Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
How much achievement does $6 million-worth of tutoring buy? Not as much as you might think.
A report submitted to the Colorado Department of Education in June received little attention at the time but is now relevant as Obama pushes for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. In the report, contract evaluators for the Colorado Department of Education concluded: “Across all analyses, few significant differences were found” between the achievement of Colorado students who received “supplemental educational services” (tutoring mandated by No Child Left Behind) and a comparable group of students who did not.
Other highlights of the report:
- Depending on which group provided the tutoring, costs varied widely, from $20 to $89 per hour. (The average cost was $42 per hour or $1,123 per child in federal Title 1 funds.)
- Success records also varied widely, but the majority of tutors were basically placebos in that their students performed almost identically to a comparison group of peers who were not tutored.
- Tutoring disproportionately benefitted those with fewer challenges. Native English speakers made greater gains in math than a comparison group of similar students who did not receive tutoring. English learners did not. Students who were not in special education made greater reading gains than a comparison group that received no tutoring. Special needs students did not.
“Supplemental educational services” are available to low-income students attending schools that miss making “Adequate Yearly Progress” for three years in a row. These optional sessions take place outside of school hours. Although the students who received the tutoring were enrolled in 15 different Colorado districts, more than three quarters came from Denver Public Schools. These services cost about $6 million in Colorado. Nationwide, the program serves half a million students and costs about $2 billion per year.
Nationwide, supplemental educational services are provided by a range of groups including for-profit companies, non-profits and school districts themselves. One thing that surprised me given the cost of the tutoring is that tutors are apparently not required to have four-year college degrees.
In Colorado, more than half of the 4,858 students served in 2008-09 (the most recent year for which data is available) got tutored by three for-profit companies: Tutor Train, (25%) Club Z! (20%) and Learn it Systems (10%). Yet a 2010 research synthesis conducted by The Center for Educational Partnerships at Old Dominion University found that tutoring provided by school districts cost less than commercial tutoring and produced better results.
While certainly discouraging, Colorado’s tutoring results are not unique. The Old Dominion research synthesis found that supplemental educational services had very small effects on reading and math achievement. By contrast, the Comprehensive School Reform program that has mainly been eliminated by recent reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB’s official name) produced much stronger results at a much lower cost.
Considering NCLB’s emphasis on accountability for schools, it is also disturbing that the Old Dominion researchers concluded that:
Despite mounting evidence that SES is far less effective than previous Title I policies, we are not aware of a single instance in which a provider has been removed from an approved state list on the basis of failing to demonstrate positive effects on student achievement.
Under Obama’s blueprint for reauthorizing NCLB, supplemental educational services would be optional. Based on the research, I think that this is a good idea. If a specific tutoring provider is getting results, by all means, keep it on. But mandated tutoring was a good idea that just did not demonstrate good results.
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