NYT Does (Or Doesn’t) SES

Big NYT front page lead story on Sunday about No Child Left Behind’s “Supplemental Education Services” or SES provisions. It’s great that the Times is looking at this issue. The SES issue is a complicated one because the program is a muddle intended by some to foster choice, others accountability, and still others just extra, immediate, help for kids. And, it’s good question whether it makes sense to essentially vest the responsibility for making the program work with the same entity — the school districts — it is aimed at. But, rather than really tackle this, the story was a little disappointing. There are problems with the SES provisions, but will readers know much more about them after reading this article than beforehand?

Basically the Times article says that the SES tutoring provisions are not being used. There are several possible explanations for this (a) not enough money in the program (b) the school districts are not aggressively helping students take advantage of the program (c) parents don’t want tutoring for their kids (d) not enough providers of SES in many places. But, to the extent it delves into them, the Times story brings different perspectives but little evidence to bear.

For instance, the article reports, not surprisingly, that “Many state and district officials complain that federal financing is insufficient to meet the demand [for SES].” Could be, the law caps the amount of Title I funding that districts are required to spend on SES (though they can spend more if they like but it’s tough because most Title I funding, like most education funding, is tied up in labor costs). But that’s a question that can be answered with enough diligence. How many districts are not hitting the cap? Does demand outstrip supply? Etc…

Likewise, in I’m Rick Hess Bi*ch and Checker Finn’s book on No Child, CGCS’s Mike Casserly discusses supplemental services and reports that urban districts vary in the aggressiveness with which they help parents take advantage of this program. This, too, is a question the Times could look into along with what’s happening with parents and the availability of providers in different locales.

And, the Department of Education has been slow in getting on top of SES and deliberately lax in enforcement. The article doesn’t really get into that and will leave longtime watchers of the Times on education wondering why, when they did actually have a clean hit on the Bushies, they didn’t take it!

Finally, the article ignores what seems to Eduwonk to be the crux issue here: Quality. To be fair, it will be a little while before clear evidence of that emerges (and the always smart, sensible and incandescent Jane Hannaway makes several must-read points in the article about the current state-of-play) but there is reason to be concerned about the quality of many programs now in the SES market and journalism can start to help explore that issue.

Though the ideologues will play it as such, the quality issue isn’t a for-profit v. public issue, but rather a good program/bad program one because there are examples of both in the public, private, and non-profit sector. To the extent that SES becomes essentially pull-out, programs with curricula that is weak or not well aligned to state standards then SES will be a step backwards, not forwards for Title I.

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