NCLB Tutoring Provision Diverts and Detracts from Programs that Work

K-12 Testing
There is little evidence of the quality or benefits of tutoring services mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), yet the program diverts substantial resources from strategies known to help struggling students and schools, according to two articles in the October issue of Phi Delta Kappan. Author Carol Ascher writes that we know very little about these tutoring programs and if or how students benefit from them. The Harvard Civil Rights Project's Gail Sunderman concurs that evidence of benefit is scant, arguing that Title 1 money going to supplemental services providers could be better applied to proven, schoolwide strategies.


In "NCLB's Supplemental Educational Services: Is This What Our Students Need?" Ascher, principal associate of Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, reports that NCLB's supplemental education services (SES) are reaching just 233,000, or 11 percent of the two million students eligible nationwide. Meanwhile, costs have steadily risen over the past four years, to more than $1,400 per student in 2004, which is two to three times the per-student cost of comprehensive Title 1 programs that benefit all students in a school.


Ascher notes that these high-priced tutoring services do not necessarily represent a high-quality education. "NCLB has forced high-poverty schools to narrow their academic offerings to ensure that students make 'adequate yearly progress' in English and math, the two subjects currently tested," Ascher writes, and "the supplemental services provision extends this narrowed educational agenda into students' out-of-school hours."


Though tutoring is presented in NCLB as a tool to help reduce achievement gaps between high-performing and struggling student groups, in many districts, there are no providers available that serve disabled children or English language learners. The Center on Education Policy study found that in 42 percent of districts it surveyed, no providers were able to serve disabled students, and in 51 percent of the districts, none could serve English-language learners. Yet these two student subgroups have the lowest performance on standardized tests on average.


Ascher reports on the many paradoxes in the implementation of NCLB's tutoring provision. As has been previously reported in the Examiner (see Fall 2004 issue) and elsewhere, NCLB prohibits school districts themselves from providing tutoring if they have failed to make adequate yearly progress for two years, yet certified teachers from "failing" schools are eligible to work for the nonprofits and companies that provide tutoring services. On the other hand, while NCLB mandates that schools have only "highly qualified" classroom teachers, the law says nothing about the qualifications of SES tutors. Most tutors are certified teachers, but some are college graduates without teaching experience, and seven percent are high school students, according to Jennifer Harmon and Kerstin Le Floch, authors of The Promise & Challenge of SES: The Providers' Perspective.


Perhaps the most disturbing paradox is that this sweeping "accountability" law does nothing to hold tutoring providers and services accountable for results. According to the Government Accountability Office, though some states are studying the effect of supplemental services on student achievement, "none has provided a conclusive assessment of this effect."


Ascher concludes, "Though our nation's most fragile children certainly deserve a better education than is generally available to them, it is hard to fathom that another few hours of disconnected English or math will meet that need."


In "Do Supplemental Educational Services Increase Opportunities For Minority Students?" Sunderman argues that NCLB's tutoring provision represents a troubling step backward from earlier efforts to spend Title 1 funds on coordinated and comprehensive reforms that are more likely to help larger groups of students.


Sunderman writes, "By directing resources to outside service providers, the legislation reverses earlier attempts to provide additional resources to needy schools and limits the school's ability to develop comprehensive strategies to help disadvantaged students." She goes on to say that the SES provision actually reduces schools' Title 1 allocation because it demands that funds be set aside to pay outside providers. She echoes Ascher's charge that this aspect of NCLB reduces accountability by emphasizing short-term outcomes for the small proportion of individual students who receive services, rather than a broader set of school-level results tied to state standards.


Title 1 funds would be better spent on hiring qualified teachers and reducing class size in high-poverty, high-minority schools, Sunderman argues, but NCLB's tutoring provision diverts funds to other unproven purposes. "Given all we do not know about supplemental services, scaling up a policy with potentially limited benefits for student achievement and serious fiscal consequences for public school districts is not good public policy."