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Effectiveness of required tutor programs not yet clear

One in three eligible Minnesota students has taken advantage of free, after-school tutoring programs this year. The federal education law known as No Child Left Behind requires struggling schools to provide tutors for disadvantaged students. Despite low participation, more than two dozen schools in the state will still spend several million dollars for tutors this year. And some educators and lawmakers are wondering if they're getting their money's worth.

St. Paul, Minn. Teacher Jen Rossum knows the benefit of extra learning time. Her seven first-grade students sit and squirm on the classroom floor at Highwood Hills Elementary School in St. Paul. Rossum gives them lots of personal attention during this after-school tutoring session. She's seen big improvement in her students' reading skills.

"I mean I've seen definite growth in them, but I only get to see them for a few hours a week," Rossum said. "I've been in contact with some of their classroom teachers, and I do try to really base my activities on what they're doing in the classroom and just really reinforce everything they're getting during the regular school day."

Highwood Hills is a small school in the southeastern corner of St. Paul. About two-thirds of the students are below the poverty threshold that makes them eligible for tutoring under No Child Left Behind. Fifty students enrolled in the district-run tutoring program called "After the Bell Rings." They meet twice a week for two hours. There's a classroom for each grade level.

Fifth-grader Shawonte Lewis took a break from writing poetry. He said the tutoring sessions have made him be a better student.

"I know more stuff than I did before I started the after school program," Lewis said. "I know most of the questions my teacher asks me. I know right off the bat, because my after school teachers teaches us a lot of stuff that my regular teacher asks us in our homeroom."

Six schools in St. Paul are required to offer supplemental educational services after missing testing goals for three consecutive years. Schools in Columbia Heights, Minneapolis and Red Lake face the same edict. St. Paul will spend more than $800,000 this year from its federal Title I money to provide tutors for about 500 students. That's about a third of the district's eligible students.

Gene Janicke, director of St. Paul's alternative learning programs, said most families picked the district's tutoring classes over other options.

"Parents do not have to come and pick up their student, take them some place, drop them off, then go pick them up again as they would with the other provider situations," Janicke said. "The kids are getting the services right at the school building. And because we already have some after school programming that has busing, the kids can access those bus rides home."

It's a similar story in Minneapolis. More than 1,400 students enrolled this year in Education Station, a program operated as a partnership between the school district and Catapult Learning. The company formerly known as Sylvan Education Solutions provides supplemental services in 17 Minneapolis schools and more than 80 schools districts nationwide.
Larger view

The federal law has been a boon to the private-tutoring industry. Catapult's parent corporation, Educate Inc., saw a 24-percent growth in revenue last year. Jeffrey Cohen, president of Catapult Learning, said the company will remain in a growth mode for the foreseeable future.

"We certainly see ourselves growing around the country and also growing within the school districts we're working with," Cohen said. "We certainly hope that we have the opportunity in Minneapolis to serve more students next year than we did this year. And to us, that's how we really gauge our growth is how many students we have the opportunity and the privilege to teach."

Catapult has the biggest share of the No Child Left Behind tutoring business in Minnesota. In total, there are 43 state-approved tutoring programs. The list includes private companies, neighborhood groups and faith-based organizations. School districts that are meeting performance goals can also seek authorization to provide the service.

Morgan Brown, who oversees the selection process for the Minnesota Department of Education, says applicants must show that they know what they're doing.

"For the big folks who've been out there doing it for years, we say we want to see evidence from the program you're doing that you've been helping kids," Brown said. "For the newer providers, we give them the chance to say show us how this model that you've chosen that there's evidence -- because it's been used elsewhere, because of the evaluation of the model you've done and the kids you're going to serve -- that this model will be effective."

But in most cases the official scrutiny ends once tutors win state approval. A report last fall from the advocacy group ACORN, and the American Institute for Social Justice described the evaluation of companies receiving public dollars as virtually nonexistent. The nationwide report also said there is scant evidence that tutoring programs are increasing academic achievement. School district officials share those concerns.

"Right now, there isn't a heck of a lot of data out there to support the effectiveness of any particular intervention," said David Heistad, director of research, evaluation and assessment for Minneapolis public schools.

Heistad is planning a detailed study of students in several supplemental service programs. The district will spend about $3 million on tutors this year for 2,400 students. Heistad and others want to know if the investment is paying off.

"If we have a highly controlled study and it turns out that there's no difference between the reading growth for students in the program versus students who don't receive any supplemental service, that would be a cause for concern," Heistad said. "And we would be looking for other service providers that do have a track record of positive results."

State lawmakers also want evaluation and oversight. Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, is sponsoring legislation that would direct the Minnesota Department of Education to establish ongoing performance standards for all state-approved tutors.

"We've placed a lot of standards on schools today, very clear expectations about what their performance will be, specifically directing them to what they will teach, things like that," Davnie said. "It seems like we need to just have the same sort of accountability for supplemental service providers. With public funds should come public accountability."

Davnie says he also wants to know if improved test scores are the result after-school tutoring or other changes schools have made during the regular school day. He says both parts of the educational experience should be evaluated separately.

For now, school administrators like Gene Janicke in St. Paul aren't worrying about that level of analysis. They're focusing all their energy on raising test scores.

"We're doing the right work during the school day," Janicke said. "We're working very hard to make sure that the after school programs re-enforce and make the school day work more powerful. So the test scores are going up, and we're just glad about that. We'll let the statisticians worry about why."

Students throughout the state will take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments over the next three weeks. Those reading and math scores will determine which schools and school districts are meeting performance goals. The results could also direct more students into tutoring programs that are not yet held accountable for results.

— Tim Pugmire
Minnesota Public Radio


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