When California examines the low participation rates in its federally mandated tutoring program, it may want to look to Florida for answers. There, more than twice as many eligible students received tutoring last year and the state measures instructor quality against student performance on statewide tests.
The apparent success of Florida's approach stems from several related factors. Not only has it made efforts to keep local school districts from using tutoring funds for other purposes but it also makes a point of integrating teachers and administrators into the process. But perhaps most notably, the state bought into the program.
"We have high participation rates because districts have embraced No Child Left Behind," said Mary Joe Butler, Chief of the Bureau for Public School Options at the Florida Department of Education.
Close regulation and tough state standards have helped to encourage participation. While federal law tells local school districts they must "notify" parents of their children's eligibility for the free tutoring, districts can decide how far to go in making sure that notification translates into participation.
In Florida, Butler said, "we have aggressive parent outreach, far beyond what the federal government requires." In the Miami-Dade School District this year, officials sent letters to all parents of eligible kids, held seven provider fairs, advertised in the Miami Herald and Spanish- and Creole-language newspapers, and bought announcements on Spanish-language radio programs in the area. They also coordinated with the local Chamber of Commerce and hotel association to hang fliers in employee break rooms, said Bernadette Montgomery, District Supervisor for Supplemental Education Services in Miami-Dade.
State officials also require school districts to demonstrate that parents have been fully informed of the opportunities available to their kids, and simply don't want tutoring services. Only then can the districts apply to have the federal money funneled back to their general fund.
"We monitor requests to reallocate funds very closely and it doesn't happen often," Butler said. "Most districts are over-enrolling students in tutoring programs, not asking for their funds back."
In Miami-Dade County last year, 18,551 students completed tutoring programs, which is roughly as many as the district can fund. Throughout Florida, 18 percent of eligible students obtained tutoring — compared to just eight percent in California.
Butler said relations with local districts are successful beyond the state's regulatory and coercive powers. The state involves school districts when drawing up its approved list of tutors. Last year, the state reviewed five hundred applications, and each was evaluated by three readers, many of whom are school district administrators and teachers. Miami Dade's district office contributed five readers last year. The state approved 219 programs and all must reapply each year. In California, state employees act as readers, and providers need only reapply every other year.
"In Florida, we have intensive guidance ... and a lot of participation on every level," said Butler. "Districts understand that [tutoring] is part of comprehensive school improvement and should be used to build partnerships with tutoring companies and schools. They can see the benefit. For them, it's an investment."
Montgomery acknowledged that Miami-Dade's program was a bit shaky at first and that area principals were skeptical of outside educators. Then, she said, tutoring companies began hiring from the ranks of local teachers, and principals got on board. Now the district takes extra pains to host a provider fair for principals, where they can quiz tutoring companies on educational methods and materials to make sure they align with the school's goals.
"It's been trial and error, but we've come a long way," said Montgomery. "Overall, it's a great program that provides a big benefit for our students."
Once students are attached to a provider, Florida has a student-tracking system to evaluate its effectiveness. Each student has a number and the state monitors a student's standardized test scores and their attendance at tutoring. The information is then analyzed to see where the problems are — whether with the tutoring company or the student.
"You can't be positive that a tutoring company has caused a student's success," said Butler. "But if a student exceeds expectations and is enrolled ... we assume the program contributed."
In 2007, 34 percent of Florida schools made adequate yearly progress, up five percentage points from 2006. "Anecdotally, students are doing very well," Butler said. Actual data examining the impact of tutoring on test scores will be available early next year.
California has been in irregular contact with Florida about developing a similar system, and the state's web site says that a program called the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, will launch in spring 2009.
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