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Key "No Child Left Behind" provision is a failure

November 29, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Private tutors paid with public money - a key No Child Left Behind requirement - have no effect on how students perform on NCLB-mandated tests.

David Heistad, Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools, looked at private tutoring services "to see if students receiving [tutoring] are performing better than students who aren't."

The result? "No difference at all," he said.

At issue is the contention that for-profit tutoring companies can do a better job of educating students than public schools.This is a key tenet of NCLB.  If a school misses its benchmarks for three years in a row, it must divert up to 20 percent of its federal Title I money, which is earmarked to individual reading and math instruction for low-income students, to students who want to hire private tutors. 

In 2006-07, $1,152,793 was spent to tutor 3,257 Minnesota students. Most of the 34 state-approved private tutoring companies charge between $30 and $60 per hour per student for their services. The providers approved by the state include religious organizations, school districts, local tutoring agencies and national tutoring franchises.

Heistad set out to gauge the academic growth of students receiving private tutoring. Since NCLB judges schools only by their students' performance on standardized tests, he compared MCA II test scores for tutored students against those not tutored. "We just don't see that tutoring is improving performance," he said.

Tutors are not held accountable for their work, said state Rep. Sandra Peterson of New Hope. "These supplemental providers [tutors] are doing the work, but we don't know if they're doing any good," she said.

Last spring, the Minnesota Legislature directed the Department of Education to develop a way to assess the effectiveness of tutoring agencies. The department has drafted an assessment plan, but it needs some work, said Peterson, who sponsored the legislation.

Like Minnesota, most states don't know if the tutoring companies are effective. Like Minnesota, most states don't even have a way to check. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that two-thirds of the states monitor tutor effectiveness only minimally.

Fair Oaks Elementary in Osseo has not made NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress goal for four years in a row. Principal Michael Thomas said 88 percent of his students are from low-income families, nearly half don't speak English and about one-quarter of those in the upper grades are in school for the first time. He said 50 to 60 of his students use Title I funds to hire a private tutor.

Thomas said student academic ability grows when tutoring is combined with the array of public school programs. "It's just common sense," he said. "If you spend more time on math, you're going to do better at math."

However, Thomas said NCLB doesn't take school-based programs into account. Judged solely by NCLB tests, tutoring for Fair Oaks students may not show measurable improvement.

Don Pascoe, Osseo's director of research, assessment and accountability, takes issue with how tutoring money is spent. Tutoring companies often don't align their curriculum with the school's, which hampers the overall benefit for students, he said.

Public school teachers can do a better job at half the rates charged by tutoring firms, Pascoe said. "And that's one-to-one," he added. "If we go with a two- or three-to-one ratio, it would be even more cost-effective."

The Minnesota Department of Education has commissioned a report on tutoring. It should be released in December, Heistad said.
 

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