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Lessons in Deception: A Decade After Implementation, NCLB 'Safety Net' Yields Fraud and Misuse

In what is now seen as one of the least successful components of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (and there so many to choose from!), schools labeled as "under-performing" were required to set aside a portion of their federal funding to support outside tutoring services for economically disadvantaged students. The idea was to level the socio-economic playing field, allowing poorer kids not only to receive help in subjects where they struggled, but also to make broadly accessible a set of services that is ubiquitous in wealthier communities.

However, with little to no oversight in how these federal monies were spent, and no quality control over the services rendered, tutoring companies pocketed millions of dollars--and then yielded either minimal improvements in students' academic standing, or committed outright fraud (including falsifying invoices to account for tutoring sessions that never took place). As a result, the tutoring program has been heralded a failure, and states like Texas (good work, Texas!) are suspending this component indefinitely. Nevertheless, as NCLB awaits congressional reauthorization later this month, the tutoring industry is doubling up its efforts (using hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying money--I wonder where that came from!) to make sure the tutoring mandate is included in that reauthorization, because otherwise the poorest students "will not longer have access to the services they need to succeed."

The words I'd like to use to characterize the tutoring lobby's transparent pandering to legislators--on the backs of children whom they literally cheated out of federally mandated services--are unprintable here. So instead, I'd like to suggest that these federal dollars be re-invested in in-house tutoring programs in the schools these kids already attend. There are several benefits to this:

- School-based tutoring is easier to oversee, to make sure that it's actually . . . you know . . . taking place. Enough said.

- With school budgets being regularly slashed, per-session money (i.e., money that is used to pay faculty and staff for supervising or coordinating activities outside of their regularly scheduled duties) is in short supply. Schools need these budgets replenished so that they can pay teachers to stay late after school, to do things like tutoring kids one-on-one. If these services were made available in school--which they would be, if principals were given the budgets to afford them--there would be no need to seek them outside of school.

- Students benefit more from being tutored in smaller group settings, or one-on-one, by their own teachers, than they do from being tutored by strangers. I've seen this even within our school's lunch-period tutoring: Often, there is one history teacher or one English teacher on duty on each given day, and kids from all grades who are having trouble in that subject are supposed to go to this teacher (if they cannot wait for the day that their own classroom teacher is on duty, that is). However, many students--especially the younger ones--lack the confidence or self-awareness to explain to an unfamiliar teacher exactly what they're having trouble with. As a result, they're reluctant to seek help until their teacher is available. Allocating funds to allow more tutoring time with teachers whom they already know--either during lunch periods, or after school--will make kids more likely to seek out extra help.

- One of the reasons I believe it was so easy for tutoring companies to pocket federal funds without making good on their responsibility to offer quality tutoring is the difficulty students and parents sometimes have reaching out to an unknown organization for services; without clear understanding of what benefits they are entitled to, and what their expectations should be, poor and non-English speaking families (exactly the people this program was designed to help) were easy targets for the machinations of dishonest and profit-minded companies. Schools, as non-profit community institutions, are more accustomed to working with the families they serve, and have systems in place (translators, social workers, counselors, parent-coordinators, etc.) to facilitate communication with parents about their children's needs.

- Public schools, not being profit-driven, are motivated by student achievement (if only to keep themselves from being closed down, as I'm sure some cynical person will remark in the comments)--not by their bottom line. If given federal money specifically for the purpose of providing tutoring to students, public schools have far less incentive than private corporations to spend that money in . . . other ways.

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