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Opinion
Federal Commentary

Finding Flexibility in Supplemental Services

By Bob Schaffer — June 27, 2012 3 min read

We take the responsibility to educate every child seriously in Colorado, knowing that today’s student who isn’t proficient in reading and math will be tomorrow’s adult who struggles to find work. As we wrote in our successful application for a waiver from some of the more burdensome provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act earlier this year: “Our state is concerned with improving educational outcomes not just for some students, or for the majority of students, but for all students.”

At a time when states around the country grapple with keeping their commitments to all students while granting school districts the freedom to implement the best local solutions, I believe Colorado has found the right balance in its waiver language on supplemental education services, or SES—tutoring for low-income students enrolled in underperforming schools.

Under the federal law, districts need to set aside a portion of their Title I funds to pay for SES tutoring. NCLB’s admirable concept was that students in these underperforming schools needed a lifeline while policymakers and educators worked to turn the schools around. Yet districts sometimes found that SES was too much of a one-size-fits-all approach. If there was ever an issue that called for a balance between proven approaches, SES was it.

Our proposal found that balance by holding on to what works about supplemental education services, but using state standards rather than federal mandates to give districts the flexibility to make the program work even better.

It’s clear that SES is effective. A study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that SES leads to statistically significant gains in math and reading achievement compared with those of eligible nonparticipants. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study late last year showing that high-impact tutoring was one of the most effective means of improving student achievement. This is the kind of service low-income students need to catch up with their wealthier peers. Similarly, in demanding that parents choose their child’s tutoring provider and enroll their child accordingly, SES demands the active engagement of parents.

NCLB waivers present states a rare opportunity for more flexibility. States, however, need to be smart about that flexibility."

Yet, in many ways, SES was indeed one-size-fits-all and did not allow districts the flexibility to implement complementary approaches that would maximize the benefits of tutoring. Further, No Child Left Behind’s regulation did not allow districts to target the tutoring money to the schools needing it most, ordering instead that all schools identified for improvement based on “adequate yearly progress” provide supplemental education services.

Colorado’s waiver approach balances these two concerns. We maintain the option of high-quality tutoring for students, but we also target funding to those Title I schools that the state has identified as “priority improvement” and “turnaround” and require that districts send a letter to parents informing them of the opportunity to participate in SES. “Priority improvement” and “turnaround” are official performance ratings from Colorado’s education department for low-performing schools.

Further, we want to make sure that money intended for tutoring is not wasted, so, if a district has satisfied the need for tutoring in the first semester, it can begin new programs in the second. This would be accomplished by either a high demand for services that would exhaust the funding early or by a low demand that would then allow districts the flexibility to put more money into local approaches to turn around low-performing schools, be it for extended learning time in core subjects or for professional development. In tough economic times, it was also important that we encourage districts to save the money they did not use in a given year. Rather than keep a use-it-or-lose-it system that promoted a blizzard of unnecessary end-of-year spending, our waiver plan would institute a system allowing districts to carry funds over from one year to the next.

NCLB waivers present states a rare opportunity for more flexibility. States, however, need to be smart about that flexibility. We need to use the opportunity to keep programs that work. We need to find ways to improve them. Most importantly, we need to maintain our commitment to educate every single child. In Colorado, SES is a vital part of that equation.

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week

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