In its continuing bid to ensure free tutoring for as many eligible students as possible, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers allowing two more urban school districts to provide the extra help.
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings informed Boston and New York City in letters this month that for the 2005-06 school year, they would be exempt from a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act that prohibits districts from serving as federally financed tutoring providers if they are deemed to be “in need of improvement” under the law.
Before Boston and New York City got their exemptions, the Education Department extended a similar waiver enabling Chicago to provide tutoring. In addition, the agency granted a slightly different waiver to a group of four Virginia districts, allowing them to offer tutoring to low-income students in struggling schools before they offered the choice of transferring to another school—a reversal of the usual timing in the law. (“NCLB Waiver Lets Virginia Offer Tutoring Before Choice,” Sept. 7, 2005.)
Education Department officials view the agreements as pilot programs designed to boost the number of children receiving the tutoring. Fewer than 20 percent of eligible children enroll in such tutorings. Districts are required to offer the services to pupils from low-income families in schools that fall short of meeting state academic goals for three consecutive years.
In exchange for being allowed to use federal Title I money to run their own tutoring services, the districts in the pilot programs agreed to certain conditions, such as having the effectiveness of their services evaluated, and making sure parents are notified of their options.
More to Come?
As many as seven other large districts could be granted similar waivers. The Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based urban education advocacy group that worked with the Education Department to obtain the agreements with Boston, Chicago, and New York, is trying to secure similar ones for districts also barred from serving as tutoring providers, said Michael D. Casserly, the group’s executive director.
“There is very little evidence to think that these districts couldn’t provide solid programs just because they are in district- improvement status,” he said last week. “It’s also clear that if districts are unable to provide services, it means fewer kids get after-school tutoring.”
But there is some concern, he said, that the timing of the waivers will put districts that re-enter the tutoring field at midyear at a disadvantage when their programs are evaluated alongside those of private providers who have tutored students for a full school year. How such differences can be taken into account in the evaluations is “an open question,” Mr. Casserly said.
In the 2004-05 school year, 87,000 students in New York City received tutoring from private state-approved providers. The city had halted its own program in the fall of 2004 because officials believed most of its subdistricts would fail to make adequate yearly progress, as required under the No Child Left Behind law, rendering them ineligible to serve as providers. Most of the subdistricts did fall short of state targets last year, as well as this year.
Before the city stopped its own tutoring, half or more of the New York students who used the service enrolled in the city-run program. Currently, 45,400 students are getting NCLB tutoring in the city, including some who enrolled in programs offered by three subdistricts that met state targets. The citywide district is planning how it might expand its offerings under the waiver, said district spokeswoman Kelley Devers.
Boston officials thought last year that they might have to suspend their program because the district fell short of targets for attendance. The district successfully appealed that finding to the state, however, arguing that its absence figures were too high because they included “medically fragile” students, said district spokesman Jonathan Palumbo.
When the attendance numbers were revised, the Boston district was found to have made sufficient progress, and was able to continue serving as a tutoring provider, Mr. Palumbo said. The city’s own programs served about 1,170 of the approximately 2,200 children who received tutoring under No Child Left Behind last year, district records show. The rest were served by 13 private providers.
District officials chose to proceed with securing the waiver for this school year, however, to ensure continuity of the program and “as a matter of policy,” Mr. Palumbo said.