Is tutoring effective?

Our view: Maryland could do a lot better making sure the millions spent on private tutoring groups that help students at Baltimore's worst-performing schools are held accountable for results

October 10, 2011

Maryland has long been a leader in the field of educational accountability, and the Baltimore City school system took a crucial next step last year with a new teacher contract that will directly tie promotion and advancement to student outcomes. So it's mystifying that so little effort is being made to hold the private tutoring groups that are getting millions of dollars a year to help students from Baltimore's worst-performing schools accountable for the results they promise, or even to know whether they're making a difference.

As part of the No Child Left Behind law, districts were required to set aside part of their federal Title I money to pay for free private tutoring for poor students at failing schools. Since Baltimore City has such a high proportion of students from poor families, and because the school system historically has struggled to meet NCLB's progress requirements, the city has been obliged to spend some $55 million on private tutors over the last nine years, with little oversight by the school system or the state, according to a recent Abell Foundation report.

That paradox arose because the NCLB law specifically forbade city school officials from vetting or ranking the private tutoring companies for effectiveness, on the theory that schools that were already judged to be failing should not be allowed to interfere with parents' decisions about what was best for their children. At the same time, the law required school systems to fully inform parents about the availability of such services and pay for whatever programs the parents chose. That prompted hundreds of tutoring outfits to emerge in hopes of capitalizing on the federal largesse. Some had established records of excellence, but many did not.

Moreover, the companies that provided the services were allowed to report on their own effectiveness, leaving school systems and taxpayers with little or no idea whether they were getting their money's worth. The tutoring groups could hire whatever staff they chose, conduct tutoring sessions wherever and whenever they wanted and recruit as many students as they could persuade to sign up, even though it was virtually impossible to tell whether their programs were actually helping the children who enrolled. The upshot was that school systems were left with the responsibility for the success or failure of the private tutoring firms, even though they had no way of holding those firms accountable for results.

The tutoring program was one of the more glaring flaws of NCLB, which U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now urgently asking Congress to revise. Until that happens, however, Mr. Duncan says he will grant waivers to states that embrace the Obama administration's reform efforts. A waiver would give Maryland the opportunity not only to keep the majority of its schools in compliance with the law but also to demand greater accountability from the private tutoring groups it pays to help poor students succeed.

There are several ways the state education department could structure its waiver request to make private tutoring firms more accountable to the school systems they serve. One would be to lift the prohibition on state officials vetting or ranking the hundreds of programs on the market, or narrowing the list of approved firms from which parents could choose. As a practical matter, however, the state may not have the manpower to investigate the huge array of vendors claiming they provide something of value; the education department has lost nearly a fifth of its employees in recent years due to budget cuts.

Another approach might be to request permission to allow Baltimore City to do its own independent testing to determine whether the tutoring firms operating here are making a difference. If not, the city schools could use the money earmarked for tutoring for forms of intervention such as extended school days or longer summer school sessions. The problem with that approach is that even with testing, it's extremely difficult to tell whether improvements in student achievement are the result of the tutoring or of everything else that is happening in the classroom. Educators would have to find a way to separate out the single variable of tutoring from all the other changes that are happening, and then determine what weight it carries in overall growth in student achievement.

The state officials could also ask the federal education department to simply let Baltimore City run the tutoring program itself, something it's currently barred from doing under NCLB. Or it could request permission for the city to use the money earmarked for tutoring in some other way, if it thinks there's a more effective intervention.

Given that Maryland is already in the process of applying for some kind of waiver, it should make the creation of a better system for monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of private tutoring firms a top priority. That's the only way parents, school officials and taxpayers can be confident that their money is being well spent.

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