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Free Tutoring Is a Lifeline for Students in Low-Performing Schools | Commentary

Every year, tens of thousands of students across the country continue to struggle in low-performing schools with little or no access to the individual attention they need to succeed. For so many of these children, the tutoring assistance program established by No Child Left Behind is nothing short of an educational lifeline in an otherwise failed system. Known as Supplemental Educational Services, free tutoring is a parental empowerment option for Title I kids trapped in failing schools.

Unfortunately, Congress has so far been unable to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. As a result, the Department of Education has been serially granting burdensome conditional waivers to states. These waivers relieve underperforming schools from important accountability measures set forth under the law.

What’s worse, despite requirements under the waiver agreements that states provide disadvantaged students supplemental educational assistance such as tutoring, many states have fallen short. The result is that our most vulnerable students are robbed of the tools they need to succeed.

For example, in New Jersey, despite assurances the state will invest in the activities that have the greatest effect on student performance, it appears that no direct support services are being provided to students in the lowest-performing schools.

Other states have also failed to meet their obligations to provide critical education support to our most vulnerable students. In other words, relieved of accountability, states are reverting to the old practice of turning their backs on poor children trapped in chronically underperforming schools.

In response, Democratic Florida Rep. Alcee L. Hastings recently sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressing the importance of the department’s ensuring that waiver states follow through on their commitment to provide assistance and support to academically vulnerable students. Hastings has requested a status report on the implementation of state waivers relating to the provision of those supports.

In the absence of ESEA reauthorization, Duncan’s waiver scheme has resulted in a patchwork of 35 different state compliance regimes with seemingly no oversight from the department of the billions in federal education dollars. Now, individual school districts in California have requested a similar waiver, which is currently under review by the Department of Education.

If the department cannot adequately oversee waiver implementation on a state level, it is absurd to believe the Department of Education is now contemplating micromanaging individual school districts. Our students deserve better.

Tutoring works. A March 2011 Department of Education study, “Supplemental Educational Services and Student Achievement in Five Waiver Districts,” shows that African-American and Hispanic youth participated in SES programs at the highest rates. These students need the most academic attention to close the achievement gap, one of the key objectives of NCLB.

The study also shows that SES programs increase student achievement. As it states, “SES participation was associated with statistically significant achievement gains in both mathematics and reading.” The study makes clear that students who participated in the program have significantly higher achievement than students who were eligible for the program and did not participate.

Tutor Our Children is a national coalition of tutoring service providers, community and faith-based organizations, parents and children who have organized to reform and strengthen federally funded tutoring. TOC supports federal legislation to reform and expand access to tutoring by converting SES to a state-level competitive grant program, requiring rigorous certification for tutors and reporting and accountability tied to student performance for tutoring service providers. It is time for Congress to get to work to reauthorize NCLB and protect these vital tutoring services for our country’s most vulnerable children.

Stephanie Monroe served as assistant secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009.

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