U.S. to Expand Pilots Offering Flexibility
On No Child Left Behind Tutoring

By Catherine Gewertz — July 27, 2006 5 min read

In a push to provide more children with free tutoring under the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. Department of Education officials have announced the expansion of two pilot programs that allow school districts to offer the extra assistance a year earlier than usual, and to serve as tutoring providers even if they themselves have been deemed poor performers.

The July 26 announcement by Deputy Secretary Ray Simon means that for the 2006-07 school year, 23 school districts in five states will be allowed to offer free tutoring to students from schools that have failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under the No Child Left Behind law for two consecutive years. Those students will be offered the choice of transferring to a better-performing school after their own schools have failed to meet targets for three years running.

The federal school improvement law requires underperforming schools to offer the transfer choice first—after a school has failed to meet academic targets for two years—and then tutoring, after three. But a pilot program in 2005-06 allowed four school districts in Virginia to reverse that order. The Virginia districts may now continue that practice, and 19 more districts in Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, and North Carolina will be allowed to do so as well.

A second pilot program that will be expanded allows school districts that have been deemed “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind law to use federal Title I funds to run their own tutoring programs. Federal regulations bar districts from offering tutoring services under the federal law if they carry the needs-improvement title, but last year the Chicago and Boston school systems did so anyway under a federal pilot program aimed at boosting a low participation rate. Only 10 to 20 percent of eligible children were being served by the tutoring programs nationally. The New York City school system was offered the chance to provide its own tutoring as well, but decided against it. (“Ed. Dept. Allows Chicago to Provide NCLB Tutoring,” Sept. 7, 2005) and (“Ed. Dept. Grants N.Y.C., Boston Waivers on NCLB Tutoring,” Nov. 16, 2005.)

Mr. Simon announced that the Anchorage, Alaska, and Memphis, Tenn., districts will also be permitted to serve as tutoring providers this year even though they have not met the federal law’s achievement targets. In a conference call with reporters, he said the decision reflects the Education Department’s reasoning that a district itself can be capable of offering “some quality services” even if some of its schools are underperforming.

“In the limited experience we had last year with Chicago and Boston, we saw good things happening for kids,” Mr. Simon said.

Working Up to a Database

In launching the two pilot programs, federal officials said they wanted to see whether controlled changes in the tutoring, or “supplemental services,” provision might increase participation. They said they were expanding the flexibility experiments because those changes did seem to do so.

In the four Virginia districts that reversed the order of school-choice and tutoring, 22 percent to 62 percent of eligible students received tutoring, besting the national average of 10 to 20 percent, Mr. Simon said. In two of those districts, no previous-year comparisons were possible because the districts did not have any schools “in need of improvement,” so they were not obligated to offer tutoring, officials said. In the other two districts, Education Department officials would say only that more students got tutoring in 2005-06 than had received it in 2004-05.

In the other pilot, 3,600 Boston students received tutoring in 2005-06, either from the district’s own program or those of private vendors approved by the state of Massachusetts to provide tutoring in the district, according to a senior adviser in the federal Education Department. In Boston the year before, 2,000 students received tutoring from either the district or private vendors. In Chicago, 55,000 students got the tutoring last year from district or private programs, compared with 40,000 the year before, the adviser said.

About 80,000 students received tutoring in Chicago in the 2004-05 school year, but federal officials don’t count half of those children because they were in Chicago’s own program, and the city was violating federal regulations by offering the program when the district had been deemed in need of improvement. (“Fewer Chicago Pupils Receive NCLB Tutoring,” Oct. 26, 2005.)

In deciding to expand the pilots, federal officials did not examine student achievement data, in part, they said, because too little was available for comparison when the decision to expand had to be announced. Mr. Simon said the Education Department seeks to build a database over time that will yield a better understanding of whether tutoring programs improve student achievement, and whether district providers and private providers differ in their rates of success.

Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which has been working with the Education Department to enable more of its members—large urban districts—to serve as tutoring providers, said the student achievement data will inform federal decisions about the role of tutoring in schools.

“Both the department and council and, my guess is, folks on Capitol Hill, will be interested to see what the data show,” he said. “Everybody can hypothesize and conjecture, but it is always better to have data.”

Michele McLaughlin, an assistant director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers, said the union welcomes the additional flexibility of the expansion, but remains concerned that there is too little information about interventions like tutoring and transfers to justify their use as mandated improvement tools.

“We just want schools to have choices that are research-based,” she said. “Choice and supplemental services on their face aren’t, as far as we can tell. It’s more like, ‘Oh, we need to do something, so do tutoring.’ It sounds good, it makes intuitive sense, but there are questions about [the] quality [of the service] that are unanswered.”

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