Four years after President Bush signed the landmark No Child Left Behind education law, vast numbers of students are not getting the tutoring that the law offers as one of its hallmarks.
In the nation’s largest school district, New York City, fewer than half of the 215,000 eligible students sought the free tutoring, according to figures from the city’s Department of Education for the school year that ended in June 2005.
In one area of the city, District 19 in eastern Brooklyn, about 3,700 students completed a tutoring program last year, even though more than 13,000 students qualified.
Ninoska Valverde, 13, who goes to a junior high school in Brooklyn that is classified as failing, said she did not know about the free tutoring program. I’m interested in anything that would help me,she said. (Ninoska is an active member of Make the Road by Walkings Youth Power Project).
Yet New York’s participation rate is better than the national average: across the country, roughly two million public school students were eligible for free tutoring in the school year that ended in 2004, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education, yet only 226,000 or nearly 12 percent received help.
In California in the last school year, 95,500 of 800,000 eligible students were tutored. In Maryland, just over a quarter of those who were eligible 5,580 of 19,520 students actually enrolled in the last school year. And in Louisiana, despite aggressive marketing by the state, only about 5,000 of 50,000 eligible students took part in the program last year.
The No Child Left Behind law requires consistently failing schools that serve mostly poor children to offer their students a choice if they want it: a new school or tutoring from private companies or other groups, paid for with federal money typically more than $1,800 a child in big cities. In the past the schools would have been under no obligation to use that Title I federal poverty grant to pay for outside tutoring.
City and state education officials and tutoring company executives disagree on the reasons for the low participation and cast blame on each other. But they agree that the numbers show that states and school districts have not smoothed out the difficulties that have plagued the tutoring known as the supplemental educational services program from its start as a novel experiment in educational entrepreneurship: largely private tutoring paid for with federal money.
Officials give multiple reasons for the problems: that the program is allotted too little federal money, is poorly advertised to parents, has too much complicated paperwork for signing up, and that it has not fully penetrated the most difficult neighborhoods, where there are high concentrations of poor, failing students.
“I think there’s a real learning curve on this because it’s so different from what has come before,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institute, which is in the early stage of conducting studies on the tutoring program for the United States Department of Education.
“At this point, policy analysts are trying to figure out what’s working well and what may not be working well and what needs to be changed,” Ms. Hannaway added.
Because the initiative is but a few years old, and many districts are only now starting tutoring programs, experts say their effort to pinpoint the hurdles to the initiative’s success is also suffering from a lack of data.
Even for those students who are getting tutored, there has yet to be a scientific national study judging whether students in failing schools are receiving any academic benefit. And there is no consensus on how that progress should be judged.
In addition, it is not entirely clear why so many students do not complete tutoring programs once they have enrolled. In New York City, 34,055 schoolchildren did not successfully complete the terms of their tutoring contracts last year after signing up. Most seemed to attend a few sessions and then never returned.
Federal education officials point to the fact that the initiative is still relatively new in explaining the low enrollment numbers, and say that participation is growing every year.
To some extent, when you offer something new to low-income parents or to any parent group, initially you’re not going to have a surge signing up because they don’t know what it is and the procedure to sign kids up is somewhat complicated,” said Nina Rees, an assistant deputy secretary at the Department of Education.
To that end, the department has been advising states and school districts to use everything they can to reach parents, including letters, fliers and the Internet, and to make the description of programs as simple as possible. Still, Ms. Rees noted that “this can be time consuming, and a lot of districts don’t have the capacity to administer a program like this while administering all of the other grants they are charged with administering.”
While tutoring is only one of the choices given to students under the law, switching to new schools is more difficult, so school districts have put the emphasis on tutoring. In failing districts, the law required the tutoring to come from outside groups on the theory that they could do a better job than the schools that were failing in the first place.
But to address the tens of thousands of students who are not getting tutors, federal education officials are now allowing some failing districts to tutor their own students.
New York was the third city to receive such a waiver in November, after Chicago and Boston. City education officials say they hope running their own program will open access to more students because districts tend to tutor students at a much lower cost per child, and the tutoring groups tend to be larger.
The federal government calls the three city efforts pilot programs and says that based on their success they could be replicated in other cities.
Students are not required to sign up for tutoring. The option is offered, but students’ ability to participate depends on how well the services are advertised, how cooperative districts are in letting tutors into schools, whether the tutors can serve all those in need and whether districts have enough money to cover services for those who want them.
The money comes from a percentage of federal Title I money that the districts must set aside for tutoring or the school transfers. But some districts say the money has been insufficient to keep up with demand.
After No Child Left Behind became law, companies and other tutoring groups rushed to be part of the new industry. Eduventures, a market research firm for the education industry, estimated that the amount of money spent on supplemental educational services last year was $879 million and that the figure would grow to $1.3 billion by 2009.
The providers range from large companies like Catapult Learning, Kaplan Inc. and the Princeton Review to smaller community and religions groups and nonprofit organizations. To participate and be reimbursed per child tutored, providers must first win the state’s approval. Some tutoring companies blame the school districts and the federal government for the bulk of the problems.
“If this was Year 1 or 2, I’d cut the districts more slack in somehow explaining the lack of aggressive outreach,” said Steven Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, a trade group that represents businesses like textbook, testing and tutoring companies.
Jeffrey Cohen, the president of Catapult Learning, one of the largest tutoring companies, said participation rates were low because many districts were just now embracing the program, and some still had complicated sign-up procedures.
“From a macro level, there needs to be more enforcement,” Mr. Cohen said. “If I can identify for you a school district that has 40,000 eligible children and 245 approved, I draw the conclusion that there is something wrong with the implementation there. In states and districts that have opened their arms to the value of tutoring, you see strong programs and strong participation.”
Many state and district officials complain that federal financing is insufficient to meet demand and say that federal officials were also slow in offering advice, contributing to the bumpy start. In Washington, D.C., for instance, about 24,563 students are eligible this year for tutoring. But only 3,025 students are being tutored, because that is all the district says it can afford.
There is only one official to handle everything related to the tutoring for the entire district. “We don’t have enough money to accommodate the desire,” said Tamika N. Maultsby, a program coordinator for Washington schools. “We are working tirelessly. But we definitely need staff. The kids are signing up. The desire is there. We just don’t have the money.”
Some educational groups believe that some tutoring companies shun students with learning and language difficulties because the companies are judged based in part on the progress their students make.
Some of the latest available data gives a clear picture that some of the country’s vulnerable students are among those not being served: in New York City, for instance, about 9,000 of approximately 22,000 children with disabilities who were eligible for tutoring enrolled for help last year. Among students with limited English, about half the 40,000 eligible were being tutored.
Beth Swanson, the director of after-school and community school programs for the Chicago public schools, said of tutoring companies, “Typically, we do see that providers opt not to serve those populations, and likely because they don’t have the materials, expertise or resources to do so.”
Many in the tutoring industry deny such charges and say that schools do not notify them in advance about which students might require special services, citing privacy concerns.
In May, in another relaxation of the law that recognized that some disabled children might be contributing to a district’s failure rate, the Education Department announced that states could apply for flexibility to allow greater numbers of students to take alternate tests to assess whether they were comprehending material at their own grade level.
Despite the efforts to draw students to tutoring, some students and parents say they are not even aware that they may qualify and express confusion about the free program.