Provision on Tutoring Raises Renewal Issues

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With the number of students eligible for federally financed tutoring continuing to grow, school officials and tutoring providers are fighting over the scope of the program and debating how to measure its quality.  

As Congress revisits the tutoring initiative and other sections of the No Child Left Behind Act, lawmakers want answers to questions that are vital for the future of the program. Among the biggest questions are:  

• Should the federal law reserve such services for students in the worst-performing schools, or should it expand the free tutoring to schools not currently qualifying for it?  

• How should policymakers evaluate the businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide the tutoring, for as much as $2,000 a year per student?  

• Should districts be required to spend 20 percent of their funding from the NCLB law’s Title I compensatory education program for tutoring and school choice for students, even if there’s not enough demand to spend all of that sum in one year?

To its supporters, who include U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and leading congressional Republicans, the tutoring program offers students the chance for focused instruction that they aren’t otherwise receiving in their schools and can compensate students who attend inadequate schools.

To its critics, though, tutoring done under the nearly 6-year-old law has been poorly monitored and has siphoned federal money away from schools that could be spent on providing reading teachers and other services directly tied to states’ academic standards.

“There’s been virtually no consistently rigorous research on the effects [of tutoring under NCLB] on student achievement,” said Patricia E. Burch, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There’s very little discussion about accountability for these, in many cases, for-profit firms.”

Tutoring and Other Issues

Congress is working on a bill to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind law, which expired this month but was automatically extended for another year. Leaders of the House Education and Labor Committee are working on a bipartisan bill for the committee to consider, possibly this month. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, also hopes to introduce an NCLB-renewal bill this month.

Issues related to testing, accountability, and teacher pay have been the subject of the most public debate since the House panel’s leaders released the first sections of a “discussion draft” bill in late August. Even if tutoring isn’t as prominent or controversial as those issues, Congress still must confront questions about the tutoring program, also known as supplementary educational services, or SES.

Tutoring Under the Federal Law

A draft House bill on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act would make major changes in supplemental educational services mandated under the law.

Districts must offer tutoring in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for three consecutive years. All students eligible for NCLB’s Title I program may receive such tutoring paid for by the federal program.

Schools would be divided into separate categories depending on how far short of the AYP goals they fell for three years. “High priority” schools—those that missed their goals in all or almost all subgroups of students—would be required to offer tutoring to students eligible for Title I services. “Priority” schools—those that missed AYP for only one or two subgroups—would have the option of offering tutoring to Title I students.

Under the current law, students eligible for Title I may receive free tutoring if their schools fail to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for three consecutive years. The provision allowing students to transfer to other schools takes effect after a school has not made AYP for two years.

In the 2005-06 school year, 515,500 students nationwide participated in SES, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That figure was an increase of 85,500 students, or 20 percent, over the previous school year.

Despite the increase in the number of students participating, the proportion of eligible students using the free services fell—from 19 percent to 14 percent—because the total number of eligible students increased from the 2004-05 school year to 2005-06.

The Bush administration has proposed offering supplemental services to students in schools that failed to make AYP for two consecutive years, shortening the eligibility time frame by one year. But the House committee’s draft language for Title I would significantly restrict eligibility, critics say, by making it easier for schools to hit their AYP targets and by limiting the definition of schools that must offer tutoring.

Under the draft proposal, only those schools that failed to make AYP in several student subgroups for three consecutive years would be required to offer tutoring. Other struggling schools would be allowed give students tutoring with federal money as one of several options for improving student achievement.

“There are a lot of kids that are marginal [students], and their parents are going to be shocked to hear they’re no longer eligible” if the law changes, said Sonia Rodriguez, the executive vice president of the National Farm Workers Service Center. The nonprofit group, which is affiliated with the United Farm Workers of America union, based in Keene, Calif., is a supplemental-services provider in 50 school districts in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.

Showing Results?

Some SES providers say they are beginning to collect research that documents their success with students.

Education Station LLC, a Littleton, Colo.-based company that tutors 35,000 students in 130 districts, has found positive results when it has analyzed students’ scores on tests given by their tutors, compared with the same students’ performance on state tests.

“It tells us to what degree we are accomplishing our goals,” said Lynn Fontana, the chief academic officer of the company, which is owned by Knowledge Universe, a privately held company led by the financier and philanthropist Michael R. Milken.

Ms. Fontana said the research shows that states don’t need to create a new test to provide accountability for their SES programs, as has been proposed in the House draft bill. In a recent study of SESRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader in nine urban districts, the RAND Corp. found that the students’ test scores grew faster in years in which they had received tutoring than in years they hadn’t. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank conducted a study under a contract from the Education Department. ("NCLB Tutoring, But Not Transfers, Found to Help Student Scores," June 28, 2007.)

Even if some research is showing results, many educators question whether having to put aside portions of school districts’ allocations under the $12.8 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students is worthwhile. Under current law, districts with schools that must offer public school choice and SES must set aside 20 percent of their Title I allocations to pay for costs associated with those services.

For example, the Fort Smith, Ark., school district will spend $800,000 this school year on SES, but doesn’t receive any guarantees that the tutoring companies are providing instruction linked to Arkansas’ achievement tests, said Benny L. Gooden, the superintendent of the 14,000-student district.

“When you take that $800,000 out, that’s a number of Reading Recovery teachers,” said Mr. Gooden, citing a popular individualized program offered during the school day. Such instructional efforts are aligned with the ultimate goal of improving students’ scores on state tests, he added.

The size of the 20 percent set-aside for SES and school choice also will be the subject of significant debate. The Bush administration has proposed that districts with schools that must offer tutoring and school choice be required to spend all 20 percent on those services.

Under current law, if a district doesn’t spend all of the 20 percent set-aside on SES and choice-related expenses, it may spend the money on general Title I expenses. The Bush administration wants Congress to change that policy so that the unspent SES funds would be carried over to be spent on those services in the next fiscal year.

By contrast, the House draft bill would restrict the amount of money available for tutoring. Instead of dedicating 20 percent of a district’s Title I grant for SES and choice, the proposal would require only that the district spend 20 percent of the Title I money reserved for schools where students qualify for tutoring or choice.

The proposal “would drastically reduce” the amount of money available for tutoring, the Education Industry Association, based in Rockville, Md., which is made up of SES providers and other for-profit companies, wrote to House education leaders in response to the draft bill.

Ironing out such differences will eventually improve the SES program, but it will take compromises, said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington watchdog group that supports the tutoring program.

“People who don’t like SES and the providers will have to work it out,” Ms. Piché said.

Vol. 27, Issue 07, Pages 1, 19

Published in Print: October 10, 2007, as Provision on Tutoring Raises Renewal Issues
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