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NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up

By Lynn Olson — March 15, 2005 5 min read
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Districts are paying scant attention to the provision of federal education law that allows students in low-performing schools to transfer elsewhere, though more are providing children with the supplemental services to which they are entitled.

New data submitted to the federal government show that eligible students who transferred to a higher-performing public school under the No Child Left Behind Act averaged 1 percent nationwide last school year. On the tutoring front, 11 states reported that 20 percent or more of eligible children received supplemental educational services that school year.

States had to submit those and other performance data to the U.S. Department of Education by Dec. 31, as part of their applications for federal aid under the law. Education Week obtained the state-by-state data under a Freedom of Information Act request to the department.

The 3-year-old NCLB law contains two provisions designed to provide immediate help for children in Title I schools identified for improvement: Students in a school that fails to meet its performance targets for two years in a row can choose to attend another public school in the district. If their school fails to meet its targets for a third year, children from low-income families in such schools can receive free tutoring from a public or private provider selected from a state-approved list.

But critics have long complained that the school choice provision is not viable—a complaint that seems to be borne out by the data.

See Also

See the related table, “NCLB: State Report on Progress":

PDF version | Excel version.

Only a handful of states—Alabama, Kansas, New York, Oklahoma, and Oregon—reported that more than 10 percent of eligible students took advantage of the school choice option in 2003-04. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, that figure was 1 percent, the national average, or less.

In contrast, more than half the states that furnished comparable data over two years saw sizable jumps in the number of students who received tutoring in 2003-04 compared with the previous school year.

“Educators and folks in the state education systems are more comfortable with supplemental services than they are with the public school choice requirements,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. “The fact that folks in the districts and in the states see supplemental services as helpful and as consistent with seeking to make adequate yearly progress has made it an easier sell.”

On the other hand, he contended, “there’s very little incentive for principals or superintendents to pursue choice seriously. If you open your school, or you make real efforts to provide public school choice and accept these kids, there’s nothing in the way of reputational awards or motivational awards or resources, whereas dragging your feet is pretty much a no-cost option at this point.”

Even on the supplemental-services front, there is room for improvement.

Of those states that had students eligible for supplemental services and reported data, 18 had fewer than 10 percent of eligible students receive such services last school year. Only Utah came close to serving half of all eligible children.

Many groups have proposed reversing the order now specified in the law, so that districts would have to offer students tutoring the first year a school is identified for improvement and the transfer option if a school is identified for a second year.

“We do agree that there will be some tweaks when we get to the reauthorization process,” Melanie Looney, a majority staff member with the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said this month during a meeting in Washington sponsored by the Education Industry Association. She specifically mentioned reversing the order of choice and supplemental services as one option when the law comes up for renewal in 2007.

Is Picture Accurate?

As was true last year, states continued to report that the vast majority of their core academic classes are taught by teachers who meet the law’s definition of “highly qualified.”

Only a few states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Utah—reported that more than 25 percent of their courses were taught by teachers not meeting the law’s definition.

To satisfy the standard, each teacher of a core subject must hold a bachelor’s degree and a standard teaching license from the state, as well as demonstrate knowledge of the subject taught. New teachers must do so by taking and passing tests in the subjects they teach or completing the equivalent of a college major. Veteran teachers may choose to meet the requirement under alternative standards devised by each state within broad federal guidelines.

Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Washington-based Education Trust, an advocacy group that works to improve achievement for poor and minority students, contends that the numbers “are not an accurate representation of shortages in qualified teachers.”

Most states, for example, reported few differences in the percent of classes taught by highly qualified teachers in high-poverty vs. low-poverty schools, despite research suggesting that students in high-poverty schools are more likely to have classes taught by teachers who are not licensed in their subjects or who lack even minors in those subjects.

“The U.S. Department of Education has sent clear signals that compliance with these provisions of the law is optional,” Mr. Wiener maintained, adding that most states “have taken up the feds on their offer to paper over this problem.”

“What’s so distressing,” he said, “is that it’s impossible to get people to focus on a problem if we continue to deny that a problem exists.”

Paraprofessionals

States are conceding more trouble meeting the law’s requirement that all paraprofessionals working in Title I schools be highly qualified by next January.

In 2003-04, the proportion of qualified aides ranged from a low of 27 percent in Massachusetts to a high of 99 percent in Iowa.

To be deemed qualified, aides must complete a minimum of two years’ worth of college courses or show through a formal state or local assessment that they have the skills to help with the teaching of reading, writing, and math.

Tish Olshefski, the director of the paraprofessional and school-related personnel department at the American Federation of Teachers, cited two reasons for the wide variation across states. Some 15 states already had some kind of certification standards in place for paraprofessionals before the law was enacted, she said, while others had done very little in that area. And second, “as far as implementation of NCLB,” she said, “it’s been all over the board, in terms of what states have been doing to help paraprofessionals, which is probably reflected in those numbers.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up

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