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State Spends Millions on Tutors

Ohanian Comment:
With all the hoopla of highly qualified teachers and school reconstitution, it seems worse that cynical for the state to ignore the quality of mandated tutoring. This neglect seems to be further evidence that this whole scheme has bbeen about convincing the public that schools are lousy, NOT about improving education for students.

By Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan

Massachusetts school systems have spent millions of dollars since 2002 to pay tutors to raise the MCAS scores of thousands of needy children.

But three years later, no one knows whether the tutoring is having any effect. And the amount of money flowing to the tutoring industry is expected to swell in the years ahead.

The state education department, which oversees the tutoring program, has the power to remove companies from a list of approved providers if students don't improve, but it never has. Massachusetts also doesn't have a way to independently review results and relies on surveys filled out by tutoring providers and schools to judge companies.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools that score poorly and don't improve for three years must offer to pay for tutoring for low-income students.

The state has not tracked how much money has been spent on tutoring in the three years since the law went into effect, but the Massachusetts Department of Education estimates that the amount could be as much as $21.2 million. The Globe surveyed 14 school districts statewide that were tutoring the bulk of the students, and their figures show that at least $13.4 million has been spent since 2002.

Last school year, about 70 percent of the money went to private tutoring firms, which aggressively market their services to parents, and the balance went to school systems, including Boston, that offer their own tutoring. Depending on the provider, students are tutored between four and 40 hours a month, at a cost ranging from $6 to $60 an hour.

In interviews with the Globe, state officials, school administrators, and tutoring company representatives acknowledge that there is no tracking of individual students' performance on the MCAS.

''The key question is, 'Are our kids getting the bang for the buck?' " said William J. Slotnik, executive director of the Community Training and Assistance Center of Boston, which works nationally on education issues. ''I don't think we know . . . It's a national scandal."

The No Child Left Behind Act gave responsibility for monitoring tutoring providers' quality and effectiveness to the states. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who supported the law, said he has heard so many complaints about the quality of tutoring nationwide that he has asked the Government Accountability Office to review the performance of tutoring providers.

''We should do all we can to ensure that those services truly help children catch up in school," Kennedy said in an e-mail statement in response to questions from the Globe.

The 26 private tutoring providers operating in Massachusetts are a diverse group. One is faith-based, another offers tutoring online, while a third alternates writing exercises with basketball drills to motivate students.

Last year, 3,100 students in Massachusetts, most of them in Boston, signed up for tutoring. This school year, 64 districts, more than triple the number from last year, must offer tutoring.

Juliane Dow, an associate state education commissioner, said the state cannot determine whether tutoring is having an impact, but it is building a database that would track tutored students' MCAS scores and expects to finish it in about two years, she said. Each year, the state asks providers and school systems to complete surveys about parent satisfaction, student performance, and the content of the tutoring program.

Students take MCAS exams in grades 3-8 and 10; until this year the subjects tested varied by grade level. Starting next spring, students will take both English and math in each of those grades.

Without a single standard to follow, tutoring providers devise widely varying systems to evaluate students' progress. Some use grades, while others use their own tests or nationally standardized tests. Each defines what constitutes progress.

Companies would welcome being reviewed by the state under uniform performance standards, said Steve Pines, executive director of the Education Industry Association, a trade organization of education companies.

''Until the states start doing the evaluation, we can just speculate," Pines said. ''It's frustrating and now it's year four and we still don't have any data. Shame on the states for dragging their heels in coming up with an evaluation system."

Boston school officials express frustration with the current system.

The Boston Learning Center, one of the tutoring providers used in Boston, claims a history of ''transforming failure into Honor Roll success" on its website. But Maureen Harris, assistant director of curriculum in Boston Public Schools, was skeptical and examined report cards of a handful of the tutored students.

''I saw no real evidence of a dramatic shift," Harris said. ''I saw a lot of F's to D's to F's, D's, D's, D's."

Ayele Shakur, executive director of the Boston Learning Center, said that last school year, about 20 percent of the 168 Boston students sent there for tutoring made the honor roll at least once during the school year. Honor roll students typically have all A's and B's. But, Shakur acknowledged, about a quarter of the new honor roll students already had good grades before tutoring. Priority for tutoring goes to failing students, but if there are enough spots, needy students with higher grades can get help, too.

The tutoring mandate also frustrates school district administrators, who are accustomed to largely controlling how they spend the districts' money. In an echo of the fight over charter schools, some school officials resent the involvement of private tutoring firms, saying that the tutoring program forces them to shift money from public schools to the burgeoning private education industry.

To hire tutors, school systems use federal money they receive for needy children. The spending on tutoring has reduced the money available for other programs, including teacher training and textbooks, school officials say.

The creation of the tutoring program was the result of a political compromise. Faith-based groups, politicians, and others wanted Congress to approve the use of private-school tuition vouchers for parents of children from failing schools. Democrats, including Kennedy, oppose private-school vouchers and proposed the tutoring provision as an alternative.

The federal government has agreed to let some low-performing school systems provide their own tutoring. Boston school officials this month struck a deal with the federal government allowing the school system to continue providing tutoring, even though the school system did not meet state targets for improving test scores during the past two years.

In return, Boston has agreed to an independent review of the city's private and public tutoring programs to see if they work.

To evaluate its own program, Boston gave students a nationally standardized test before and after tutoring. Based on 1,300 students, two-thirds of those tutored last school year, school district officials say pupils improved their math and reading skills, but the amount of improvement varied by subject and grade level.

Boston Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant said the results were encouraging but did not guarantee that tutoring, instead of classroom teaching, made the difference.

As the debate rages on, so does the recruiting for students. One night this month, The Princeton Review pitched its program to about two dozen parents over free pizza and urged them to sign tutoring contracts. A company recruiter emphasized that the goal is to improve students' academic skills, not to drill them to pass the MCAS.

Many parents whose children have been tutored say they're grateful for the free help, even though some children still failed the MCAS after tutoring.

Joanna Sunn, of North Adams, said her son Robert did better in school after a tutor from the Tampa-based Club Z! In-Home Tutoring Services came to their home one night a week last year. Robert failed the MCAS reading test in third grade. At the kitchen table, the tutor helped Robert with writing, reading, and math. Robert's marks in fourth grade improved from a D to a C-plus in writing and a C-minus to a C-plus in math.

But Robert failed both the English and math MCAS exams in fourth grade.

''I'm not a big believer in the MCAS," said Sunn, who signed her son up for tutoring again this year. ''Just by looking at his report card I was very impressed."

— Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan
Boston Globe


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