Reign of the tutors may be nearing end?

The “free” tutoring mandated under NCLB for schools with high failure rates on math/reading assessments is not paying off. Or, to state it more accurately, these “supplemental services” are not bumping up standardized test scores to any meaningful degree. And that, after all, is the gold standard of NCLB tutoring proponents.

In a June 13 story, “Several States Find ‘No Child’ Provision Does Little to Improve Test Results,” the Washington Post pulled together research findings from several sources, including an April US Dept of Ed report. Here’s the “nut graf,” as we journalist groupies like to say:

Under the six-year-old No Child Left Behind law, certain schools in which too many students fail math or reading exams must use federal funds to offer after-school or weekend tutoring to students from low-income families. In the 2006-07 school year, $595 million went to the fast-growing industry of for-profit and nonprofit tutoring providers. But it remains unclear whether or how much those extra lessons are boosting student performance, even though the law envisions them as a key way to narrow achievement gaps.

The Post story highlights studies in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and Kentucky. Steven Ross, a University of Memphis researcher, said parents and educators generally give tutors good ratings, but “we’re not seeing a big blip on the radar screen of raising standardized test scores.”

Ross cautioned that the assessments involve a relatively small sample of students. He said that tutoring might be helping them learn but that the help might not immediately translate into higher test scores. Some students who have fallen far behind, he said, could make progress but still fail grade-level tests. Or students might need more time with tutors.

“If I pour one gallon of gasoline in my car . . . I don’t say it doesn’t work if I don’t go 100 miles,” Ross said.

Educators who read these comments are surely uttering strangled, ironic guffaws. When expert teachers say similar things about complex teaching strategies that are not easily judged from the snapshots produced by standardized tests, kitchen-table experts laugh them right out of the room.

Jack Jennings is president of the non-partisan Center on Education Policy, which monitors implementation of No Child Left Behind. “This isn’t helping poor kids,” he told the [Tutoring1_2]  Post.“All it’s doing is taking money out of classrooms and putting it into the hands of private companies.”

Jennings isn’t saying that well-designed tutoring programs can’t help struggling students. But he observes that schools have minimal say over the supplemental services provided under NCLB and states don’t have the capacity to monitor tutors effectively. Most significantly, Jennings told the Post that too many lessons provided by outside tutoring services “aren’t designed to build on the skills students learn in school.”

The Post reporter assures us that “As Congress considers revamping the law, the evaluations will fuel debate over whether tutoring is a wise investment.” Let’s hope the debate is a bit more sharply focused than that. What if Congress first determined what kinds of tutoring programs ARE most effective and then made strategic investments that encourage such programs?

Here’s one interesting recent study that surfaces some of the possibilities (and challenges) of effective tutoring in literacy.

Related categories: