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NCLB Outrages

No Early Dismissals for Underperforming CPS Tutors

Ohanian Comment: In Illinois, 64 private firms are approved to work in NCLB tutoring. So there has to be another whole bureaucracy (expense) set up to monitor these firms. Is this expense figured in by those saying schools have plenty of money to implement NCLB?

Come fall, all 28 private firms that provide after-school tutoring for 41,000 Chicago public school children are expected to be invited back, even if they've had poor results this year.

That's because the decision to renew the firms, which will earn up to $50 million this year, is governed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and isn't up to CPS.

"This is the ongoing tension in the program," said Beth Swanson, CPS' director of after-school programs. "The entity [CPS] that may have the most information on [tutoring firms] doesn't necessarily have the authority to react to that information. That puts us all in a bind."

Under the federal law, firms have two years to raise student achievement. If the firms fail, the state is supposed to fire the firms, the feds say. The law mandates tutoring at failing schools.

Most firms have tutored in Chicago just one year. A few are in their second year but couldn't collect evidence of progress during a chaotic start-up year.

No-shows, crowded classes

Complaints came in this year about tutors failing to show up and higher-than-promised student-to-tutor ratios for a few firms. In March, CPS removed one firm, Platform Learning, from seven of its 76 schools.

CPS intends to list all 28 firms this fall, and it won't keep quiet about how they performed. Parents will be told how each one fared on a review of student test scores and on a parent and student satisfaction survey.

It's a move that raises a red flag for the feds, just the latest potential dust-up between the feds and Chicago over the No Child Left Behind Act. This winter, the feds told CPS to discontinue its in-house tutoring program, which also works with 41,000 kids.

Since U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings took over in January, her agency has signaled a new flexibility regarding the law's implementation, but some conflicts between Washington and local districts appear inevitable.

"We want parents to have as much information as possible about providers, but knowing that school districts aren't always neutral, we always have a concern," Michael Petrilli, a U.S. Education Department official, said about CPS' plan to publicize its evaluations of each firm. "The states can certainly . . . ask [school districts] for help, and that's appropriate, but we get back to the fox guarding the hen house problem."

Tutors skeptical of CPS reviews

Petrilli said the law calls on states to choose, monitor and evaluate the tutoring firms. School districts can enforce a contract with a firm, but the state should call the shots overall, he said.

Several firms said they welcomed a review but said choosing fair evaluation criterion is crucial.

"If the data shows some firms aren't helping kids, I would agree with CPS that they shouldn't be on the list," said Tom Koleno of Knowledge Points. "But I would be interested in seeing the methodology behind CPS' survey and testing because, based on a lot of other things [with CPS], I'm automatically skeptical."

Because of such concerns, the feds want states to beef up monitoring of tutoring firms. The Illinois Board of Education is working on an accountability system and wants a code of ethics, which would likely ban firms from providing sign-up incentives, said Eamon Kelly, the board's interim chief of staff. The agency plans to strengthen day-to-day monitoring of firms, a system Kelly said would rely on information from school districts, particularly before two years have passed.

But CPS officials worry the state board can't effectively monitor the 64 private firms approved to work in Illinois. The state board has one staffer working in this area, though several are working to develop the new monitoring system.

— Kate N. Grossman
Chicago Tribune


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