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State seeks to beef up monitoring of private tutors

Ohanian Comment: Here are two accounts of how the feds protect private interests. Get this: If a district doesn't like the way a private tutoring firm is doing work, the district has to get permission to terminate the tutors.

Two years after tutoring began, the state today is expected to unveil a plan to beef up monitoring of private tutors who work with 120,000 kids across Illinois under the federal No Child Left Behind law -- including new rules to prevent firms from milking the state for extra cash or bribing kids with toys or money to sign up with their companies.

The plan makes it easier to fire firms that are producing poor results, but companies that have worked a year or two already are getting a major pass.

Under No Child Left Behind, the state can only fire a firm if it has failed to raise student achievement for two years. Because the state's new system to evaluate firms will only start in the fall, companies in place now -- good and bad ones -- can continue for another two years.

'Current system isn't workable'

"We can't change the fact that this system wasn't in place. . . . By law, we can't use this system retroactively," said Jonathan Furr, general counsel for the state Board of Education.

Furr started with the state last fall after Gov. Blagojevich took over the state board and helped engineer the installation of a new interim superintendent.

Firms that fall short after one year, Furr noted, must create a plan for improvement.

"We feel our current system isn't workable -- we don't think any firms could be removed under that standard," Furr said.

The state board is expected to vote on Furr's plan next week.

Tutoring is required at schools that fail No Child testing standards. The 2002 mandate has spawned a new industry of private tutors.

The Chicago Public Schools, for example, is paying private firms up to $50 million this year to tutor about 41,000 kids.

The industry has grown up largely unregulated, and now the feds are pushing states to more actively monitor the firms. The Illinois state board has had the power to choose and fire firms, but it had a weak oversight structure, which frustrated Chicago officials.

CPS officials worked with the state on the new plan and say it's a major improvement.

"I think it's a good step in the right direction," said Beth Swanson, CPS' director of after-school programs.

The school district intends to publish test score results for students working with different firms and satisfaction survey results this summer to help parents choose firms for next year.

Lower costs seen

If adopted, the new rules would be among the country's most comprehensive, state officials say. Illinois studied other states while drafting its plan and consulted with districts and private firms.

Illinois wants to toughen application, renewal and annual reporting requirements, particularly around finances. Firms will have to lay out the actual costs to provide tutoring compared with what they take in as profit.

Firms charge up to about $2,000 a student for several months of tutoring, about five times what it costs CPS to tutor in-house. These high costs limit how many children can be tutored.

"We absolutely think this will drive down the costs," Furr said. "They'll have to justify what they're offering. If they're allocating a little to program costs and a lot to profit, they'll have to justify why they'll be selected."

State looks closely at tutoring
More attention paid to help providers who don't get results

By Diane Rado
Chicago Tribune

Under pressure from the federal government, Illinois officials are stepping up oversight of an after-school tutoring program that serves 120,000 disadvantaged children under No Child Left Behind reforms.

The proposed overhaul will include a more rigid selection process for tutoring firms, monitoring visits to tutoring sites, a tracking system to ensure students are progressing, and a grievance procedure to allow parents and others to report problems.

The changes, which will be voted on by the Illinois State Board of Education next week, come after a spate of controversies that led federal and state education officials to conclude that Illinois needs to more aggressively monitor the tutoring program.

"This is an area where we felt we needed to do a better job," said Jonathan Furr, general counsel at the State Board of Education.

Beth Swanson, head of after-school programs for Chicago public schools, said she welcomes the changes. Chicago has one of the largest tutoring programs in the nation, spending $50 million this school year and involving 80,000 children.

"We've asked, and the state agrees, that there needs to be more definition of roles. It's been very vague this year," Swanson said.

The after-school tutoring is a key provision of the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal law, which seeks to boost student achievement of children of all races and economic backgrounds.

States are responsible for selecting tutoring firms and monitoring whether they help students improve test scores. Currently, 75 tutoring providers have been approved to serve struggling students in Illinois. Those that fail to increase student performance for two years in a row are supposed to be taken off the list of providers.

Low-income children in schools that repeatedly fail to pass state testing standards are eligible for the after-school tutoring. This school year, 457 Illinois schools were required to provide tutoring, and about 120,000 children were served.

But state education officials acknowledge that the monitoring system in place isn't working. The state has been relying on a one-page form that asked a series of questions, including whether a district had terminated a contract with a tutoring provider because student achievement goals weren't met.

With a limited staff and lacking the necessary data system, the state was not tracking individual student progress in the tutoring programs.

The federal government has been communicating to Illinois and other states that state government should be taking a strong role in monitoring the tutoring programs, said Nina Rees, an assistant deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

The issue came to a head in Chicago this past March, when Chicago Public Schools expelled the New York-based Platform Learning tutoring firm from seven elementary schools, saying the company wasn't performing. Platform continues to provide tutoring in several dozen other schools.

The federal government said the state, not the district, should have handled the problem.

"The district took the lead on something the state was supposed to be taking the lead on," said Rees.

The controversy over the Platform issue followed an earlier controversy over Chicago providing its own tutoring services, rather than having outside providers do the work. Chicago was barred from using federal money for its program, because it is failing academically and federal rules bar low-performing districts from offering tutoring themselves.

Furr, the state board's general counsel, said that discussions with federal officials about Platform, the Chicago tutoring issue, and other issues, persuaded the department to devote more time, money and staff to overseeing the tutoring program.

Under the proposed overhaul, the department will get help from an outside organization to help monitor tutoring provider performance and evaluate applications that tutoring firms submit to be placed on the state-approved provider list.

The application process will be more stringent, including requiring resumes of tutoring staff that will oversee student instructional plans and requiring information about lawsuits or problems in other states.

The state board will begin tracking student progress through a new data system that will link student enrollment in tutoring programs and student scores on state tests. That tracking system is expected to be operating next school year.

The overhaul also will include a new grievance procedure to allow parents, students, teachers and providers to report problems directly to the state.

If a district wants to get rid of a tutoring firm, local officials will have to notify the state board of their intentions. The state will get information from both sides to determine if the contractor should in fact be terminated.

Tutoring providers will also have to submit financial information about the actual costs of providing services, so the state can ensure districts aren't being overcharged.

Gene Wade, chairman and CEO of Platform Learning Inc., said in a written statement:

"We are encouraged by the efforts that ISBE has taken to regulate supplemental educational services. Over the past year, we have been advocating for these kinds of standards in Illinois and around the country as they bring clarity to the roles and responsibilities of both school districts and [supplemental educational services] providers."




— Kate N. Grossman & Diane Rado
Chicago Sun-Times & Chicago Tribune


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