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Our view on No Child Left Behind: Taxpayer-funded tutoring fails needy students

Ohanian Comment: Again, Margaret Spellings shows she has no shame, accusing schools of holding children hostage. If you're looking for violent images, then think about the rape of democracy.

Editorialists point out that Every man, woman and child in the country is contributing $2 to $9 annually for a program that for all its good intentions is poorly administered and shows scant evidence of effectiveness. What if, instead, we paid this money to buy library books for the schools and the public libraries? What if we got at fundamentals and paid American workers a living wage?


Back in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind law was being crafted, President Bush wanted students from failing schools to get vouchers to attend private schools. The idea was that this would help the students and put pressure on the schools to improve. But Democrats, fearing that public education would be undermined, hated that idea. So a compromise emerged: Students whose schools repeatedly fell short of performance goals would be eligible for free tutoring, courtesy of federal taxpayers.

Six years later, hundreds of thousands of students across the USA are receiving such tutoring. No one knows exactly how many. Estimates range from 450,000 to 600,000. Nor does anyone have a handle on the costs. Estimates range from $700 million to as much as $2.6 billion a year.

In everyday terms, that means every man, woman and child in the country is contributing $2 to $9 annually for a program that for all its good intentions is poorly administered and shows scant evidence of effectiveness.

That's not to say tutoring is a bad idea. Watching effective school tutoring � such as the "book buddies" program designed by the University of Virginia � is akin to viewing fine ballet in action, with a series of carefully choreographed interactions among students, tutors and regular teachers. By contrast, many of the federally financed tutoring programs under No Child Left Behind resemble a clumsy polka.

The tutoring providers are a mishmash of non-profits, for-profits, local school districts and faith-based organizations. Classroom instruction and tutoring are often misaligned, according to numerous education researchers, think tank studies and news reports. Time gets wasted when tutors don't show up. Overly large tutoring sessions of 10 or even 15 students per teacher produce no gains. Services are scarce for special education or limited-English students.

Sometimes this leads to scandal: In Georgia, one tutoring company was caught paying students $5 to forge parents' signatures for non-existent sessions.

Next week, the U.S. Department of Education will release a report citing schools with successful tutoring programs. No doubt some exist. But much more is needed to ensure that students are benefiting and that federal taxpayers are getting their money's worth:

Real accountability. States are charged with oversight, but most struggle to tell the good from the bad, according to Congress' Government Accountability Office. The only true measure is proof of learning.

Research-based programs. Schools are not required to use tutoring programs that have been proven effective. In the absence of that, fly-by-night outfits have moved into some schools, recruiting students by handing out gifts.

Defenders of tutoring argue that states are starting to assert accountability over the program. And they argue that you can't measure improvements when a child gets only 40 or so hours a year of tutoring. Their solution is more of the same, which is a very hard sell.

If a program can't be proven effective, it should lose the money. There are other ways to help those kids, who remain very much in need.

Opposing view: Tutoring shows success

by Margaret Spellings

Don't give up. That's what we tell our children when they fall behind in school. What kind of message would it send to give up on a program that helps them get back on track?

The program is called Supplemental Educational Services, or SES. Here's how it works: A school must offer low-income students free tutoring and after-school instruction if it has not met its achievement goals for three years running. Many of these schools are in poor neighborhoods and have a poor track record of reform. Students who need extra help should not be held hostage to their school's broken promises.

Today, more than 500,000 children receive tutoring through SES, part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Now we have concrete evidence of the program's success.

A new U.S. Department of Education study found significant improvements in reading and math for African-American and Hispanic students in the districts surveyed. Students who received the tutoring for longer than a year made even greater academic gains. Parents have told me they credited the SES program with helping their child learn to read proof that a little help goes a long way.

Our only regret is that more students have not benefited. The 450,000 figure is just a fraction of the 2.4 million who qualify. Many parents do not learn their child is eligible for free tutoring until it's too late. In some cases, a letter written in bureaucratic jargon and stuffed in a student's backpack is considered proper notification.

We are working to solve this problem. We've established pilot programs in several states that offer greater flexibility in exchange for greater results; in one district Anchorage the SES participation rate tripled. We are helping states monitor and evaluate providers to improve the quality of tutoring. Finally, President Bush has proposed offering SES one year earlier and increasing the per-child funding amount for some recipients so they get help when they need it.

Next week, I will host a summit for states, districts, providers and parents to share ways to help more children achieve. They're counting on us to make SES work not shut it down.

Margaret Spellings is the U.S. secretary of Education.

— Editorial and Margaret Spellings
USA Today


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