Tutoring Services Providers Must Be Held to Higher Standards

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Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government requires states to set aside 10 percent of their Title I funds so that students in the lowest performing schools can receive free after-school tutoring services.

These services are most often provided by for-profit companies, in addition to some nonprofit organizations, and their results have been mixed.

Eric NadelsternCity Hall News Eric Nadelstern

The number of schools receiving funds for tutoring is growing nationwide as higher standards on state tests have caused more schools to fall below the law’s threshold. School districts have complained that the funds they receive for tutoring -- known as supplemental educational services -- do not cover all their costs. In New York City, where the number of schools eligible for tutoring services has doubled since the inception of the law, city education officials announced last month that they could now offer services only to the poorest children, effectively cutting 3,500 children out of the program.

State education officials, responding to the complaints about the rising cost of tutoring, are applying for a waiver from some of the provisions in the education law that would allow school districts to choose whether to spend federal money on tutoring, or use it to pay for other programs, including hiring more reading teachers. Last week, the Obama administration granted waivers to 10 of 11 states that had applied for them. Those waivers will give those states more flexibility about how to achieve higher standards in learning, including whether to use tutors for children who are under-performing.

While waivers would save money that districts and schools could apply in other ways, they will also invariably serve to deny some youngsters the most important part of their school day. In fact, for some children in poorly performing schools, the tutoring service provides the best opportunity for them to learn how to read.

Nevertheless, some superintendents and principals have joined the teacher's union in arguing that funds would be better spent hiring more teachers. While it's hard to imagine that hiring more staff will improve a failing school, it is equally difficult to defend the value of all tutoring providers when there is no effective quality control nor accountability for student success.

One way to ensure results would be to include a pay-for-performance provision in the state's waiver request. Providers would only be paid, for example, if the reading and-or math scores of participating students improved beyond district-wide averages. If this requirement served to discourage some providers from offering services, so much the better. Quality service providers should support and readily agree to performance standards.

Who knows? If setting standards for tutoring providers raises student achievement, perhaps it could influence the costs of education in broader and more profound ways. It is clearly an idea whose time has come. Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater in our haste to save money in these trying times.