Under Pilot Program in Texas & Florida, Tutoring Fees Depend on Student Progress

Cohen: Experiments with bonuses and penalties in Ector & Duval counties show why outcomes-based contracting should be on every district's to-do list.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

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Anyone who sells products to public schools can tell you education is a huge market. Schools spend billions of dollars annually on contracts for everything from HVAC maintenance to technology services and tutoring. Almost all agree to pay vendors for goods or services rendered, not for the student outcomes they produce. But, as I wrote in a recent FutureEd report on the future of the tutoring movement in public education, a handful of school districts are trying something new. 

Following the example of organizations in health care, social services and both early and higher education, some districts are experimenting with outcomes-based contracting, paying vendors, at least in part, for improvements in student learning. That’s the closest one can get to a money-back guarantee in education. 

Tutoring is particularly well-suited to outcomes-based contracting, since boosting achievement is its raison d’etre. Contracts that pay more when students show academic growth — and pay less when they don’t ― incentivize tutoring companies to produce results and save public money when they fall short.

Two districts that are part of a pilot project led by the Southern Education Foundation — Florida’s Duval County Public Schools and Ector County Independent School District in west Texas — offer informative examples of different approaches to outcomes-based contracting with tutoring providers.

Officials in Duval County, a sprawling, 128,000-student district covering greater Jacksonville, realized that 5,000 ninth-graders each year were starting high school in a low-level, pre-algebra course due to poor outcomes in middle school. So they invested about $2 million in federal COVID recovery funds in an outcomes-based contract with a vendor that delivered three, 30-minute sessions per week of math tutoring to struggling eighth-graders at nine middle schools. 

Duval County’s vendor, FEV Tutor, in partnership with Edmentum, earns a base fee of $800 per tutored student. If a student hits an established midyear growth target, the vendor receives an additional $530. If that student then hits an established end-of-year growth target, the district pays another $700. Finally, if the student also scores proficient or above on the state assessment, the provider earns a $420 bonus. 

Both sides of the deal came into play last year, according to Jasmine Walker, Duval County’s former director of K-12 math, who joined the foundation to help other districts launch outcomes-based contracts. Of the 451 students that FEV Tutor worked with between January and May, 42% achieved at least the growth that was expected under the contract. That meant Duval ended up paying 57% of potential performance fees. As a result, FEV Tutor left nearly $70,000 in bonuses on the table — money Duval could reinvest in more tutoring or a different intervention for struggling students.

Ector County, which serves predominantly Latino students in the oil-rich Permian Basin, took a different approach. Its outcomes-based contracts pay two providers, Air Tutors and FEV Tutor, a base fee of $25 per completed session with each student. If a student shows improvement on the NWEA MAP assessment equivalent to more than one year’s growth in a school year, the district raises its per-session pay to $27.50. As student growth increases, pay can rise further.

But if a student loses ground, the vendor loses money. If a student who made gains regresses below the 49th percentile on the benchmark test, the per-session pay declines to $22.50. If the student regresses below the 40th percentile, per-session pay drops to $21.25.

Tracking each student’s progress is a laborious task that consumes much of High-Impact Tutoring Manager Carina Escajeda’s time toward the end of the school year. But it ensures that vendors make a real difference in student achievement.

Ector County’s providers are comfortable with baking incentives and penalties into their contracts. “We believe in what we do at Air Tutors,” says Hasan Ali, the company’s founder and CEO. “We don’t mind putting our money where our mouth is because we are confident with our results.”  

They have been impressive: 50% of Ector County students who scored below grade level on the previous year’s state assessment and received at least 20 hours of tutoring scored at grade level or higher after one year. And about 30% of students tutored in math scored in the 66th percentile or higher on the standardized Northwest Education Association’s MAP exam after one year, reflecting more growth than would be expected in a school year.  

“When we think about the public, this shows that we’re being responsible with funding, that we’re tying it to student outcomes and our district’s strategic plan,” says Walker.

School districts have been slow to embrace contracts that tie pay to performance, in part because contracting officers typically aren’t trained in how to develop them. But as local education leaders work to sustain tutoring and other promising post-COVID programs as federal funding for the work winds down, outcomes-based contracting can help ensure they get the best return on their investment and help build a culture of performance in public education.

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