Question & Answer: Gail Sunderman
Ohanian Comment: Note the important information Sunderman offers about tutoring. Most people just assume tutoring must be good.
Gail Sunderman is a senior research associate in K-12 education for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. She co-authored the report "Does [the federal No Child Left Behind Act] Provide Good Choices for Students in Low-Performing Schools?" The report looked at the implementation of school choice in six cities, including Richmond.
Times-Dispatch staff writer Juan Antonio Lizama conducted this Q&A by telephone.
Q.Is No Child Left Behind's school-choice provision working?
A.The trend is pretty clear. . . . There are a lot of eligible students but not very many requests to transfer. In Richmond in 2003-04 there were 9,560 eligible students and only 153 requested to be transferred.
Q.Why do you think that is?
A.The option, to start with, is not that good. If you are going to transfer to another school, the idea is to transfer to one that is more diverse and one that has better achievement levels. There aren't many of those schools. Another problem is that there are just no spots available. That's a problem in all the districts we looked at. Schools just don't operate at excess capacity. That's something the U.S. Department of Education tries to ignore. In their regulations, when they were first releasing them, it said that the lack of capacity was not an excuse for not transferring kids.
Q.That's not the reality then?
A. No. There is not a large number of spaces available for students. But I don't think that's a major issue. The issue is that there just seems to be a lack of interest from the parents. We show the percent of students requesting transfers was as high as 10 percent of those eligible . . . in New York. . . . In Richmond, 1.6 percent of eligible students actually transferred. We've had various programs on school choice for a long time, and they have never attracted a large percentage of people.
Q.In your report you say that school-choice outcomes, for good or ill, depend heavily on how school districts structure and implement it. Does this apply to No Child Left Behind?
A.Yes. The availability of the option does not guarantee there are better options for students. We found that students were basically transferring from one poorly performing school to another.
To be a truly beneficial, the transfer option would have to be designed so there are better options available to students. NCLB does not do that. It says students can transfer across district lines, but this is voluntary and has not been used anywhere.
Q.Is the law failing? Does it need to be tweaked?
A.I think there are lots of problems with the law. Sanctions come into effect so quickly. First comes school choice.
Then come supplemental services. It's like a treadmill. If NCLB was serious about school improvement, I would definitely get rid of supplemental services.
Q.You would get rid of tutoring?
A.There's no research to show how or whether these outside private tutors know what to do or if they can make a difference.
The other problem is that tutoring is after school or on weekends.
Generally, tutoring or extra help needs to be well-integrated with what's going on in the classroom.
Q.Does it mean that those schools labeled as "failing schools" are not offering a quality education?
A.The problem with [adequate yearly progress] is that it is a very rough measurement. It's based on an average. What it doesn't do is credit a school for improvement. Say a school was at 10 percentage points and needed to be at 20. Then it only makes an 8-percentage-point gain. They don't get any credit for that. Take a high-achieving school that starts at 30 percentage points and ends at 32.
Are they better than the school that didn't make it? [Adequate yearly progress] doesn't really tell you whether that school is doing well or not.
Juan Antonio Lizama and Gail Sunderman
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES