Unbundling: Rethinking How We Deliver Remedial Services to Students Who Need Them

The idea behind remediation in education is to bring a student who has fallen behind academically back up to speed with their peers by offering extra services.

Federal and state funding for remediation programs have increased dramatically over time in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Sadly, despite this large influx of money, achievement gaps between groups of students have been stubbornly persistent in recent decades.

To improve upon this situation, remedial services should remain, but be unbundled from the public education system by redirecting those fund to families with students who need it. Families who would receive these Child Opportunity Grants (CO Grants) would have the opportunity to spend the funds on tutoring and other related services for use by their children during nights, weekends, the summer and even breaks throughout the academic year.

Before we break down how the shift to CO Grants could function, it’s helpful to understand how remediation programs have evolved and how the funding works.

Title I, Remedial Services and Achievement Gaps

In a well-intentioned effort to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students and for black students who had been forced historically into separate and unequal public schools, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Federal spending on K–12 public schools increased dramatically after the passage of this law—almost tripling in real (inflation-adjusted) and per-student terms between 1965 and 1980—with further large increases since that time.  About a fifth of this federal funding is earmarked for the federal Title I-A program, which “provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.”

Thus, the purpose of Title 1-A funding is to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged children. Decades of history indicate the program has not worked well or been well-targeted to the students most in need.

Though lawmakers hoped that the large infusion of funding would close achievement gaps, it did not.

Achievement gaps between black and white students and between higher income and lower income students have been large and stubbornly persistent over many decades. As the gaps have remained depressingly large, overall achievement levels do not appear to have increased either.

This disappointing state of affairs has been present despite the fact that between 1980 and 2017 overall real (inflation-adjusted) per student spending almost doubled (increased by 93 percent) and funding equity across districts increased. Included in those spending figures are the dramatic increases in real federal expenditures on Title 1-A.

States also typically provide funding for remedial services.

For example, Georgia’s largest such program, the Early Intervention Program (EIP)—which provides extra funding for students behind grade level in grades K–5—has seen the state portion of its funding increase in nominal terms from $295 million in 2006 to more than $718 million in 2020. In addition, many Georgia school districts appear to be using these funds for purposes other than they were intended.

Public school officials in other states may claim they do not have the same issues with their state remediation programs. Nevertheless, why do the large achievement gaps persist despite public schools having received tremendous increases in taxpayer resources over the past four decades?

Though there is no evidence on the efficacy of Georgia’s program and many other state remediation programs, we do have solid evidence on federal remediation efforts. After five-plus decades even researchers from center-left and left wing think tanks, respectively, have conceded that Title I funding has not boosted student achievement and has been poorly targeted to the students most in need. Both of these reports call for significantly more funding, better implementation and better targeting of Title I.  Perhaps 55 years has been enough time to try this federally funded and bureaucratic model, and it is time to try something new—like Child Opportunity Grants.

Trying Child Opportunity Grants Instead

Instead of providing even more funding directly to public school districts for this purpose, I propose that states redirect some existing public school funding directly to families to allow them to pursue remediation for their students who need it.

That is, families would be offered Child Opportunity Grants that allow them to decide how to best use these funds to improve learning outcomes for their children. CO Grants would be available for all children deemed to be living in low-income households and to all students who do not pass state criterion-referenced tests or who do not score well on nationally norm-referenced tests. Families would then have the opportunities to use those funds to secure tutoring or related remedial services for their children outside of public school walls.

In addition to pursuing tutoring and other remedial services from individuals, nonprofits, or other non-school providers, families may choose to spend their CO Grants on their students’ current or former teachers.  Since many teachers kindly help students before or after school, states should permit CO Grants funds spent on public school teachers for use only on non-school days such as weekends, breaks, and in summertime—to preserve the extra help students already receive on school days.

Researchers and public school advocates may be rolling their eyes and thinking, “we have seen this movie before: supplemental education services (SES) under the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.” Though they’re mistaken, their concern raises an important point.

