Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2019

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EDUCATION:

Tutoring program not hitting its marks

Study of test scores finds little gain in math, no improvement in reading

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Steve Marcus

Teacher Lori Jenkins leads kindergartners in a phonics exercise this week during the after-school tutoring program at Rundle Elementary School. Of about 300 students in the program at Rundle, 200 take sessions provided by CCEA Community Foundation, which hires the school’s teachers as tutors.

Click to enlarge photo

Perla Kehrt gets a thumbs-up from teacher Lori Jenkins in the after-school tutoring program at Rundle Elementary School.

A federally mandated after-school tutoring program, which has cost the state more than $20 million over five years, has had no effect on Clark County student achievement in reading while bringing slight gains in math, according to researchers.

While noting that the researchers’ findings are not definitive, Keith Rheault, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, said the federal dollars spent on reading tutoring appear to have been “a waste of money,” which he intends to correct.

“We should have spent that money on programs during the academic day instead of 30 or 40 minutes after school a couple times per week,” Rheault said. “We need to figure out why the reading (tutoring) has failed.”

Nearly all the funding was spent in the Clark County School District, which has about 70 percent of the state’s K-12 enrollment. To evaluate the tutoring, which is provided by private companies at schools serving large numbers of students from low-income households, researchers at the University of Memphis compared test scores of students who received the assistance during the 2007-08 academic year with their peers who did not.

Sixteen tutoring companies did business with the district in the 2007-08 academic year, but only seven of them had enough students and adequate documentation to be evaluated.

Of the seven companies evaluated, none showed statistically significant gains by students in reading.

In math, three companies, the CCEA Community Foundation, Club Z In-Home Tutoring and Learning Solutions, showed improved scores. Three other companies providing math tutoring, A + Grades Up, Education Station and Edge Tutoring, showed no gains.

Students tutored by the remaining company, Sylvan Learning Center, scored lower on the math test than their peers who weren’t in the program, although the difference was not considered statistically significant.

The researchers, who were hired by the Nevada Education Department, noted they tracked just 1,200 students. It’s also unclear whether the state’s standardized tests are an adequate way to measure the effect of “a limited number of hours of tutoring during the school year,” they said.

The mediocre results in Clark County are mirrored in other states that have evaluated the program.

The findings suggest “we’re not getting a lot for what we’re paying,” said Gail Sunderman, a senior research scientist at George Washington University who took part in a five-year study of No Child Left Behind.

The act, passed by Congress in 2001 to close the achievement gaps of poor and minority students, requires that school districts provide the tutoring to students enrolled in their poorest and lowest-achieving schools.

No Child Left Behind’s Supplemental Educational Services provision, as the tutoring program is known, has been a bonanza for tutoring companies. Since the 2004-05 academic year, the first year that Clark County offered the tutoring, the district has spent $18 million on tutoring providers — federal dollars that would have otherwise gone to at-risk district schools.

In the current academic year, 4,652 Clark County students from 36 schools are receiving tutoring at a cost of $3.4 million.

“The law was designed to allow private industry into public education,” said Patsy Saas, a director in the Clark County School District’s Title I office, which monitors the tutoring program. “As you can see, it’s quite profitable.”

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The district allocates $1,373 per student for tutoring, a rate set by the state. Parents choose from a list of state-approved providers with hourly rates ranging from $40 for small-group sessions to $75 for one-on-one tutoring.

One problem with the program, according to Sunderman, is that the expectations and requirements for the tutors weren’t set high enough at the outset.

There are no minimum education requirements for tutors in Nevada. The Nevada Education Department must verify only that the tutors have a business license and education plan.

No research supported the argument that private tutoring companies would succeed where public school teachers were falling short, Sunderman said. Its inclusion in No Child Left Behind was to mollify lawmakers pushing for school vouchers.

“It wasn’t based on educational theory, it was a political compromise,” Sunderman said.

Tougher requirements to become a tutoring provider, including mandating that only licensed teachers can, might improve the program’s results, Rheault said.

He noted that the CCEA Community Foundation, a partner of the teachers union and the largest tutoring provider in Clark County, uses only licensed teachers and was among the three tutoring companies that showed gains in math. (Teachers working as tutors are prohibited from tutoring students in their district classrooms.) The foundation’s program also had the highest average hours of attendance, at 36 hours per student. The average was 26 hours.

Setting a minimum number of hours for tutoring might be called for, Rheault said.

One of the evaluators’ recommendations for improving the program is to establish a better relationship between tutors and school staff, including more shared communication about individual students’ academic progress. Improving that communication would make it easier for the tutors to tailor lesson plans and activities to support the work in regular classroom, the report concluded.

Tutoring companies are required to provide monthly progress reports to schools and parents, but not all comply.

At Richard Rundle Elementary School, where about 300 students receive the tutoring, the level of interaction between the school and the private tutors varies widely depending on the company, said Chris Stacey, the Title I liaison at Rundle who oversees the tutoring program.

The CCEA foundation’s tutors are Rundle teachers and the sessions take place on campus, which has made it easier to coordinate efforts and to keep tabs on the more than 200 students in the program. As for the other tutoring companies, Stacey said she’s fielded only four or five requests for information about a student’s academic profile.

Researchers found a majority of district principals and site coordinators — 68 percent — said tutoring providers communicated with them during the school year. Thirty-two percent said there was no such communication.

Federal law prohibits local school districts from interfering or becoming involved in the day-to-day operations of the tutoring companies.

Although she would welcome more interaction, Stacey said those regulations sometimes get in the way of better communication.

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The researchers’ findings run counter to the claims of private tutoring companies that local students often make dramatic gains.

The CCEA Community Foundation, for example, claims its tutored students improve by as much as 20 percent in reading and math. Such claims are based on the results of the company’s in-house assessments.

The district attempted to establish a test for all students to take before and after they received tutoring, but some of the tutoring companies declined to cooperate.

The district is still required to track students being tutored, and the companies must provide it with attendance and achievement records. Clark County has had several companies removed from the state’s approved list for not maintaining accurate student records and failing to provide promised services.

The district has a three-person staff to monitor 16 providers serving 4,652 students from 36 schools.

The bulk of the time goes to making sure providers are complying with their contracts, leaving little time for studies of the program’s effectiveness.

Erin Colgrove, tutoring program director of the CCEA Community Foundation, which is serving 1,862 students and has taken in almost $1.4 million so far this year, said her organization was pleased that the researchers found improvement in the math results, but distressed that there was no measurable gains in reading.

Given that 90 percent of the students in the foundation’s tutoring program are English language learners, they are starting a step behind in literacy, Colgrove said.

“The evaluation told us we’re not making the impact we expected,” Colgrove said. “Maybe it’s time for us to reinvent the wheel.”

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