Blog: The Educated Reporter

NCLB Waivers Could Spell Demise For Tutoring Program

Chris Williams of the Associated Press has an important story about the likely demise of Supplemental Education Services, thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s intentions to offer waivers from some of the more rigid elements of No Child Left Behind. (Click here for the link.)

I freely admit that the mandatory tutoring program (which districts are required to offer and pay for at schools with low achievement) has long been a thorn in my paw. Back in 2007, the program was the focus of one of my enterprise investigative projects as the Las Vegas Sun’s education reporter. I discovered that not only was Nevada forced to pay millions of dollars annually to private tutoring companies, but no also one was tracking whether or not the tutoring was making any difference in student achievement. (Click here for the link.)

From the outset, there were significant problems with the logic of SES.  First of all, there was no requirement that the tutoring programs focus on recruiting the lowest-achieving students within the under-performing campus. That meant that many of the students who actually signed up were already performing well academically. Additionally, the quality of the tutoring varied widely, from well-known established brands like Sylvan to entrepreneurial individuals who started fly-by-night companies expressly for the purpose of hitching a ride on the SES gravy train.

In an effort to instill a free market element to the process, families were provided with a list of tutoring companies, approved by the state, and told to choose one. At the same time, individual schools were prohibited from advising families on which company to sign up with, which meant parents often had no one they could ask for recommendations. Schools couldn’t point parents to the more successful, reputable vendors, nor could they warn parents about the shadier operators.

Another part of the problem is that NCLB requires states to evaluate the tutoring programs, but doesn’t provide funds to carry out the necessary large-scales studies. Some states made halfhearted efforts at compliance, which others never even tried.

To be sure, some tutoring companies almost certainly helped some students. But as a large-scale initiative, SES appears to have muddled along with far too little oversight.