Student Achievement

Tutoring Aid Falling Short Of Mandate

By Catherine Gewertz — February 25, 2004 14 min read
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Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, poor children in persistently failing schools are entitled to receive free tutoring on the government’s dime. But two years after the law was signed, only a small portion of the students eligible for those services are receiving them.

As of last week, federal officials had not yet released figures showing how many students have been using the tutoring. But research starting to emerge on the program estimates that in many districts, fewer than one-quarter of eligible students—and often far less than that—are using what the law calls “supplemental educational services.”

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View the accompanying chart, “A Look at the Supplemental-Service Market,” and the accompanying table, “Getting Extra Help.”

Numerous problems are suppressing enrollment. Parents often are not fully informed of the opportunity. Schools often must wait until late fall or winter to find out whether they have to offer tutoring. Districts may lack the incentive to promote the programs. Providers can have difficulty securing arrangements that make offering tutoring practical for them.

The participation rate in supplemental services is drawing differing interpretations. Some view the glass as half full, while others view it as half empty.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that while the law is still having “growing pains,” districts are doing better at making tutoring available, and more students are using it this year than last. The Washington-based council recently surveyed the large urban districts that make up its membership on their experiences implementing the No Child Left Behind law’s tutoring and school choice provisions.

“This is something that is vastly different than anyone has ever done before, and it’s taken some time to set up structures,” Mr. Casserly said. “This is typical start-up.”

But a recent study by researchers from Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project decried the low participation rate—which it found ranged from 0 percent to 16 percent last school year in 10 districts it examined—and called for a halt to supplemental services until evidence proves tutoring enhances student performance.

The researchers also expressed concern that because the tutoring is financed with a portion of a district’s federal Title I money for disadvantaged students, the supplemental-services provision concentrates resources intended for many children on only a few.

“Supplemental services shift the focus from improving poorly performing schools to improving individual student achievement, but only for those requesting services,” the Civil Rights Project’s report says. “Combined with the loss of resources, it is unclear how this strategy will improve low-performing schools.”

Problem Areas

Schools that receive Title I funding and fail to make targets for “adequate yearly progress” set by their states under the No Child Left Behind Act for two consecutive years must allow students to transfer to other schools. Schools that fail to meet the targets for a third year must offer supplemental services to children from low-income families. Districts must set aside 20 percent of their Title I budgets to pay for choice and tutoring.

States compile a list of approved providers, and districts draw up contracts with those of their choosing. Districts must notify parents that their children are eligible, and supply information about the providers. It is up to parents to enroll.

Federal education leaders are monitoring areas they view as posing the most problems in implementing the law. Nina Shokraii Rees, the deputy undersecretary in charge of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement, said high on that list are the lack of sufficient parent notification and districts’ “reluctance” to carry out the law.

Even as difficulties are being worked out, however, Ms. Rees, whose office is overseeing implementation of the supplemental-services provision, said the department was “optimistic” about the way the supplemental-services program was unfolding, given its large scale and the profound changes it asks of the education community.

The supplemental-services requirements have prompted more than 1,000 tutoring providers to secure spots on state lists of approved providers, according to researcher Siobhan Gorman, who analyzed the emerging market in a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Of those 1,000, 63 percent are based in the private sector, according to the Education Department. They offer tutoring at school buildings, in storefronts, online, in students’ homes, or in community buildings such as libraries. Nearly a third of the providers are school systems.

The number of providers varies regionally. The American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based research organization that is examining aspects of the law under a contract with the Education Department, found state lists ranging from zero providers to 223.

Mr. Casserly’s survey of big-city districts found they have contracted with an average of 24 providers, with the shortest list numbering six, and the longest—in New York City—numbering 59. Some districts have had trouble finding any providers willing to serve them.

What that variation can mean, according to those studying the issue, is that parents of eligible children can be faced with too little choice in some places, and an overwhelming amount of choice in others.

Most districts notify eligible parents of services by sending letters explaining that their children qualify for free tutoring and listing the approved providers. Some also try to reach parents through advertisements, fliers, meetings, and vendor fairs.

But research and anecdotes suggest many of the mailings are never received or understood by parents, or are misleading. Advocates For Children, a New York City nonprofit group, faulted poor outreach as one of the main reasons only 12 percent of eligible children in the city received tutoring last school year.

