May 21 2012

Duncan Should Blast Fed ED—Not Florida—for Programs that Flop

Vicki E. Alger

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a bone to pick with Florida.

Not about its many statewide school choice programs for students who are low-income, special-needs, trapped in failing schools, from military families, or from the foster-care system.

Not about its landmark Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) Program, which prepares children—even ones who attend just part-time—better on key Kindergarten readiness measures than children who did not participate. VPK also helps puts Florida “first in terms of the access that 4-year-olds have to the programs.” [Duncan did note as an aside that, in spite of such success, Florida should be spending more money]

And, not even about the fact that Florida parental choice programs like these that are closing the achievement gap. As the Foundation for Florida’s Future explains: “Once near the bottom of the pack on national tests, Florida‘s students are racing to the top, proving that all children can learn when given the right opportunity. In 1998, Florida students scored at the bottom of the nation in student achievement. 47 percent of Florida’s fourth-grade students were functionally illiterate” (p. 1). By 2009, the fruits of the Florida Formula were evident. Florida’s fourth grade Hispanic students were reading as well or better than the statewide average of all students in 31 states. Meanwhile, African-American fourth graders were reading as well or better than statewide average in eight states. (pp. 1-2)

Secretary Duncan is annoyed with Florida for a mandatory after-school tutoring program that “is showing little or no impact on children.” Duncan even went so far as to suggest that “pressure from the industry” explained keeping a failed program in operation.

Duncan would certainly know a thing or two about keeping failed programs open—while helping kill effective ones. He played a leading role when the Obama Administration felt “pressure from the industry,” namely teachers unions and DC Public Schools officials, to kill the successful the DC Opportunity Scholarship Programa program Duncan’s own “What Works” division hailed as a success.

More to the point, the ineffective tutoring program criticized by Duncan isn’t truly a Florida program at all. It’s a federal mandate. Children attending failing public schools are eligible for school choice or extra tutoring under Title I Supplemental Educational Services of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Not surprisingly, faced with the option of losing students and their education dollars to better performing schools, public-school districts prefer to keep students and the extra federal cash by offering “Supplemental Educational Services” such as tutoring.

But Duncan’s own education department quietly released a report earlier this month that found federal SES tutoring in the Connecticut, Ohio, and Florida districts studied were a flop.

Most of the tutors were students’ regular teachers, which begs the question, if students didn’t learn from them during the regular school day, why would they be more effective before or after school? And, there was no statistically significant impact of participating in SES tutoring on student achievement in reading or mathematics.

States feel pressure to get dollars back from Washington any way they can—even if it means enacting ineffective programs that citizens don’t need or want. To then have those same Washington officials “tisk, tisk” states when these expensive clunkers fail is frankly beyond the pale.

Failed programs and mandates should be defunded—not defended with a blame-game tour.

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