Flexibility on Tutoring Pleases Districts, Worries Industry

By Michele McNeil — October 10, 2011 7 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s plan to grant states broad flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act will free up as much as $800 million in money school districts now must set aside for tutoring students, but may mark a significant financial blow to an education industry that has grown up around serving low-performing schools.

Somewhere in the middle of this policy debate, an estimated 600,000 students nationwide, at least this school year, are taking advantage of free tutoring from providers of their choice because they go to schools that have failed to hit their academic goals under the law for at least two years in a row.

As states seeking waivers from provisions of the NCLB law work to design their own accountability systems, they will be free to craft interventions for 15 percent of their lowest-performing schools—leaving the role of tutoring as a big question mark.

“As these struggling schools undergo systemic reform and turn around, that’s a long-term, multiyear purpose,” said Steven Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association in Vienna, Va., which represents 350 organizations, including charter school management companies and tutoring providers. “Tutoring represents one of the only student-centric interventions that can impact a child’s performance tomorrow.”

A Timeline: NCLB and Tutoring

2002: The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for at least two consecutive years to provide students with free transportation to attend another, better-performing school within the district. Schools that fail to make AYP for three consecutive years must provide students with free tutoring (or “supplemental education services”) by outside providers. To pay for these options, those underperforming schools must set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds.

2005: Then-U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings grants a few waivers to reverse the order, so that schools provide tutoring before choice. In a pilot program, she also granted waivers to allow underperforming districts the ability to provide their own tutoring as part of the SES program.

2009: Education Secretary Arne Duncan uses his waiver authority to let all school districts provide tutoring before choice and to serve as providers of SES tutoring.

2011: Mr. Duncan announces a broad waiver plan to give states more flexibility under NCLB, which includes lifting the requirement that school districts in need of improvement set aside money for, and provide, tutoring and choice.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last month unveiled a plan to give out waivers from significant portions of the NCLB law in exchange for states adopting certain education improvement strategies, including revamping teacher-evaluation systems to factor in student growth. Among the flexibilities that will be offered: removing the requirement that 100 percent of students must be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, a cornerstone of the law.

Freedom is also being offered from the requirement that districts set aside 20 percent of their allocations under Title I to provide tutoring and transportation to a better-performing school in the same district. That provision of the NCLB law is available to students who are in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for at least two consecutive years. The set-aside for both tutoring and choice-based transportation currently amounts to $1 billion a year in Title I funds, which are aimed at helping disadvantaged students.

However, the waivers may not be the death knell for the industry providing what the law calls Supplemental Education Services, or SES.

Not every state likely will get a waiver, at least not at first. And states that don’t gain any flexibility still will be bound by all the requirements of the NCLB law. In fact, as nonwaiver states get closer to the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency in mathematics and reading, more schools will be required to provide tutoring, increasing demand for SES providers in those states.

And even states that win waivers may choose to incorporate tutoring into their intervention plans for the lowest-performing schools.

Split Views

Depending on the perspective, tutoring is either a lifeline for students at risk of failing or a one-size-fits-all solution that ties up a district’s money for a program with a mixed track record.

Advocates of tutoring see SES as a way to give low-income parents access to additional academic help for their children, something more well-off parents may already be able to afford. The Education Industry Association estimates that nearly 2 million students have participated since the NCLB law mandated SES in 2002.

With states raising academic standards, intensive tutoring will become even more crucial, said Warren Logan, the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga, which provides tutoring services mostly in elementary schools within the Tennessee city’s Hamilton County school district.

“Our curriculum is linked to the state standards, and we aren’t teaching something that’s not going on in the classroom,” Mr. Logan said. “There will be a much higher bar, a lot more accountability. And we’ll need to bring kids up.”

Without a federal mandate to offer tutoring to the most at-risk students, some providers fear schools will lose incentive to target inventions at specific students.

Given more flexibility, schools and districts will do “what is easiest and cheapest,” said Charles Brown, the executive director of Healthy Families, in Washington, which operates tutoring programs for students in Maryland and the District of Columbia. He said he envisions schools implementing large-scale, after-school tutoring programs that are more akin to study hall.

“You get a sense that everyone knows this is a chance to go back to the way things were,” he said.

But where SES has worked, districts will likely continue the program, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.

“That’s the small minority of schools, though; we hear far more frustration about the set-aside and program than we do success stories,” she said. “For the most part, the flexibility in funding will free up the funds and allow [districts] to provide programs and services with more proven track records.”

How much each provider gets for tutoring, per child, is capped by a formula spelled out by the Education Department. It can vary by state, and within districts in the state, depending on how big its Title I allocation is and how many poor students are in a district. In Tennessee, for example, the Cheatham County district pays providers up to $760 per child for tutoring this school year; in Davidson County, the maximum per child is $1,597.

Judging Impact

The SES mandate has had a checkered past.

Nationwide, most eligible students have not taken advantage of free tutoring, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which in 2009 estimated participation rates as low as 22 percent. For districts, there’s an incentive built into the law if few students take advantage: They can roll over the money to the next year and spend it elsewhere, within certain parameters.

Information on the program’s student-achievement impact is mixed and incomplete, as no national, large-scale studies have been done.

In March, the Education Department released a study of five districts—Anchorage, Alaska; Boston; Chicago; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; and Hillsborough County, Fla.—that are allowed to provide their own tutoring. They showed statistically significant gains in reading and math, on average, for students in each of the districts.

Research on programs in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis found either small or no effects from tutoring. However, the same research does show larger student-achievement gains in programs that involve at least 40 hours of tutoring a year, according to a report released earlier this year in conjunction with a Title I conference hosted by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute.

A University of Hawaii examination of that state’s program, released last month, found the impact of tutoring on student achievement to be “negligible.”

Meanwhile, administrative challenges have plagued the program.

A report by the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, released last month, found flaws in how Maryland’s program is monitored; the state, for example, relies on tutoring providers to conduct their own evaluations of their effectiveness. And the report found that implementation in Baltimore is flawed, as a backlog of applications means tutoring programs may begin as late as January in many years.

Industry Concerns

From the perspective of several providers, the Education Department is pulling the rug out from under a program that was just starting to work efficiently, and with better results.

“Now, providers are paying attention and adding more tutoring hours,” said David Payne, the CEO of Extreme Learning and @Avanza, two organizations that provide online and in-person tutoring services to students in California. When the SES program was created, he said, there was a lot of uncertainty among potential providers around implementation and how the program would work. Now that the program is nearly 10 years old, “the risk has gone down, and the level of quality has gone up.” He said states and districts have gotten better at improving their monitoring and weeding out poor performers.

Even districts that would welcome the flexibility recognize the role that intensive, small-group tutoring can play.

Lucile Phillips, the director of federal programs for the 42,000-student Hamilton County district in Tennessee, said she would like to give her schools more control over designing their own tutoring programs. If the state gets a waiver, it would free up about $1.4 million in her Title I budget that’s now spent on tutoring.

“There are a lot of initiatives we’re doing, and it’s hard to say what’s brought forth the success. Is it the tutoring? Is it the curriculum coaches?” she said. “It’s really difficult to say why a school or student is a success.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Flexibility on SES Pleases Districts, Worries Industry


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