Student Achievement

States Suffer Halting Start On Tutoring

September 25, 2002 10 min read
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At least five states have been operating under the impression—mistaken, according to the Department of Education—that none of their public schools must meet a key requirement in the new federal education law this school year.

Many other states, meanwhile, are lagging behind schedule in complying with the provision, which requires that students in consistently low-performing schools have access to a choice of tutoring services or other extra academic help.

Federal officials have said they wanted such “supplemental educational services” to be available at the beginning of this school year. But that ambitious target for a bill signed into law last January has proved difficult for many states.

Under the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, each state, working with districts, is supposed to compile annually a list of schools that are affected, and the state must approve supplemental-services providers. The idea is that parents may choose from a menu of tutoring services, online providers, faith-based organizations, or even programs provided by their public school district. A portion of the district’s federal aid would pay the cost.

Interviews with state officials in about half the states have found a wide range of responses to the new requirements. Several of those states, such as Colorado and New York, have already identified schools and drawn up lists of potential providers. But that’s far from the case across the board.

In fact, officials reached in seven state education agencies have suggested that none of their schools must provide supplemental services this year.

In one case—Nevada—a state official said that was because all schools had made sufficient academic improvement. That’s considered an acceptable rationale by the federal government.

But in the other six, the reasons apparently have nothing to do with how the schools have performed.

Officials in those states—Connecticut, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Virginia—pointed to issues related to their state systems of testing or accountability and to the difficulty of adjusting those systems rapidly to the new federal law. Officials in all but one of those states indicated that they would likely have some schools on the list next year.

In interviews over the past two weeks, those officials said it was their understanding that their stance was acceptable to the federal government.

Not so, says the Education Department, with one possible exception.

The department, while still withholding judgment about Virginia, indicated last week that none of the other five states is free from requiring supplemental services in schools based on the reasons those states have cited. The agency is currently in discussions, or has scheduled talks, with officials in those states to clarify the federal requirements and ensure compliance.

Eugene W. Hickok

In an interview, Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said the agency would not grant any special exceptions.

“We have told no states, nor will we tell any state, that they can take a walk on ... accountability this year,” he said. “The law doesn’t allow it; we wouldn’t allow it.”

Under the law, if a Title I school fails to make “adequate yearly progress” for two consecutive years, the district must provide public school choice and pay transportation costs. If the school fails for yet another consecutive year to make adequate progress, its students from low-income families are eligible for the supplemental services.

The snag is that the new law, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is meant to apply retroactively, so that all states don’t start from scratch in identifying schools. Under the 1994 version of the ESEA, states were already identifying schools that were “needing improvement.” Once a school did not make adequate progress for two years, it went on the list. Schools must show adequate progress for two years to get off the list.

Impact of State Changes

Delores M. Beck, the federal-programs coordinator for the Missouri Department of Education, said that her state, because of recent changes in its testing system, lacks “consistent data” over time to determine if any schools are required to offer supplemental services.

Ms. Beck said Missouri had reliable data going back only far enough to identify schools for public school choice—38 this year.

“New Jersey took longer to roll out its standards and assessments,” said Thomas M. Rosenthal, a spokesman for that state’s education agency. “Because we’re behind a year and our process is more exhaustive ... the supplemental services such as tutoring will occur next year.”

Meanwhile, Virginia also says it has no schools that must provide supplemental services.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said the problem in his state is that, in July 2000, Virginia’s accountability system was significantly changed, including the way it identifies schools for improvement.

“The definition of a school that did not meet learning objectives ... before 2000 is very different from the definition that we are now using,” he said. Virginia has 34 schools that must provide school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act.

While the Department of Education last week could not say for certain whether Virginia’s plans for this year are in keeping with the law or not, agency officials appeared somewhat skeptical and are pursuing the matter.

“We hope Virginia will clarify why eligible schools have not been identified,” Undersecretary Hickok said.

“Everything we have done has been done with the guidance of the Department of Education,” Mr. Pyle said. “If there are issues that have to be resolved, of course, we will resolve them.”

Mr. Pyle and the Missouri official said they were encouraging districts to offer supplemental services a year early where lack of available space had limited the public-school-choice option.

Michael Cohen, who served as an assistant secretary of education under President Clinton, said the law is clear when it comes to schools previously identified.

“The No Child Left Behind Act basically has a provision that says to states, if you change anything, grandfather the old schools in,” he said. “Don’t [assume] they got better.”

But some state officials say it’s not easy to mesh their systems with the federal mandates.

“This is the bumpy road of transition that we’re experiencing,” said Thomas W. Murphy, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education. His state’s accountability system has been on a different track from the federal effort, he said, and it will take time to realign.

