These days President Obama is focused on getting Congress to agree to a deficit-reduction deal in order to raise the debt ceiling, but not so long ago he'd asked lawmakers, again, to reform No Child Left Behind. He recently used one of his weekly addresses to call for changing the controversial Bush-era law, which mandates standardized testing as a measure of school success.
"To strengthen education in this country, we need to encourage reforms not driven by Washington, but by principals and parents so schools can determine what is best for their kids," said Obama, criticizing the policy for being too rigid. "That is why it is so important that Congress replace No Child Left Behind this year, so that schools have that flexibility. Reform just cannot wait."
Despite frequent complaints from Democrats about No Child Left Behind — namely that it imposes sanctions on schools that fall short of its standards without providing enough funding to help meet them — there are elements of the law that they actually like. One example is the Supplemental Education Services program: free, mandated tutoring services provided to students in low-performing schools. Under the law, students from low-income families are eligible to receive the out-of-school services. According to data from the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of the 650,000 students currently in the program are children of color.
Most importantly, it works. This March, the Department of Education (pdf) released a report on SES' impact on student achievement, showing that students who participated made significant gains in both mathematics and reading compared with students who did not.
However, in the Obama administration's efforts to retool No Child Left Behind, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed letting states waive certain provisions of the law to make it more flexible. On the potential chopping block is this requirement to offer free tutoring. A coalition of 13 Democratic members of Congress, including Representatives William Lacy Clay (Mo.), Corrine Brown (Fla.), Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (Texas), is pushing him to keep it mandatory.
"Many of our own constituents have used SES programs and many remain on waiting lists trying to access these much needed services," they wrote in a letter (pdf) to Secretary Duncan. "Additionally, the effect of an SES waiver is particularly disconcerting considering the many hurdles already facing students who benefit from the program."
The lawmakers may have trouble being taken seriously when so few students have actually taken advantage of free tutoring. If 650,000 sounded kind of on the low side to you, you're right. Last school year, 1.4 million children were eligible to enroll in SES programs, but only 233,000 (17 percent) signed up. But they can explain.
"According to studies presented at the 2008 meeting of the American Education Research Association," the lawmakers continued in their letter, "Only seven states notify parents of their children's eligibility in time for enrollment in September. Additionally, delays in program access, confusing enrollment processes, lack of transparency, and insufficient parental notification may result in artificially low participation rates despite high need and high interest."
Another potential hurdle to rallying support is the bootstrap-pulling contention that out-of-school tutoring should be the responsibility of parents, not the government. Yet Tutor Our Children, a national advocacy organization of SES providers and parents, argues that pushing for extra, structured learning time is critical. "SES is targeted to high-need, low-income students because at-risk students often have the most to gain from support outside the classroom," the organization says on its website. "SES works for children and families, and we need to ensure our children are taking advantage of the many successful programs available across the country."
What do you think — should the federal government continue to require access to free tutoring services for kids in failing schools?