It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time. As part of the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education law, schools were required to offer tutoring services to kids from low-performing schools.
But during the past decade, millions of federal dollars were wasted on academic coaching that didn't work. In Minnesota, the state's 10 largest districts spent nearly $30 million for tutors since 2007, but they have precious little student improvement to show for it. About 5,000 Minnesota kids, mostly from the Twin Cities area, had tutors through the program last year.
There is more than enough blame to go around for this colossal abuse of federal money. In the initial legislation, the feds required that districts set aside up to 20 percent of their Title I federal funds for tutoring. Title I dollars support programs for low-income students. But in that founding legislation, Congress failed to build in oversight provisions.
At the state level, the Department of Education reviewed applications from vendors, then vetted them for the state's stamp of approval. Parents could then select from the state list. But too many of those "approved'' vendors didn't help kids progress academically. Minnesota was among 30 states that did nothing to rank or grade the providers and offered no data on tutor performance.
That failure was well-documented in a recent a three-part Star Tribune series. Reporters Jeffrey Meitrodt and Daarel Burnette described how many companies in the federal Supplemental Educational Services (SES) tutoring program charged for missed appointments and had long service delays. In the Twin Cities, thousands of students quit the programs without completing any lessons, and many struggled to communicate online with tutors from foreign countries.
The reporters found that at least 21 tutoring services that operated in Minnesota were caught seeking payment without providing documentation of work performed.
Local school district officials say their hands were tied and that they had to cut checks to even the worst providers. Under the law, parents chose tutoring services without any help or recommendations from their local districts. Some district officials knew the tutoring was ineffective and cut off contracts with bad actors. But others could have done more to keep dollars from flowing into the hands of questionable providers.
And the state Department of Education certainly could have done more to follow up over 10 years. Other states did a better job of assessing services and giving families more direction.
Current state education officials say most of the fraud and waste occurred during the previous administration. They say the SES was one of the primary reasons they applied for and received a NCLB waiver to drop SES. (See the commentary on the opposite page.) And Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she is working with other state officials to determine whether some of the funds spent on poor tutoring service can be recovered.
Now that Minnesota has a waiver from some NCLB mandates, many districts are expected to drop SES. However, just as this decade-long experience revealed program failures, there were also some bright spots. Unless federal or state law again requires tutoring (as some states have done), in the future individual school districts will decide whether to offer the service.
Minneapolis schools officials say students can benefit greatly from outside coaching -- when it is done well. That's why they'll continue to offer the service with providers that meet rigorous requirements and have demonstrated success. Research shows that tutoring works when students receive a minimum of 40 hours of tutoring a year and when the service is well coordinated with classroom lessons.
Extra coaching for students isn't a bad idea -- when it's effective. In the future, only highly successful, quality providers should win public contracts to tutor Minnesota kids.
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