Federal

Tutoring Comes Under Review in Congress

By Catherine Gewertz — May 03, 2005 4 min read
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Federal lawmakers expressed concern last week that there appear to be too many obstacles to full participation in the free tutoring services offered under the No Child Left Behind Act, and possibly too little oversight.

Faced with the prospect that thousands more children will become eligible for the tutoring as schools fall short of escalating achievement targets, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held an April 26 hearing designed to explore how that provision is being put into practice.

The hearing was yet another sign of rising concern about aspects of the federal law’s “supplemental educational services” provision. Last month, a group of lawmakers requested a probe of the provision’s implementation. (“Critics Question Use of Offshore Firms for Online Tutoring,” April 20, 2005.)

States, districts, and the companies that provide the tutoring have been wrestling with concerns about participation rates, business practices, and ways of monitoring and evaluating the services. Those issues dominated last week’s hearing.

Republican committee members called as witnesses the leaders of two private companies that provide tutoring and the head of tutoring implementation for the state of Louisiana. Democrats, who had requested the hearing, called the director of after-school programs for the Chicago schools.

Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the panel’s chairman, asked what barriers might be keeping so many eligible children from getting tutoring. Districts must offer tutoring to low-income children when their schools have fallen short of achievement goals for three consecutive years, but only 11 percent of the country’s eligible children are enrolled.

Donna Nola-Ganey, an assistant superintendent in the Louisiana Department of Education’s office of school and community support, described an intensive public-outreach campaign designed to inform New Orleans parents about tutoring. It did boost enrollment, she said, but too many eligible children are still unserved because it is so difficult to reach most parents.

Jeffrey H. Cohen, the president of Baltimore-based Catapult Learning, which is approved to provide tutoring in 35 states, cited districts themselves as obstacles, noting that some hold fairs to expose families to tutoring providers at times or places parents cannot attend.

Quantity vs. Quality?

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking minority member of the education committee and one of the architects of the No Child Left Behind law, expressed a host of concerns, including the possibility that the federal Department of Education is “encouraging states to err on the side of offering many choices [of tutoring providers] at the expense of ensuring high-quality choices.”

Mr. Miller said he worries that states are not sufficiently monitoring providers’ effectiveness, enabling “suede-shoe operators” to “come out of the woodwork” and, in some cases, “prey on parents.”

Elizabeth F. Swanson, who is responsible for tutoring implementation in Chicago, described her frustration with federal restrictions that bar her district from evaluating how well tutoring companies are doing, or taking action against them if they don’t perform well. Districts must offer all the state-approved providers as choices to parents, even those that local school officials believe aren’t performing well, she said.

She urged lawmakers to change federal regulations to enable districts to monitor and evaluate providers, because often states, which are required to oversee them, cannot or do not.

“We don’t believe there is a lot of accountability right now,” Ms. Swanson said.

Federal officials have tangled repeatedly with Chicago in the past year over the 430,000-student city school district’s proper role in the tutoring program. They have insisted, despite resistance, that the district stop serving as a federally funded tutor because it failed to make adequate yearly progress, a key measure of success under the federal law.

They have also scolded Chicago officials for removing one provider from seven of its schools for alleged poor performance because such a decision, federal officials say, should lie with the state. (“Private Tutoring Firm Ousted From 7 Chicago Schools,” March 16, 2005.)

Many House lawmakers’ questions focused on how states should evaluate tutors’ effectiveness. Mr. Cohen, whose company belongs to an association that has developed codes of ethical conduct and good business practices for tutoring providers, said that he and his colleagues should have to answer to states about whether the companies delivered what they promised.

But there is still no consensus about just what constitutes success under No Child Left Behind, he said.

“The last thing we need is a rush to judgment based on anecdotes and scarce data,” he said. “If [tutoring] programs proves unsuccessful, then they should be changed. But it is too early to make that determination.”

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