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Tutors: Are they worth the cost?

By Kim L. Hooper

Indiana schools have spent millions since 2003 on private tutoring to raise the test scores of struggling students, yet no one can tell whether all the extra lessons are making a difference.
State officials have taken some steps to rein in the programs, which have operated with little oversight. The state recently cited one tutoring service for failing to follow the rules, apparently inflating its enrollment.

The programs, which have grown in response to federal rules designed to help low-performing students, are so lucrative for tutoring groups that some in Indianapolis offered $100 gift cards for perfect attendance to help recruit students. State officials had to set a limit to keep the incentives from spiraling upward.

Last year, Indianapolis Public Schools paid the companies as much as $1,440 per child, and two firms this year have contracts that could top $1 million if enough children sign up.

Education leaders admit they struggle to monitor the tutoring groups. But parents find the promise of free lessons for their children a powerful draw.

"I was trying to save some money to take her to Sylvan Learning Center, which cost, like, $1,500," said Terrian Whitfield. Her daughter, Tiffanie, 14, has struggled to master math at Marshall Middle School in Indianapolis. "I'm glad someone is thinking about us less fortunate people."

This school year, IPS has agreed to pay up to $11.5 million to 24 contractors for tutoring. That's up from $1.3 million to five groups in 2003. In Gary, the figure this year is $1.6 million. The money goes to private firms and nonprofits with programs ranging from after-school sessions to online lessons at home.

Tutoring is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to narrow the gap in how much is learned between more affluent, mostly white students and their low-income peers, who are disproportionately minorities. The tutoring must be offered for free to students in struggling schools, but students are not required to attend.

Most schools end up using federal money to pay for the tutoring instead of using it in other areas permitted under federal rules.
On the state and national levels, no one tracks school spending on the tutoring industry, which analysts predict could become a $2 billion-a-year venture.

More than 1,500 students in 10 IPS elementary and middle schools are eligible for the service this year. How many will sign up is unclear -- in part because many programs start lessons in January. Last year, about 75 percent of those eligible enrolled.

Despite the money and the students in need, no uniform way exists to measure how well tutoring programs work. Programs must be certified by the state, but there are few requirements to meet -- for example, instructors do not need to be licensed teachers.

"There's no way to prove the effectiveness of the tutoring because you can't tie the results to anything tangible," said Patty Sullivan, director of The Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., research group. Her group released a national study on No Child Left Behind, including tutoring, this year. "Neither states (nor) local school districts have the resources and manpower to monitor this effectively."

Freewheeling market
In Indiana, the number of private and public tutoring companies approved for operation has grown from 43 three years ago to 54 today. The number of firms is increasing even though student interest and participation have been slow to take off.

Last school year, 2,756 -- 15 percent -- of 18,016 students eligible took advantage of the free tutoring offered in mostly urban districts statewide. And the number seeking tutoring this year fell off 973 from the 2003-04 school year, according to data kept by the Indiana Department of Education.

The result: intense competition to find and enroll students for tutoring. For every student on the books, a program stands to bring in from $18 to $75 an hour.

Some nonprofit groups say they are being outmarketed by their for-profit rivals, and at least one firm has filed a formal complaint about the competitive practices of another. School principals have complained about incentives dangled before parents and children that range from free computers and Playstations to gift certificates.

Such practices are legal, but they raise ethical concerns, particularly among educators -- and even among those in the tutoring industry.

"It's a good idea to bring parents options and choices. But that does not mean that we should have a free-for-all," said Kevin Teasley, president of the nonprofit Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, a state-approved tutor group.

Last year, the foundation offered no rewards for enrolling in its nine-week sessions and wound up tutoring "very few kids," Teasley said. The numbers aren't much better this year: So far, just one student has signed up.

The Education Industry Association, a broad group of 600 education companies that include test prep companies and publishers, drafted a code of ethics this year that it has urged tutoring firms to adopt. Among other things, the code advises against offering students any incentives for signing up.

Indiana education officials also bar firms from using inducements to enroll students but allow rewards for attendance and academic progress once the tutoring sessions are complete.
IPS is so worried about getting caught in the middle of the competition for students that school principals are banned from trying to coordinate or collaborate with tutors out of fear that might be seen as favoritism.
To level the playing field, IPS and Perry Township Schools in Marion County -- the only districts in the metropolitan area required to offer tutoring -- have organized school fairs to give the providers a chance to market their programs to parents.

Yellow flag
Last month, state education officials for the first time placed one tutoring firm -- Indianapolis-based Gideon's Gate -- on probation for failing to follow the rules. The state found that criminal background checks were not completed on all employees, attendance records had been altered before being submitted to IPS for billing, and the program did not let school leaders know where tutoring sites were located. The faith-based firm still can provide tutoring but must submit a plan for fixing its troubles to state officials by today and agree to other terms.

IPS officials had complained about the company after making several site visits and reviewing attendance sheets that had adult signatures where children should have signed.

Newton Learning is among eight groups approved by IPS to tutor up to 650 students at Marshall Middle School. Another is the Boys & Girls Clubs of Indianapolis, which has a contract worth up to $900,000 for lessons to as many as 600 IPS students this year. The actual amount paid will be determined by the number of students attending lessons.

Marshall Principal Jamyce Banks appreciates the work of tutors from the nonprofit group. But she questions the approach Newton Learning has taken. The IPS School Board granted Newton a $525,000 contract for as many as 350 students this school year.

Newton tutoring sessions were supposed to start Nov. 28, the day dozens of students stayed after school to start the program. No tutors showed up, though, and Banks later learned the firm had pushed back the start date to January.
Banks said Newton signed up the students it has by promising $100 gift cards. Newton said the money was an incentive for students to attend every session, not just for signing up. Children would need to attend every lesson to receive the gift card -- they have been paid nothing in advance.

In the past, Newton and other tutoring groups did hand out gifts for signing up. This year, Newton changed -- and the state put a $100 cap on the value of incentives.

"We're competing with Xbox and TV and all of the other things they can be doing besides being tutored," said Joel Rose, general manager of Newton Learning, the tutoring division of Edison Schools. "If they don't come, they don't learn."

— Kim Hooper
Indianapolis Star


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