The right help for low-income students

The Maryland General Assembly is currently considering legislation that would require school districts across the state to spend millions of dollars a year on private tutors for students in their lowest-performing schools — regardless of whether the tutoring actually helps kids achieve more in the classroom. That's neither wise public policy nor a good use of limited school funds. Educators should be free to choose among the best available services and programs for kids in their most troubled schools regardless of what form they take, not have their options limited to private tutoring firms whose methods may or may not be effective and whose main objective in any case is to turn a profit.

Among the many flaws of the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed during the George W. Bush administration was a requirement that school districts set aside a certain portion of their federal Title I grants to pay for free private tutoring for low-income students attending failing schools. Maryland and other states are now applying to the U.S. Department of Education for waivers from a number of the law's provisions that have turned out to be counterproductive, including the one that obligates school districts to shoulder the cost of private tutoring services. The state board of education objects to that provision, in particular, because the law is written in such a way that it gives local school districts no way of evaluating the effectiveness of the tutoring firms they are paying for, nor of holding them accountable for results.

Instead, the state and many local districts would like the flexibility to spend the money on whatever services are most effective. It doesn't mean the state wants to ban private tutoring services, just to make them compete with other strategies to help struggling, low-income students.

There's no doubt that many parents feel their children have benefited from the services of private tutoring firms, which often offer elaborate inducements such as laptop computers or other valuable incentives to get families to sign up. Once a parent or guardian chooses a firm to work with, the cost of the service is borne by the school system; the money is paid directly to the firm, not to the family. The tutors make all the arrangements regarding when, where and how often the tutoring sessions take place, and they may also provide the firm's own educational materials to supplement those the child receives at school.

The problem lies in the fact that while the school districts are responsible for paying the tutors, they're completely out of the loop regarding the selection of the tutors, their qualifications, methods or what they choose to teach. By a peculiar quirk in the NCLB law, schools must notify parents that tutoring services are available, but they are prohibited from attempting to influence a parent's choice of tutors, on the theory that schools that were already judged to be failing should not be allowed to interfere with parents' decisions about what was best for their children.

That puts a huge burden on parents who may not necessarily know what to look for in a tutor or how to evaluate whether he or she is doing an effective job. It also opens the door for virtually anyone to set themselves up as private tutors, regardless of whether they have any experience or qualifications in the field. Since the NCLB law was passed, hundreds of companies have emerged hoping to take advantage of the federal largesse. Some of them have excellent track records; others do not. Yet under the law it's the school system, not the tutor or the firm, that is ultimately responsible for whether the child's classroom performance improves.

The tutoring firms have been lobbying the state board of education as well as lawmakers in Annapolis to maintain the status quo, and legislation that would not only cement the NCLB requirements in state law but expand them to more school districts has gained traction in Annapolis. Lawmakers need to recognize that as a roadblock to reform, not a spur to better student outcomes.

If private tutoring turns out to be the best way to raise student achievement, school leaders, who are under intense pressure to improve test scores, would be foolish to drop it. But districts shouldn't be forced to pay for tutors if they don't help children learn and the money could be better spent on programs that do, such as longer school days, weekend classes, summer sessions, etc. The goal should be finding what works, not sustaining a network of private tutoring firms regardless of whether the services they provide are actually helping.

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