Few low-income students in New Jersey eligible for a federally funded tutoring program ever registered, and most who did never attended every session, according to state data reviewed by The Press of Atlantic City.
Offered as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, the effectiveness of the program that’s free to students — the price tag to taxpayers was $28 million in 2008-09 in New Jersey — now is being questioned even by its former supporters.
State Department of Education data show that during the past five years, the percentage of all eligible children who took advantage of the program ranged from 14 percent to 17 percent — about the same as the national rate. In 2008-09, the most recent year for which data is available 21,262 students in New Jersey received tutoring from an pool of 124,543 eligible children at a cost of about $1,318 per student.
Among those students, fewer than half attended all tutoring sessions. Most students who did complete the program showed improvement, but state Department of Education officials admit they don’t yet have an effective method to link overall student progress directly to the tutoring. This year, the state will require the tutor’s identification code to be added to student records to develop a database.
The Supplemental Educational Services tutoring program offers low-income families in designated low-performing schools the chance to get free tutoring for their child from state-approved private companies. The federal government provides the funding through the Title I program for disadvantaged children. The designated school must set aside 20 percent of its Title I funds for the private tutoring.
The tutoring has been touted as a way to give parents the chance to get extra help for their children.
But Diane Ravitch, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and once a staunch supporter of No Child Left Behind, now questions its effectiveness. In a new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” she cites the low student participation, problems with monitoring effectiveness, and occasional recruiting abuses by private tutoring companies as examples of a program not working as intended.
Representatives of companies that provide the tutoring say some schools actively promote the program, but others do not. The state Department of Education has increased its oversight, but said promoting the program is a district responsibility.
“At first a lot of districts did think the program was absurd,” said Stacy Dean of Dean’s Learning Center in Cape May Court House. “They wanted to keep the money themselves in the school. But now more are saying, ‘Let someone else come in and try to help.’ The program has a lot of potential, but the state is still working out the problems.”
School districts can apply to keep unused funds. Representatives of tutoring companies said they believe as a result, some districts are lax in promoting the service. More than 60 percent of 84 providers surveyed in 2009 said signing up students is their biggest challenge. Among the most successful districts are those that also run their own tutoring service, including Atlantic City and Vineland. Almost all of Atlantic City’s students attend the district’s program and about a third of Vineland’s students attended a district-run program in 2008-09, although many did not attend every session.
The state Department of Education toughened the reporting process in 2008-09, and in a few cases required districts to return unused funds to the state.
“The districts have to show us that they really made an effort to promote the program,” said Wendi Webster O’Dell, director of the SES program for the state Department of Education. This year, districts are expected to post information on their websites and any request to keep more than 15 percent of unused funds will automatically trigger an audit of their program.
Half of the private companies in the 2009 DOE survey said student attendance has been a chronic problem. The private companies are paid only when students attend, but since parents do not pay, they lose nothing if their child misses sessions. Statewide the tutoring services charge districts an average of $35 per hour, DOE data show.
In 2008-09, 60 percent of the children attended at least 80 percent of their tutoring sessions. Only 44 percent attended every session, according to the state survey.
“Some districts do a lot better than others,” Webster O’Dell said. “Student attendance is always an issue. We believe this is a reasonable completion rate, but would like to do better.”
“Making it free to the families can be hard because some parents don’t feel an obligation,” Dean said. “Others are so happy to get it, they really make the most of it.”
Tutors have developed their own systems to improve attendance. Club Z, based in the Ocean View section of Dennis Township in Cape May County, only offers one-on-one tutoring, often at the child’s home. Dean’s offers its tutoring online so that students can set their own schedules.
“When we offered it in a group after school at the schools, the students didn’t want to be there and about a third of them wouldn’t show, which is why I stopped doing that,” said Joseph Luchese, area director of Club Z, who coordinated tutoring for about 300 area students in 2009-10. “When we go to their home, the parent or someone has to be there and it takes more commitment. And when a parent is involved, we get better results.”
Luchese charges $65 per student, but said students respond better to the personal attention of having their own tutor. He said the tutors, many of them retired teachers, can really make a difference.
“Some kids just eat it up,” he said. “They’ll be waiting at the door. The tutors love that.”
Dean said students love working on computers and the customized online tutoring they offer has been effective. Tutors meet with the students to do a preliminary assessment of their skills and help set up the computer program. They can monitor the student’s progress online and stay in touch on a regular basis. Computers have been loaned to students who don’t have them, and some work at their local library.
“Motivation is the key,” Dean said. “If the student isn’t motivated, the tutor has to provide that motivation, be a cheerleader for them.”
The state allows tutors to provide small incentives, such as bookstore gift cards, to reward student progress.
Still, not all succeed, and the providers, who must still pay their tutors, have set limits for how many sessions a child can miss before he or she is dropped from the program. Luchese said some districts, including Pleasantville, will pay for one missed session. Others will not.
Free tutoring hard to sell
Motivating parents to sign up is still a challenge. Two-thirds of the providers surveyed complained about low turnout at district-sponsored provider fairs. The free tutoring is available only to low-income students in struggling schools. Schools with a high percentage of eligible students are more likely to promote the service at events like Back to School Night, since almost every child is eligible.
Tutors also complained that the required notification letter to parents is so bureaucratic that many parents don’t understand what is being offered.
“Supplemental Educational Services doesn’t mean anything to parents,” said Dean, who added that when they ran the letter through a reading ability test, it came back at the college level.
“If parents get a letter they don’t understand, they just throw it away,” Dean said. “We promote it by just saying it’s free tutoring.”
Suzanne Ochse, director of Title I programs for the state DOE, said the federal government provides the template for the letter and the state must follow it or risk being fined. But districts and providers are free to simplify the message.
Charles Fredericks, who coordinates the SES program for the Egg Harbor Township school district, said eligible families get a letter telling them about the service. Last year students at the Clayton J. Davenport and Joyanne Miller schools were eligible for the program and 67 students received tutoring.
“It does seem crazy that you have to plead with people to get free help,” Fredericks said.
Tutors are required to track individual student progress and are expected to test students at the beginning and end of the program. Tutors must keep a record of each tutoring session, which parents must sign. Copies are submitted with the monthly invoices to the districts and the companies must also provide monthly progress reports.
“There is a lot of paperwork,” said Luchese, who added he has noticed some providers dropping out as the state requirements get more stringent. “People think they’re going to make a lot of money, but we are held to incredible reporting requirements.”
Students who complete the program showed improvement in both math and reading, according to a review of surveys submitted by the companies. But state Department of Education officials said it can be difficult to track the effectiveness of just the tutoring on a student’s overall progress in school.
“Can we really say that a student’s performance improved because of the SES provider rather than because they have a great teacher in class this year?” Ochse asked. “It’s impossible to say.”
In 2006, a U.S. General Accounting Office report said states were struggling to develop meaningful evaluation systems for the SES programs and those that had tried had somewhat inconclusive results.
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