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NCLB Outrages

States Lax in Overseeing NCLB Tutoring

George Miller and Ted Kennedy, wake up from your long snooze over NCLB.

By Elizabeth Weiss Green

A key provision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law–its mandate that struggling schools offer low-income students free after-school tutoring–has gone almost completely unmonitored, a study released by the Center on Education Policy finds.

Private tutoring companies have jumped to take advantage of the law's "supplemental education services," or SES, provision, which divvies up a pot each year estimated to be as large as $2.5 billion. But though companies produce rosy reports, very few states and districts have any idea whether the tutoring is actually helping students learn. More than two thirds of states told CEP they have a tough time monitoring SES programs for quality and effectiveness, and three said they are "not at all" able to monitor them.

The flowing federal money paired with very little oversight is "a recipe for disaster," says Jack Jennings, CEP's president.

"You have people's tax dollars that are going out the door, and nobody knows how much is going out the door, and nobody knows whether it's resulting in any good," Jennings says.

In fact, at least two school districts have studied the programs, but their findings have not been encouraging. A 2006 study by the Los Angeles Unified School District found that SES programs improved test scores minimally, but just in elementary and middle school students, and most significantly (though still very little) for students attending a district-provided program that no longer exists.

The Chicago public schools study, conducted in August 2005, found similar results; tutored students showed reading score gains of just 1.09 points, compared with an average 1.06 points gained citywide (1.0 is a full year's growth). Tutored students' math scores grew less than a full year's expected gain, and less than the citywide average.

Both programs are expensive. For the 2005–2006 school year, Chicago planned to set aside $50 million to pay for the tutoring programs, the report said. For the 2006–2007 school year, LAUSD has set aside $56 million, according to the district's SES coordinator.

Each SES provider uses the money differently, setting the hours it will serve each student according to the fees it will charge the district. So while one company might charge under $20 per student and provide 80 hours of service, another will charge nearly $80 and provide 21 hours. The Chicago study found that expensive and inexpensive tutoring companies generated about the same gains.

Private companies draw different conclusions, boasting widespread satisfaction and report cards lifted whole letter grades higher. Education Station, a major private provider, says its pre- and post-tests show that just 30 hours of instruction during the 2003–2004 school year produced gains of 28 percent improvement in math and 13 percent in reading.

But the law calls on states, not school districts and companies, to monitor the programs' effectiveness, and the state administrators charged with that task say they are ill-equipped to fulfill it. Few, if any, have conducted studies on the programs' performance effects, and few are likely to be able to do so in the future, the CEP study found. Reasons cited by school districts include insufficient staff and inadequate federal funding.

"You can occasionally do some spot checks," says Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "But it's very hard to do, and it's not clear that the districts have the manpower or even the desire to work that hard to figure it out."

For a reform designed to give families informed choices, that's a big blow.

"Most of the families involved are not shopping around," Henig says. "They don't have a way to evaluate whether what their kid is getting is good or bad."

The No Child Left Behind law comes up for renewal this year, and hearings began this week to start the reauthorization process. But talk so far has focused on teacher-quality provisions and school choice, not the SES provisions. That's in keeping with the first authorization process, Henig says.

"Considering the fact that there's a lot of money at stake," he says, "I don't think that most people are really attuned to this. There's probably more attention really to the choice provisions even though it affects fewer kids in practice."

Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, has introduced the first bill of this session on No Child Left Behind. In part, it would provide additional funds for "intensive" SES programs. The funds would go to improving the quality of the programs, not helping states oversee them.

— Elizabeth Weiss Green
U. S. News and World Report


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