Eight years after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, studies on the law's provision on supplemental educational services are dribbling out. Under the law, you'll recall, students from low-income families can qualify for free tutoring if they're stuck in a school that fails to reach its achievement targets for three years in a row. (The district, of course, picks up the tab for the services, which are often given by outside providers.)
Now you can add a few more studies to the mix. The first, by a team of researchers at the University of Memphis' Center for Research on Education Policy, uses two different techniques to analyze the latest data from two of the five Tennessee school districts that offered tutoring to students over the 2007-08 school year. While parents raved about the services, both analyses showed that students made only small or insignificant gains on standardized tests, compared to peers who did not participate.
The second study, focusing on schools in Jefferson County, Ky., told a similar story. Although parents were highly supportive of the services, they produced no overall achievement advantages in either reading or math for the participating students. (A few of the commercial providers did, however, manage to produce better-than-average gains in their pupils.) Both studies were posted last month on the Web site for the National Center for Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Tutored students made more consistent learning gains over the 2007-08 school year in Chicago, which was once a reluctant participant in the federal SES program. A new evaluation by that city's school system shows that students who completed their after-school programs got bigger test-score increases in both math and reading than non-tutored students did. The only problem: 20 percent of registered students never receive services and another 16 percent dropped out.
What to make of the findings? That's hard to say, according to Steven M. Ross, a researcher who has helped evaluate SES programs in districts across the nation, including the Tennessee and Kentucky studies mentioned here. Overall, most seem to show that students are benefiting, but not by much.
"My personal view is that I don't think these studies are necessarily fair to the SES program," he told me. "It's a tall assumption to think that 20 or 30 hours a year of tutoring is going to make a big difference with everything else going on in schools." Evaluators might ask students in risky urban neighborhoods, for example, how grateful they are to be occupied and off the streets during after-school hours.
The more important question, though, is what will Congress make of the findings? Will supplemental education services continue to be part of the law when federal lawmakers get around to the reauthorization process? That, too, is not entirely clear.