Meanwhile, at least two other states have already reversed course after hearing from the federal government that they cannot take a pass on supplemental services.

Arkansas—which drew national attention with its claim this summer that it had no low-performing schools—has since been in talks with federal officials and will provide a list of such schools in the next few weeks. The state’s original rationale was that it had recently switched to a new testing system, said Janine H. Riggs, an assistant director of the Arkansas education agency.

Ms. Riggs predicted that at least some Arkansas schools would have to provide supplemental services this year.

A ‘Mixed Message’?

Illinois state Superintendent Robert E. Schiller said that in the plan Illinois submitted to the Education Department earlier this year describing how it would implement the No Child Left Behind Act, the state made plain that it would not require any schools to meet the supplemental-services requirement until next school year.

Before receiving federal K-12 funds this past summer, each state had to win federal approval of its plan, called a “consolidated application.” Illinois’ plan was approved in July, but Mr. Schiller said federal officials came back in August to say Illinois could not put off the tutoring requirement.

“That’s the mixed message that’s troubled us,” he said. The news has disrupted planning at the state and district levels, Mr. Schiller said, and he predicted it would be months before students could get access to supplemental services.

Melinda Malico, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the “form letter” approving states’ plans gave clearance only to those elements required in the federal application. Anything else a state may have attached was neither considered nor approved.

She said there is nothing in the application with regard to the timeline or implementation of choice or supplemental services. Ms. Malico added that Secretary of Education Rod Paige has consistently sent out the message that all states must meet the choice and supplemental-services provisions this year.

Even states that have been planning to make the services available this year are not all ready to go. One reason—cited by 11 states out of the 28 surveyed—is that they were still waiting for test results from last spring or computing how those results would affect the status of schools.

Secretary Paige issued a letter Aug. 16 that opened that floodgate. In essence, he said states still waiting for those spring results could hold off—for a certain subset of schools meeting specific criteria—on making final judgments on which schools must provide either school choice or supplemental services this school year. (“Paige Allows Wiggle Room for Late-Coming Test Scores,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

Michigan and Kansas, for example, will not have a final count of schools until October.

The totals that were available elsewhere varied widely. For example, Georgia has reported 360 schools where students are eligible for supplemental services, Maryland 75, and Tennessee 96. States with far fewer include Texas, with two, and North Carolina, with three.

Compiling final lists of schools is not the only holdup. Many states are still in the process of approving supplemental-service providers—a brand-new realm for nearly all states.

“States have little or no experience in approving tutoring programs,” said Edward E. Gordon, the president of Chicago-based Imperial Consulting Corp., who has been advising some states on the matter. “Tutoring and classroom teaching are two different animals,” he said.

States must devise a process for “quality control” that is attuned particularly to tutoring, not schooling, he argued.

It also may not have helped matters that the Education Department issued draft guidelines and regulations on supplemental services only in August, although Secretary Paige sent states a letter in June briefly outlining the department’s thinking on the subject.

Some states predict that students will be able to get access to tutoring services later this fall. Kentucky, for instance, will be approving providers over the next month. A state official said the earliest that students might receive services is October.

Others may take longer.

Indiana, where 40 schools must provide the services this year, will likely not have a list of providers until December, said Mary Tiede Wilhelmus, a spokeswoman for the state education agency. Students will likely have access to the services by the start of the second semester.

“It’s just absolutely physically what was possible,” Ms. Wilhelmus said.

Undersecretary Hickok said he recognizes some delays may be unavoidable. But regarding Indiana’s time frame, he said: “With all due respect, that’s an awfully long time.”

Several states, at least, are finding it possible to move faster. Among those that have approved providers are California, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

New York has a list of 70 providers; Georgia has 146.

Of course, not all families will get that many choices. In Georgia, more than half the providers are school districts. In many systems, the district is listed as the only local provider, though more than a dozen providers are identified as “statewide.” Georgia will continue to approve providers over the course of the year.

Maryland has approved far fewer providers so far, just two—Sylvan Learning Systems and Huntington Learning Centers—out of the 16 that applied. The state plans to issue another request for applicants in October to ensure more options, and will continue to do so on a quarterly basis.

Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington- based Center on Education Policy, suggested that in general, difficulties and delays should not be surprising. States face a heavy burden trying to meet a host of new federal demands, some delving into unfamiliar terrain, said Mr. Jennings, who was a longtime aide to the House education committee.

“This is a lot of work,” he said. “Some state departments have had severe budget cuts, and so the folks are overwhelmed, just with ordinary work, much less with implementing a comprehensive, demanding new law.”


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