No Child Left Behind leaves behind independent tutors

To help pay his graduate school expenses, a friend of mine accepted a job as a tutor to a student who was struggling with an introductory course in economics. It paid well and didn’t sound too difficult, except for one thing: His pupil was the starting quarterback on the football team that was making a run at the national championship.

The team and especially the quarterback and his favorite pass receiver were objects of intense media coverage, and there were times when it was difficult to tell who felt the pressure more: the pupil or the tutor.

Most tutoring jobs aren’t like that, and, in fact, like so many things in today’s economy, a lot of tutoring has been transformed from a personal relationship into a more standardized corporate product. There is just a paycheck, a new memo from management, and more forms to fill out.

Privately funded personal tutoring is still going on but especially in the public schools’ K-12 systems the changes are probably irreversible.

What is transforming tutoring from a personal relationship to a process is the usual change agent in our economy: money. The No Child Left Behind Act, usually referred to by its foes and few surviving friends by its abbreviation, NCLB, wanted to force failing schools to do something different and all schools to help failing students in a different way.

Included in the law, then, were provisions for setting up after-school tutoring programs designed to provide a more personalized approach to learning difficulties, something that was extremely tough to achieve in the overcrowded, unreceptive classrooms that characterized so many failing schools. Even better, the law included millions of dollars in federal funding for these programs and a requirement that schools spend 20 percent of the Title I funding under the NCLB law on after-school tutoring and school choice transportation. That got people’s attention.

It turned out to be a bonanza for private tutoring, which responded to the flood of federal money by becoming an industry, known as Supplemental Educational Services from its description in the original NCLB Act.

Intentionally or not, NCLB created a kind of gold-rush environment, with all sorts of tutoring organizations scrambling to obtain state approval and certification while school districts scrambled to comply with the federal rules on student eligibility and program evaluations.

Only a few years ago, at its peak, there were more than 2,000 firms and organizations providing approved federally funded tutoring services within the supplemental education provisions of the law. Industry experts estimate that fewer than half of those organizations remain today.

This would qualify as a mass extinction if there were such a thing in economics, but we don’t have to look to a meteor collision or a volcanic eruption for the cause.

NCLB had never been popular with teachers or teachers unions and the change in political control in 2008 gave them a stronger voice in the federal government. As a result, the federal Department of Education began to issue NCLB waivers to states. These waivers, which now cover 40 states, the District of Columbia, and even a sub-group of school districts in California, relieve school districts from having to comply with the requirements for after-school tutoring programs.

The waivers, then, return control of the flow of federal funds to the school districts, and this has already reduced spending on tutoring. Whether after-school tutoring programs will disappear entirely isn’t clear, but the gold-rush days are over.

Buried by silt and dust of the power-play politics of the NCLB waivers, the underlying real problems of the NCLB’s supplemental education and tutoring provisions remain largely unearthed, like shards of ancient pottery awaiting analysis. The basic questions of performance evaluation and relationships between classroom teacher and tutor are unanswered and probably will remain so.

The diversion of NCLB’s flow of funds by the waiver system gives an added push to the large corporations that were already beginning to dominate the tutoring and after-school programs industry. The move to the “Common Core” curriculum and Internet-based learning systems may open some opportunities for smaller, entrepreneurial firms and even individuals, but the larger corporations are a lot better at marketing to school districts and that is often the deciding factor.

My friend doesn’t have a championship ring, but his former student does, and the team did go on to win the national title. College sports will undoubtedly continue to use personal tutors to help their athletes, especially those who are not academically gifted. And tutoring will remain personal and effective for students whose parents are concerned about their progress and willing and able to pay the cost.

From a K-12 public schools standpoint, though, unless there is another cataclysmic political event, after-school personal tutors are just another type of dinosaur.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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