schools (NAS) bankrolled the development of most Comprehensive School Reform providers. The difference is that NAS based its investment decisions on a clear set of design specifications contained in an RFP; built serious independent evaluation into the program development and dissemination process; published those results throughout the its life; and insisted that its design teams create their own means of ongoing evaluation.

The difference in outcomes is pretty obvious. When it comes to legislative matters, the charter movement is on hold. EMOs are as far out of favor as an education investment can become. CMO’s have been stumbling along with the public more or less in the dark on matters of cost/effectiveness. Most national and many regional SES providers live in fear of their future. By comparison, several years into the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program (CSRDP), most NAS Design Teams had a record of evaluation that independent experts at what became the What Works Clearinghouse and other institutions considered promising. Ironically, it was not the blob that killed CSRDP, but a Bush Administration that wanted to replace it with Reading First. Nevertheless, most NAS Designs Teams are still in business and are serving or have served literally thousands of schools.

There’s a lesson here. NAS held its providers accountable for educational outcomes from the very start. It opened the stove to look at the cooking again and again and again. The evaluation reporting process was almost always behind actual improvements in programs, actual outcomes were often less than what NAS hoped to see, but truly poor performers were dropped, there was constant improvement across all designs, and the value of continuous improvement was built into Design Teams’ organizational processes and so their corporate cultures.

At the end of the day, there was sufficient evidence for schools to justify doing business with these organizations despite the end of the special federal funding stream. And on a school-by-school basis, when a building’s administrators are facing the need for improvement, this evidence often outweighs opposition based on politics or ideology. Other school improvement organizations lacking such evidence have a much harder time persuading school boards, administrators, principals, teachers to divert from their course, however well they recognize an impending crisis.

The fact is that SES has been poorly managed by the Department of Education. Had the federal government been serious in the development of reasonable standards for evaluation, providers could not have more or less ignored it for so many years, and states would not have suddenly learned how to manipulate standards to dispense with school districts competitors in the near future. Absent government management, markets are like Hobbes’ state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short. If student performance truly matters, providers will deliver it. If it is not a priority, objectives like growth and profitability will move to the fore. If dominant players like school districts are allowed to use their market power to squelch competition by whatever means they can, they will. Government’s job is to corral and channel competitive impulses towards ends that profit society. This Administration simply didn’t.

Next: If there is to be a meaningful future for SES in NCLB II, it must address these shortfalls in government policy. Some suggestions.

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