Under NCLB, public schools that were deemed as not making large enough improvements in student performance were required to reserve a portion of their Title I spending to allow parents to seek tutoring either inside or outside of public school walls. Evidence suggests that the SES program yielded no or only modest learning gains for students, and many eligible students did not participate.

But the SES program was not the unbundled program envisioned here, as parents still had to work with the bureaucracy of local school district to access SES—for example, an SES document from Michigan contained 19 pages of instructions, forms and regulations.  And, the SES program was inherently antagonistic—the SES money remained under the control of the public school if families did not wish to have their child receive tutoring outside school. So, school districts had a direct financial incentive to limit access to outside tutoring services and not promote the best outside services.

The problem with the SES program may have been using the public school system as the intermediary. The CO Grant proposal cuts out the school district middleman.

In contrast to the SES program, states would send CO Grants to disadvantaged families directly.  To ensure these grants are well-targeted to the students most in need, unlike Title I-A funds which are ultimately distributed and used in entire schools, CO Grants would be provided directly to families for all children considered low-income through the Direct Certification process currently used by states. Thus, all children in households that participate in SNAP, TANF, FDPIR (a program for students on Indian reservations), or Medicaid or children who are migrant, homeless or in foster care or Head Start would be categorically eligible. As stated previously, students who perform poorly on state or national tests could also be eligible—even if their families were not low-income, and this would not be a new budgetary cost to states as existing remediation funds would be redirected.

The role of state administrators of the Child Opportunity Grant would be to ensure that parents have information about approved providers and that dollars earmarked for CO Grants are spent on tutoring and other remedial services. Thus, the CO Grant program would be administered similarly to state education savings account programs.

According to EdChoice, Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee house their ESA programs in their state departments of education. However, they note that best practice suggests placing administrative authority in an agent that is not directly affected by the policy. For instance, Nevada housed their ESA in the State Treasurer’s Office, and Florida designated two nonprofits to administer their scholarships.

To be crystal clear, when remedial services are unbundled via CO Grants, this opportunity should not be administered by local public school districts, as the relationship between districts and service providers would be inherently adversarial. There’s simply too big a conflict of interest. And, state administration of the program should be just that—administration and not regulation, as the latter has a dismal track record.

By unbundling remedial services from public schools, states would promote resiliency in the education system—if some students are not learning well at public schools, CO Grants offer low-income families a safety valve. This proposed redirection of funds will also serve to create a vibrant marketplace of educational providers, fighting to offer better tutoring services at lower costs.

Let’s Recap

I do not believe that achievement gaps between groups of students need to be permanent.  Further, I do not believe we need to increase funding for remediation in order to reduce or even reverse existing gaps. Instead, existing remedial funds should be reallocated directly to parents.

If CO Grants to families were $1,000 per child, for example, then families could provide their children a $30 per hour reading tutor for 33 hours of one-on-one instruction during a break week or in the summer—one-on-one.  (For context, Georgia spends between more than $1,000 and $2,000 per student in state taxpayer dollars only—depending on the grade level—for its K-5 Early Intervention Program.)

Unlike the public education system, there would be a built-in feedback loop in the CO Grant program that would allow families to find the best tutors. Experience, word-of-mouth and guidance from non-governmental entities that work to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children would quickly provide information to parents about where to find best tutors. Further, teachers could also provide additional feedback to parents about their experiences with various outside tutors helping or not helping their previous students.  And teachers would have even more incentive to provide extra help to students on school days, so the word would get around they would make excellent tutors—and make a few bucks on the side.

Some may remain skeptical that parents could make good choices with respect to finding good tutoring and remediation services for their children. But we already know what the skeptics’ alternative is—throw more money at the current failed remediation efforts and watch the massive achievement gaps between students remain in place.

It’s long past time to put the ball directly in the hands of American families.  Don’t stay the course and put more money behind a failed effort. For the sake of children who need it, go C-O.

Read more from The Unbundling Series:

Five Services Public Education Should Do Differently

How K–12 Education Could Do Transportation Differently

Three Ways Public Schools Can Rethink Food Services

A New Way to Approach Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Supplies

Three Policies That Would Improve Schools’ Core Education Services