New York was hardly alone. Rochester, N.Y., served fewer than 9 percent. Los Angeles served 7 percent of those eligible, and Chicago fewer than 5 percent.

A study by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group analyzing implementation of the law for the California Department of Education, showed that only 4 percent of eligible children in California used the services.

Criticized for low participation rates, many districts are stepping up efforts to get the word out. New York City added to its arsenal an automated phone blitz that delivered calls to the homes of all 212,000 eligible children. This year, 24 percent of its eligible students are receiving tutoring services.

Rochester held a “town meeting” for parents. The district also hosted a vendor fair for principals, so they could meet providers and select one or more to set up shop in their schools. The move was meant to build relationships between providers and school staff members, as well as to minimize transportation barriers for parents, said Terrence Hofer, who oversees the district’s supplemental-services programs. This school year, Rochester quadrupled the number of children that signed up for services.

Analysts say the enrollment picture also is improving because companies and districts have established more of the infrastructure to run the programs, and are learning how to operate them more effectively. But bumpy zones remain.

Some states have been late in posting approved-provider lists, or in making final determinations of which schools have not made adequate yearly progress and thus have students eligible for tutoring. Additional time goes by as districts and schools exercise their rights to appeal their status. By the time schools are certain they must offer tutoring, and districts forge contracts to provide it, half an academic year might have passed.

Negotiations between districts and providers to set up programs can expose differences in method, terms, and goals.

The Council of the Great City Schools’ survey, for instance, found that while providers want to base fees on how many students enroll in the program, districts want to base them on how many actually attend—which can exacerbate a provider’s uncertainty about whether it’s a viable business venture.

Navigating Differences

Providers often want to hold sessions in schools, but some districts forbid that arrangement or insist on charging rent to use their premises.

Seppy Basili, the vice president of New York City-based Kaplan K12 Learning Services, which is approved to provide supplemental services in more than 30 states, said that in approaching a potential district contract, he gauges principals and district leaders to determine whether they view it as a threat or a partnership. The marketplace offers enough opportunity that he doesn’t need to push for contracts with districts that impose so many restrictions that he can’t operate effectively, he said.

“If a district doesn’t get it, I move on,” Mr. Basili said.

Researchers found that some districts saw little reason to encourage contracts with private providers, because they wished to conserve as much of their Title I budgets as possible. According to Mr. Basili, district Title I directors often exhibit a “gatekeeper mentality” that makes them the officials least receptive to his company’s prospective contract.

Some private providers who wanted to offer tutoring in Detroit, for instance, were told by district employees “not to stir up business” so that Title I funds lasted longer, according to David N. Plank and Christopher Dunbar Jr., Michigan State University researchers who examined Michigan’s experience implementing the No Child Left Behind law in a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute.

Fair Competition

According to federal officials, districts may promote their own programs, but must also give parents a fair choice among all eligible providers.

“We’ve opened up a regulated free market here,” said Thomas M. Corwin, the Education Department’s associate deputy undersecretary for innovation and improvement. “If [districts] can compete on a fair basis and enroll a lot of the kids, that’s okay. But they can’t create obstacles to the others.”

Private providers assess not only a district’s willingness to partner with them, but also other factors, such as the concentration of children to be served in a given area, whether the company has other customers in contiguous districts, and whether it has a network of contacts in the district to support its work.

In some places, that calculus doesn’t support a sound business plan. In Flint, Mich., for instance, only two of the state’s 44 approved providers were willing to serve the district, Mr. Plank and Mr. Dunbar found.

Personnel shortages can create problems, too. In Chicago, two providers scaled back their commitments because they couldn’t find enough teachers and had too few children in some sites, said Ethel J. Collier, the district’s director of supplemental services.

Where a school district is itself a state-approved provider of tutoring services, additional tensions can arise.

Jeffrey H. Cohen, the president of Sylvan Education Solutions, a Baltimore-based company on 29 states’ provider lists, said that he seeks to form productive partnerships with districts, but that their role as providers can “drive a competitive wedge” between his company and the districts.

