Time lie

Liam Julian

The idea is simple: Allow low-performing schools to extend learning time by using money previously allotted to students for out-of-school tutoring.

It's also simply wrong. A more blatant attack on the small amount of choice NCLB gives to parents and their children would be difficult to conceive.

If Congress acts on this plan put forward by Education Trust, be prepared for the return of the 13-egg omelet. As former Education Secretary William Bennett used to say, you don't make a lousy 12-egg omelet any better by adding another egg. Similarly, you don't make lousy schools better by adding another grade level, or more time after school, or more instructional days during the summer.  

Not only is the mindless addition of "extended learning time" not likely to help--more on that later--stealing money from the free tutoring program is likely to hurt the very kids Ed Trust cares about.

What's all this about free tutoring, anyway? Let's recap: Free tutoring (supplemental educational services) is part of the No Child Left Behind act, which not only identifies bad schools but also provides better educational options for the parents of students trapped in them.

Most schools that enroll large portions of low-income and minority students receive extra federal money called Title I funds. If a Title I school doesn't make adequate yearly progress (AYP) on state tests for three consecutive years, then its students can take their share of Title I dollars ($1,500 per student per year, on average) and use it to enroll in an after-school tutoring program of their choice.

The reasons for this NCLB provision are clear. First, schools that don't make AYP for three consecutive years have proven themselves largely incapable of educating students. Nonetheless, those students both need and deserve an education, and they should be able to go elsewhere to receive it.

Second, free tutoring allows families to exercise educational choice. They can pick a provider that fits their particular needs and that will give their children the best supplemental instruction.

To allow failing schools to use tutoring dollars to implement extended learning time ignores the first point and undercuts the second. It assumes that failing schools will no longer fail if only they have more instructional time, and it disregards the benefits of giving parents a menu of options.

But that's precisely what some want to do. Education Trust recommends that if a "school desires to offer an expanded time program, and a majority of parents of students enrolled in the school affirmatively vote to support the program, the school shall be able to apply its pro-rated share of supplemental service funds to providing the expanded time program." Both Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative George Miller--chairmen of their respective education committees--are rumored to be taking seriously that recommendation and perhaps including it in their NCLB reauthorization bills.

What a rotten idea. Instead of permitting 100 percent of poor parents in struggling schools an educational choice, Ed Trust's proposal could result in 49 percent of parents having none. The incentive will be for schools to convince parents to forgo Title I dollars, to convince them that their children don't really need free tutoring.

And one wonders why parents should be forced to choose between extended learning time and supplemental services, anyway. There are more than enough federal funds available for schools that want to lengthen their instructional day, specifically the 80 percent of Title I money not allocated for free, parent-chosen tutoring and school choice. In failing schools, it's a safe bet that that 80 percent isn't being put to good use, and perhaps, in certain situations, using it to offer a longer school day could be a bright idea.

Also, adding instruction time need not be a federal issue. The states have a role to play, too, and extra money from state capitals could go a long way toward implementing extended learning time. Massachusetts has already had significant success with this approach.

But attempts to withdraw what little choice NCLB currently gives parents must be resisted. In this case, trying to rescind supplemental services is particularly egregious because those services have actually done some good. A recent U.S. Education Department study found students in five school districts who received free tutoring made statistically significant gains in both reading and math (see here).

Which is not to say that extended learning time is not a promising reform strategy, too. In many high-performing charter schools, such as the KIPP Academies, it's a sine qua non. But it's not just more time, it's what is done with that time. Studies prove that simply tacking extra minutes onto the school day does nothing to increase student achievement.

A 2005 study that evaluated successful, extended-time schools found that longer days were only one part of their winning academic formula--i.e., more time alone (without committed teachers and faculty, high expectations for students, etc.) won't do much. The extra time has to be used well; one can assume that in most schools already failing to make AYP for three straight years, it won't be. Ed Trust will certainly call for "high quality" extended learning programs--but to believe that the federal government has the ability to make such a wish a reality is to demonstrate the triumph of hope over experience. (Remember how well "highly qualified teachers" went?)

Parents don't need more eggs added to an already unfortunate mix. What they need is better educational services and more educational choice. The free tutoring provision of NCLB provides both things. Snatching it away from parents is just bad thinking. We'll all have yolk on our faces.

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