Mostly lost among all the stimulus action last week was a letter Secretary Duncan sent to the states (pdf) on some No Child Left Behind regulatory issues.  The administration didn’t roll back the Spellings graduation rate requirements or make other radical changes.  I would have preferred a more aggressive push on public school choice for students in low-performing schools, perhaps even with required audits about whether potential receiving schools actually have space or not rather than a walking back of the pressure there and the “n” size regulation isn’t helpful, but the sky isn’t falling.  It barely even registers on Petrilli’s gadget.  It’s mostly innocuous stuff. 

Unless you’re in the tutoring industry that is. 

There is a lot of chatter about what’s next for the “supplemental educational services” or SES tutoring industry when No Child Left Behind is reauthorized.  Duncan’s new regulation means he’ll ease some requirements around the program and is going to waive some of the requirements that pertain to SES for stimulus funds.  That makes sense since those funds are big one-time shots of money that the states couldn’t reasonably spend on tutoring anyway.  But, the regulatory change seems to indicate trouble for the program longer term.

So, the short answer to what’s next is that it’s not an industry I’d invest a lot in (even if I could, ES has a policy precluding ES personnel from investing in for-profit education ventures) for a couple of reasons.   First, the business model of requiring public school districts to help competitors for resources set up shop is completely screwed up (that’s a technical B-school term).   That creates an internal tension in the program that can’t be fully resolved no matter how much regulatory pressure is brought to bear.   There are fixes for that (pdf) but not a lot of political appetite to make them.

Second, quality within the SES industry is really mixed and has been all along.   At the same time, there are not yet good cues to help parents or policymakers differentiate among good providers and lousy ones.  That’s why in most states pretty much every provider that is not run by a felon or completely in financial disarray and has at least one employee who owns a suit can get approved to provide services.   And it’s a chaotic space with insuficient information so it’s hard for parents to make good decisions.

And third, in his letter Secretary Arne Duncan said that he’s going to allow school districts that are not making “adequate yearly progress” or AYP under the No Child law to nonetheless provide tutoring services to students themselves if they want to, something currently prohibited.  Under his proposal states can refuse them, but state boards of education that, regardless of service quality, are going to choose for-profit vendors over local school districts are few and far between.   That’s too bad though because there is a big difference between allowing a district like Chicago that might not be making AYP but can nonetheless bring real capacity to a problem to provide services and allowing a district with say 6 schools, all of them lousy, to do the same.   In other words, absent the politics and lack of attention to quality that exists today, Duncan’s proposal makes a lot of sense.

Without a real change in the path we’re on it looks like the current marketplace will change in the wake of the new law and SES providers will have to either market directly to parents who will be paying the entire cost out of pocket or to school districts for contracts.   So, if I owned an SES company, what would I do?

First, I’d decide whether I want to be acquired by a larger company and just get out of the business or whether I want to try to make it in the post-NCLB environment.  If the latter I’d go after the talent that will be available as the industry shakes out and I’d make sure I could make a good empirical case to school districts about quality of service.  And if I were a good provider I’d be trying to partner with other good providers to come up with some standards for quality and some sort of accreditation process that actually has teeth.  What’s out there now doesn’t.

And if I were an industry leader I’d partner with some others to make the case to lawmakers that some aspects of this should be kept in place – albeit with some changes to address the issues above.  It’s hard not to think that if this were a federal subsidy for suburban kids to take violin lessons or play lacrosse there would be riots if Congress went anywhere near it.   Done well SES can help low-income students with academics, but the quality providers have been too quiet and now don’t have a lot of time left to make that case.

2 Replies to “SOS For SES?”

  1. Let’s just say you have low performing schools who sincerely want to help their struggling students, and you have qualified providers, then you are still starting with two strikes against you. Why? Knowledge can’t be chopped up into measurable pieces and then assembled along the lines of assembly lines. Low performing students need more high-quality class time where instructors can seamlessly offer practice, adjustments, fluency, comprehension, and integrating knowledge into learning. We have enough articifial barriers already. Why create more?

    Perhaps the best source on this issue is research from John Easton’s Chicago Schools Consortium. So, both the old and the new directors of the What Works Clearinghouse are people we should listen to. We need people not products, and reform processes not quick fix. SES, like credit recovery programs, can be the ultimate quick fixes and that realization makes it unlikely that there promise will be fulfilled.

    Of course, extending the school day is hard, and that’s why we don’t tackle the problem. We have a shortage of effective teachers in low performing schools, students don’t need more of the same – boring drill and worksheets, and when kids get older the toughest problem is motivating them to really learn as opposed to guess at the answers in some bogus credit recovery program.

    Of course if we extend the school day, we’ll need more high-quality digital learning and that’s tough. We’ll need to rcruit and train and retain more qualified teachers. We’ll need just as many private contractors.

    The Stimulus could help if we invested in high-quality human capital, including tough and fair evaluations. But rules will discourage risk-adverse central offices from recruiting human talent. They’ve been incentivized to buy the same old discredited “products” preferably simply turn-key products from the vendors with the best Power Point presentations.

    I don’t want to sound cynical. But if you had two equally sincere and effective instructors, one a classroom teacher and the other an SES tutor, how much time would they have to invest confering with each other over the student’s needs, problems, strenghts, and progress? Its time to give up on the silly idea that we can cut knowledge up into measurable pieces and by holding people accountable, children will learn. Humans have never learned that way, and I can’t believe that they ever will.

  2. Agree with John’s point about the importance of not under-estimating the heavy-lift associated with successfully extending the school day using digital learning. It’s not as simple as pointing the kids to Youtube EDU…

    Andy on your point about an implicit Service Level Agreement that may or may not be adhered to currently by SES providers, I came across this interesting point of principle in the preamble to the Workforce Investment Act Final rule that might have parallels to this situation with K12: “Training providers and their programs have to demonstrate successful performance to remain eligible to receive funds under the Act. And participants, with their Individual Training Accounts, have the opportunity to make training choices based on program outcomes. To survive in the market, training providers must make accountability for performance and customer satisfaction a top priority” Now admittedly there are some sensitive notions covered here such as choice, competition and performance accountability but in appropriate doses they seem reasonable to apply to the SES space, particularly given the absence of accountability that providers in the space appear to be subject to today. (See recent DOE Policy and Programs Study Service report on Title I and SES for example, where they write that over a quarter of current SES providers do not report on student progress to teachers)

    Limited SES choice with loose accountability seem to be the current market parameters schools are asked to deal with. Good for SES, bad for kids, and bad for any innovation that might otherwise occur

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