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NCLB Outrages

Feds invest $9.5M in tech-based tutoring services

Ohanian Comment: Eating at the taxpayer trough. Don't you sort of wonder why the "nation's leading prover of educational services to public, private and religious schools" needs taxpayer dollars "to modify its existing suite of tutoring services?" Here is how Catapult Learning describes itself:

Catapult Learning is the nation’s leading provider of educational services to public, private and religious schools. While our sister companies, Sylvan Learning Center and Hooked on Phonics, provide consumer-pay, retail educational products and services, Catapult Learning partners with educational institutions and community organizations to provide publicly funded services that are designed to improve academic achievement for struggling students. For more than 20 years, the Educate, Inc. family of companies has delivered the highest quality in educational services, generating an unparalleled track record of results and improving the grades and confidence of millions of students across the country. . . .

Every Catapult Learning program is research-based and utilizes proven best practices in education to generate measurable academic gains, boost student grades and inspire confidence. . . .

Here's a tidbit from Education Next, April 2004:

At the beginning of the 2003–04 school year, Catapult Learning was approved in 31 states. During the year, the firm served 25,000 students through the supplemental services program, up from 6,000 students the previous year. Catapult charges anywhere between $40 and $80 an hour. In the coming years, Cohen says his supplemental services enrollment will be in the “tens of thousands”; down the line, it could double his pre–supplemental services enrollment of 70,000 students. So far, though, Catapult remains in investment mode. “The first year, the program certainly wasn’t profitable,” Cohen says. His strategy is to ensure that Catapult is operating in as many locations as possible so that it is poised to take advantage of new business as parental demand picks up.

By Corey Murray

In an effort to strengthen the federal government's after-school tutoring program, known as Supplemental Educational Services, or SES, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) plans to invest $9.5 million in a new test project that will explore the use of mobile devices such as cell phones and other technologies in delivering targeted remediation to struggling students.

Supporters of the project, made possible through a federal Star Schools grant, contend more innovation is necessary to extend the benefits of tutoring services to students in traditionally underserved areas, especially in rural communities, where access to SES--created to help states meet the demands of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)--has reportedly been spotty.

"Too many low-income students across the country who are eligible for free tutoring under NCLB are not receiving these services because they are hard to reach," said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Baltimore-based Catapult Learning LLC, whose company received the grant for a partnership it has with the Kentucky Educator Network and 13 other school districts in Georgia, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania.

"The challenge is that many children either live in areas where access to these programs is hard to achieve in schools or in circumstances where they would have a very hard time accessing these services from their homes," explained Cohen. "We believe that all students, no matter where they are, should have access [to tutoring services]."

At its core, he said, the five-year grant project will enable Catapult to modify its existing suite of tutoring services, exploring ways in which technology can serve as an equalizer for certain geographic limitations. Currently, the company has two flagship offerings: Catapult Online, a fully web-based program that connects students live across the internet with certified instructors; and Education Station, a site-based program that focuses on small group learning in school buildings. Ultimately, Cohen said, the goal is to work with schools to build on these two core offerings, finding new ways to extend access to proven SES curricula to more students, parents, and even teachers.

"We want to create an environment that will allow us to overcome the geographic divide," he said. "This is about how we can use new and emerging technologies to make these types of services more accessible--to take the delivery of SES one step further."

Early ideas under consideration include integrating cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptop computers, and other mobile devices into the delivery of approved tutoring programs.

Though it's unlikely mobile technologies such as cell phones and PDAs would serve as replacements for online or face-to-face tutoring, Cohen said, the devices could be used to supplement existing programs, providing a means for parents to receive updates on their child's progress via cell phone, for example, and giving students yet another means of receiving additional remediation and support, whether it's reviewing for a test or just brushing up on their skills.

"And it doesn't have to stop with students and parents," he said. Classroom teachers also might find some uses for the system. By keeping track of what their students are doing in the supplemental program, Cohen said, educators eventually might be able to build a bridge between after-school SES programs and their efforts in the classroom.

"One of the most difficult things to do is to connect what is going on in SES back to what the teacher is trying to do in the classroom ... in a way that benefits the teacher," he said. "Something that tells the teachers, 'This is what a student is working on,' this is where they need help."

The project will aim to create new SES materials in reading and math, adapt existing SES materials for delivery by mobile technologies, and develop an online assessment system to help gauge student performance in SES programs.

The grant also provides funding for a study, conducted by an independent research and evaluation firm, to assess the effectiveness of various pedagogical approaches in boosting the achievement of SES students.

As new SES materials are piloted and found to be effective, Catapult says it plans to deploy the innovations in participating school districts nationwide. Currently, Cohen said, his company's tutoring services reach more than 30,000 students across 20 states.

Though the program is still in the early stages, Doug Garman, superintendent of the Wood County Educational Service Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, says he's eager to see what opportunities these innovations might hold for students under his supervision.

A lot of students, according to Garman, have the ability to improve. The real problem, especially in rural areas, is that they just don't have the access.

But with new innovations, "families now have access to what their children are doing," he said. When you get that kind of involvement from the community, the excitement it generates around learning "is contagious," he added. "The students who go through the process get excited about it."

Garman said he expects the five-year pilot to reach about 500 students in the service center's jurisdiction, which covers a rural swath of nine school districts in the region. Though he isn't sure yet what types of applications will evolve from the pilot, Garman says he's willing to try anything that might "empower students," and especially those who for years have been at a disadvantage compared with their counterparts in more affluent districts.

Technology can help open doors previously closed to students in remote communities, he said, whether it be a simple matter of geography, the price of transportation, or the effectiveness of the actual remediation.

"One of the really nice outcomes so far has been the excitement of students and families," said Garman, who added, "There is a real excitement on the part of administrators, too." To achieve the grant objectives, Catapult will spend at least $14.7 million, $9.46 million of which will be reimbursed by ED as part of the grant. The grant is funded through Sept. 30, 2010.

— Corey Murray
eSchool News


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