Faking The GradeMore in this series
Among the many reforms in the massive education legislation that Congress passed in 2001 was a program that would provide tutoring to children from low-income families.
Proponents hailed the program as an academic lifeline that would level the playing field for students trapped in underperforming schools.
“Any school that doesn't perform, any school that cannot catch up and do its job, a parent will have these options — a better public school, a tutor or a charter school,” President George W. Bush said in early 2002 when he signed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act into law.
But after more than a decade and hundreds of millions in federal dollars spent on the initiative, it is difficult to find anyone willing to call the program — or the greater law that enacted it — an unqualified success. And now that Texas has obtained a waiver from the federal education law and officials look for the best way to move forward, there is disagreement on why the tutoring program fell short of the lofty aspirations that marked its debut.
A Texas Tribune investigation found that confusion over the tutoring program resulted in years of inaction at the state level while companies with deficient financial and academic track records continued to receive millions of dollars in government funding.
The No Child Left Behind provision that created the “supplemental educational services” (SES) program was the result of a standoff between the bill’s two Democratic co-authors and congressional Republicans who wanted to include a voucher provision that allowed parents to use public money to send their children to private schools. The compromise resulted in a program that preserved the essence of a voucher but was confined to a specific area: tutoring. Low-performing schools would be required to set aside a portion of their federal funding to allow parents to hire tutors for their children.
“The idea was that for all children, especially those who hadn’t had much attention paid to them, to be thought of,” said Rod Paige, who as Bush’s first secretary of education helped pass and implement the law. “Able parents can provide tutoring for their children — through tutorial services, summer camps. Many low-income parents did not have these benefits.”
From the start, the program suffered from a complicated implementation. A structure that set up the state as a monitor of a federal mandate and school districts as the contractors led to uncertainty over who should resolve complaints or ensure schools and providers alike complied with the law.
Principals would have little control over which companies parents could select for tutoring services on their campuses — the companies only had to be on the state approved-list. And the state often found that its authority to intervene in local disputes was limited — telling districts that reported issues with the program that they needed to pursue resolutions on their own.
Lagging student participation also added to the challenges. Many campuses in the state reported that fewer than 20 percent of students eligible for tutoring under the law received services. But with a huge pot of federal money for the taking, a proliferation of new companies sprung up. At one time in Texas, almost 200 were authorized to provide tutoring services — many with instructional techniques teachers viewed as lacking evidence, like completing lessons via phone or online.
The biggest obstacle to the program’s success, many of its supporters say, was school districts’ reluctance to part with federal money that could go to other school functions.
School administrators resented the loss of authority over funding, Paige said, so in some cases, they avoided providing parents access to the program. Because of that, he said that the federal government should “have anticipated more pushback than we did” in implementing the law.
The purpose of the program, Paige said, was to offer different choices for students at schools that had underperformed.
“From the federal point of view, the feeling was, for three consecutive years these children have not had the kind of instruction that could keep them on the trajectory that you the state had set, because what you've done so far has not worked,” he said.
Ron Cavazos, the director of federal programs for the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley, said he understood the reasoning behind the program. But he rejected the idea that blame rested with school districts for its failure.
“We had people who were not educators running SES programs. We had SES companies operated and being implemented by people who were not educators,” he said. “You just don’t know what you are going to get.”
Policymakers and researchers have pointed to deeper issues with the program.
“These organizations in many cases were fleecing school districts, charging hourly rates comparable to expensive lawyers,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “While this law was well intended, the provision that required school districts to purchase these services ultimately created a quasi monopoly for tutoring companies to have a guaranteed customer base to sell at nonmarket prices.”
Villarreal passed a bill during this year’s legislative session that required school districts to provide information about the most effective providers so that parents could make better choices.
He said he was inspired by the research of Carolyn Heinrich, a University of Texas at Austin professor who has studied No Child Left Behind tutoring since 2006 in school districts across the country.
“While there are providers that do a good job, overall we don’t see the program as effective,” she said.
Students had to receive at least 40 hours of tutoring for any kind of supplemental instruction to have an impact, Heinrich said. Although districts were required to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funding and divide that among eligible students for services, the program allowed providers to freely set their own rates.
In the districts she studied, those rates increased over time, with some companies charging as much as $157 an hour — which they said went to providing quality services — meaning that even when a district set aside $1,200 for each of its students, they could receive less than 10 hours of tutoring before they used up their allotment.
The practice of aggressively recruiting students with a variety of incentives — which Heinrich said in the districts she studied included free iPods, pizza parties and movie passes — could also lead to students signing up with one provider, completing a few sessions and then moving on to the next. Under the law, companies were permitted to offer such incentives as long as they qualified as "learning tools."
While acknowledging flaws in the program’s implementation, Steve Pines, the executive director of the national Education Industry Association, an organization that lobbies for private entities, including tutoring companies, that work in public education, said it was impossible to ignore that it was a “game changer” in providing tutoring to low-income children.
With the stroke of a pen, he said, the law created “an exciting new swirl of entrepreneurship” in the private sector focused on public education. For the first time in federal education policy, he said, private commercial organizations had been written into legislation as a group of eligible service providers.
But he said that did not change the fact that school districts were left a daunting task of administering the program with little help from the state or federal government.
“It was not a well-thought-out policy,” he said. “It was enacted by necessity, not by grand design.”