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Studies Show Pupils Benefit From Tutoring—a Little

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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.)

I wrote a year ago about some new studies—and the lack of research—on whether these programs translated to learning improvements for students. (See my articles here and here.)

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.


It might be interesting to look at the content and structure of the tutoring programs, in addition to attendance rates. How well did the tutoring supplement or complement the classroom instruction? Were the tutors in contact with the teachers to determine where the students needed help? Did the teachers notice any student improvement in the classroom assessments or class participation? How familiar were the SES providers with the district curriculum and the content/structure of the state assessments? It would be interesting to determine whether the tutoring programs were mostly "homework helpers" or did the tutors do any alternative instruction based on student needs.

This is explained in Robert Balfanz's latest (and perhaps best) report on middle school. Balfanz explains,"many high schools have been able to provide additional supports ... if their students' skill and knowledge levels equal to those of average seventh or eight graders. ... Yet in high poverty environments, nonselective high schools often educate primarily students who enter with the skill levels of typical fifth or sixth graders."

The same applies to schools with a reasonable percentage of kids needing tutoring versus those with a critical mass of the most troubled students. Balfanz writes, "Currently, too much extra help is offered through after-school programs and is disconnected from students’ day-to-day classroom needs. ... If students get extra help in fractions, but their test on Friday covers integers, they are not getting the support they need." In other words, "best practices" such as after-school safety nets that work for schools where "tens of students" need interventions are overwhelmed in schools where 200 or more students need additional counseling and tutoring.

Balfanz shows that "customarily," middle schools are designed with the assumption that 15% or so of students need extra help. But in the middle schools which serve the majority of students destined to drop out, ½ of students need extra support. "In these schools, there are simply not enough skilled adults ... The result is triage, burnout, high mobility among administrators, teachers and staff members. This, in turn, makes the situation worst."

John points up a good issue (in addition to the profound difficulties in evaluating the typical fruit salad of tutoring programs and coming up with any meaningful conclusions). As a parent, it was a tough choice whether to hang in a school that qualified for the transfer vs tutoring choice, or hope for a better outcome elsewhere. In the end, it was the lack of access to any better options that decided us. But, in a school where more than 15% of the kids qualify for, or seem to need the additional services intended through a tutoring program, we are not really talking about the need for individual intervention any more. We are talking about whole school reform to reshape the school culture, operation, curriculum, etc. to more appropriately meet the needs of the majority of students. NCLB includes extended school day and extended school year among the suggested improvement options. This would certainly seem to be indicated when 80% of the kids are candidates for tutoring services. Or, perhaps funds would better be spent on beefed up and responsive social services--well-planned and integrated into the life of the school.

In fact, it is my understanding that this was the original intent of the Title I funding stream--to provide for focused supplemental services that will result in improved outcomes for the targetted population. Over many years, such an expectation has become eroded and funds that were intended to supplement, not supplant, have become entangled with the tangled morass that is school funding--with the result being that the recipient schools offer very little beyond SOP for schools--and frequently less than schools for more advantaged students.

States, and some districts, figure into this sorry state of affairs through the allocation of school dollars and the particular set-up of funding systems--which may rely more or less heavily on local resources. The stick that is NCLB seeks to impact the disparity by requiring minimal outcomes or reform.

As the author of the Chicago report referenced above I feel that I should clarify a few things written by the journalist and quoted from Steven Ross.

Although I have a great deal of respect for Steven Ross I must firmly disagree with his assertion that after-school tutoring programs should be content to keep students safe. I am proud of the gains demonstrated by tutored CPS students, and a resist any notion that we should not expect other tutoring programs in other districts to demonstrate significant achievement gains as well. Bottom line, if a SES tutoring program cannot demonstrate that is improves the academic performance of students, it should not continue to exist.

While safety is certainly a noble goal, SES is not the most cost-effective way of keeping students safe after school. SES tutoring costs the Chicago Public Schools around $2,300 per child for those 30 hours of tutoring. For the amount of money CPS is required to set aside for NCLB-mandated tutoring, CPS could make every school in the district a full-service community school. Community schools provide all types of services and programming (not just tutoring) after school, before school, during the weekend, and during the summer. This model is a much more cost-effective way of providing students and families with a safe setting outside of regular-school-day hours, where they can receive the variety of academic and non-academic supports they need.

The assertion that keeping students safe after-school for 30 hours, i.e. babysitting, is worth $2,300 is ridiculous. We must demand more from the professionals tutoring our students. Considering the problems we have trying to raise the academic expectations of our urban youth, we cannot afford to lower the expectations of tutored students or those tutoring them.

Curtis Jones, Ph.D.

Director of Research and Evaluation

Perspectives Charter Schools

I used to work for a company (Langsford Learning Acceleration Centers) that did SES work in Jefferson County Kentucky when it first began. What a mess.

The SES program was full of constraints from the beginning. Here are just two of many examples.

1. There were strict rules covering how a company could even contact and speak with parents, just to talk about their concerns and needs.

2. Absolutely no work (not even testing) could be done with the kids during "regular" school hours. Everything had to all take place outside of that time. Is that really thinking about the needs of the kids and their families?

As the years went on, the energy required to meet the bureaucracy and paperwork demands started to compete with the actual work with the students. But that's something that always happens with government involvement isn't it?

Interestingly enough, one year Langsford had the chance to do similar work at a Jefferson County public school through a private foundation. The population of students in the program consisted of the same targeted population that SES is intended to help. This work happened during school hours at the school the kids attended and Langsford had much more flexibility in carrying out the work to meet student's needs. Last I heard, they ended up with statistically significant outcomes, which were verified by a neutral third party.

If Jefferson County Public Schools, or for that matter anyone involved in SES programs, wants to learn more about how to help this population of students, they might start out by studying what Langsford did at that school.


I think that the constraints that you describe are the result of resistance on the part of teachers/schools to being told how they have to spend the money that the Federal Government has given them. I don't know if the particulars that you describe were applied at the local level or if these things, through lobbies such as the teachers' union were written into regs at the state level. But, it is no secret that neither schools nor teachers have been fans of providing SES to the students that they have not been successful with--and there have been multiple monkey wrenches thrown into the works along the way.

All comments are spot on. To be effective, tutoring needs to be done in collaboration with the classroom teachers. Teachers, also, need to closely collaborate with each other on units they will all teach within a given time frame to meet specific academic objectives as measured by benchmark exams and to share these units with the tutoring companies. Working together, everyone can become much more effective.
Unfortunately, implementing such efforts is harder than moving the Titanic. School culture centers on teachers working in isolation supervised by top down administration that is out of touch with classroom realities. Everyone - teachers, parents, and administrators - tend to be somewhat antagonistic to the other stakeholders and blame them when things don't go well. Tutoring companies have just become one more stakeholder group in this culture and are treated as such.

I am trying to decide on an after school tutoring for my twin 7 yr. old, 2 grade boys, specifically for reading. I need some advise and advise of the top 3 choices I would choose from.

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  • Curtis Jones: As the author of the Chicago report referenced above I read more