One provider told Advocates For Children in New York that a district enrollment form had the district itself already checked off as the provider. It was up to a parent to change that selection.

In a glossy brochure of providers mailed home, school districts are often the one choice parents are familiar with. They can offer on-site tutoring and transportation with more ease than can private providers. Where districts provide tutoring services, they often enroll the lion’s share of students.

In New York City last school year, for instance, only 12 percent of students who signed up for tutoring used outside providers, said Betty Arce, the director of supplemental-services implementation for the 1.1 million-student district.

Stung by criticism that it was serving its own interests at the expense of parental choice, the district is taking steps this school year to even the playing field by encouraging parents to choose private providers. So far this year, Ms. Arce said, 35 percent of eligible students are using outside providers.

In Los Angeles, the district’s own programs, held on Saturday mornings, enroll 12,000 of the 18,500 pupils currently signed up for tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act. John H. Liechty, the associate superintendent for the extended-day program, acknowledges that the 728,000-student district has an advantage over its 25 outside providers because it is familiar to parents, provides tutoring in small groups with certified teachers, and offers snacks and transportation.

Mr. Liechty sees no reason to allow outside companies to promote their programs at schools during the day, or hold tutoring sessions at schools without paying rent, as they have sought to do. The district is entitled, he said, to use its assets to its own advantage.

“Some providers see the district as being a bully,” Mr. Liechty said. “But I don’t feel it’s important to try to level the playing field. I believe—and I’m biased, I’m a public educator—that we do it better than anybody else.

“No Child Left Behind is a way of trying to privatize public education,” he argued. “It’s important for the districts to be players in this.”

Districts are in a tough place, said New York’s Ms. Arce, because they are trying to comply with the federal law, yet they know that to do so means using Title I money that they already feel doesn’t go far enough.

“We’re trying walk a fine line here,” she said. “There is a finite number of dollars available, and if we didn’t have [supplemental educational services], the money would go to instruction and teachers.”

Serving Everyone

Districts are required to provide supplemental services to students with disabilities and to those learning English, but some are reporting difficulty finding private providers willing or able to do so.

The Advocates For Children survey in New York found that most providers did not know how many English-learners or children with disabilities were in their programs, and most had no services designed for those groups.

Districts reported in the Council of the Great City Schools study that providers often sought the right not to serve English-learners and special education students.

“In my experience, private providers have a very limited capacity to provide services for [English as a second language] and special ed students,” said Ms. Collier of Chicago. “Some kids they accepted, they later had to tell us they couldn’t serve.”

The 433,000-student Chicago district is providing tutoring itself for English-language learners and special education students, she said.

While problems with providing supplemental services have surfaced most clearly in urban districts—because they tend to have the greatest concentrations of eligible children—rural areas are struggling with their own implementation troubles. Chief among them is finding enough providers, or finding providers willing to deliver face-to-face tutoring.

Alex Medler, a University of Colorado researcher who examined implementation of the No Child Left Behind law in Colorado, found in a recent paper that more than 20 providers were willing to work with Denver students, but rural districts had an average of only four providers from which to choose.

Kathryn Pokorney knows that story firsthand as the principal of Ignacio Intermediate School in the southwest corner of Colorado. Her school of 180 4th, 5th, and 6th graders was the only one in her small district required to offer tutoring this year. Four providers—most based hundreds or even thousands of miles away—were available, and offered only online tutoring. Of 69 eligible children, only one enrolled, but chose to use the district’s after- school program, even though it is not an approved provider.

“I didn’t like having only online providers as my only choice,” said Ms. Pokorney. “In a small, rural community, the connection of being able to help parents with questions they have is important.”

Those studying the tutoring provision of the law are wondering how its effectiveness will ultimately be evaluated, as the law requires. Even federal Education Department officials have acknowledged that an evaluation could be difficult.

Some providers fear they could be held to an impossible standard, while states and districts are still figuring out how they should judge one provider against another and determine how successful tutoring has been overall.

As the accountability requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act grow steeper, so does anticipation that more schools will be required to provide tutoring.

“All this stuff sounded very good when they were debating it in Congress,” said Fred Tempes, a WestEd program director who oversees a network of federally financed centers that help districts carry out the law. “But it’s very difficult to implement.”


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