Making cash, not the grade
Memphis Teacher Comment: I'm glad to see this, at the very least, although the problem with the tutoring companies in general goes beyond advertising.
My principal pushed hard for existing teacher to take the tutoring positions, and those tutoring positions paid significantly more on a per-hour basis than the salary these teachers made during the rest of the day--for what was essentially reading a script and having the kids do worksheets.
By Ruma Banerji Kumar
"It's dangerous ground for any company to not operate properly. The role of the state is the key role here. States should be following and ensuring proper ethics and standards and business practice."
-- Henry Johnson, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education.
The brick home, with pale frilly curtains framing a large front window, doesn't look like a company headquarters.
But the modest 3-bedroom, 2-bath home on Nunnelee Avenue in North Memphis is the nerve center of a thriving tutoring company that served 507 children in 16 Memphis schools and earned nearly $790,000 from the school district last year.
Across the nation, companies like Innovative Ideas have joined a $2.3 billion industry that the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has helped fuel.
The law offers parents at "failing" schools the option to transfer to a new school or receive tutoring from private companies (referred to in the law as "supplemental service providers") paid for with federal money. Before NCLB, schools weren't required to pay for outside tutoring.
Over the past four years, large multimillion-dollar corporations alongside small, home-based businesses like Innovative Ideas have carved niches in school systems flush with millions in federal funds to help poor students. For their work, the companies receive anywhere from $1,300 to $1,800 per child depending on the size of the school district.
But around the country, investigations have uncovered serious flaws in the oversight of the companies.
In Tennessee, the investigation into Innovative Ideas Inc. and other tutorial companies revealed the companies repeatedly violated NCLB regulations over the past three years. Weak accountability at the state level, confusion at the district level and vague guidance in the federal law allowed the practices to continue until October 2005.
"It's dangerous ground for any company to not operate properly," said Henry Johnson, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education for the U.S. Department of Education. "The role of the state is the key role here. States should be following and ensuring proper ethics and standards and business practice."
That hasn't happened.
Tennessee is only now developing a way to monitor these companies and set up a formal process for districts to report complaints, said Sandra Gray, director of charter schools and choice with the state education department.
"It's not enough for us to hear it through the grapevine anymore," she said.
In her investigation, Gray found that companies walked into at least four Memphis schools during classes, pep rallies and registration days to market themselves to students and parents.
At pep rallies in the fall of 2004, Innovative Ideas told parents that in just 15 weeks -- that's two days a week for two hours a day -- they would see a jump in their children's test performance.
At Hamilton High School in South Memphis, an Innovative Ideas employee interrupted language arts classes to get students to sign up for tutoring with the company. The state investigation said the company was clearly violating NCLB, which requires "informed" parent choice and asks parents -- not students -- to sign up for outside tutoring.
Innovative Ideas hired teachers as tutors, which is allowed under NCLB. But the teachers became advertisers, the Tennessee investigation found, touting the company's success in faculty meetings and classrooms despite limited proof of student performance gains. NCLB expressly prohibits schools from promoting one company over another. The law requires that schools and their staff provide families with information on all companies, not a select few.
In another Memphis school, teachers were invited to a light brunch and then given 75 to 100 fliers from another tutoring company, If I Had a Hammer Inc., to distribute to parents and students, which they did.
Eager to market their program, Innovative Ideas used photos of students at Airways Middle School in their marketing brochures. NCLB prohibits companies from revealing the identity of students they serve without parental permission.
The company used basketball camps led by former local college basketball stars Eric Robinson and Rodney Newsom to spark students' interests in their tutoring program. The company also had cheerleading camps.
"Students get very excited about sports. We told them they could be in our camps, but only if they came to us for tutoring," said Innovative Ideas owner Charlotte Patterson.
The state let Innovative Ideas off the hook with a warning because there was no suspension process in place at the time. But Patterson said the investigation has had a chilling effect on her sales. The Memphis school district has grown more vigilant about keeping companies out of schools and their events.
"Parents are blindly choosing a provider. It's a dumb way to do things," Patterson said. "If you get a list with 34 companies, then you're just going to choose a name. If we can't stand up in front of classes, how are they going to know about us and what we have to offer?"
Patterson and her staff haven't let the investigation stop them. Barred from going into schools, they settle for passing out fliers across the street from schools instead, marketing their company as "a new idea on the horizon."
But whether that "new idea" works as Patterson promises is in question.
In her application to the state, Patterson presented graphs and numbers showing she had raised test scores for students who had gone through her summer program at LeMoyne-Owen college. She described how her program uses a mix of books, pencil and paper, board games and computer programs to prepare students for everything from elementary school reading to high school trigonometry.
But when the state evaluated the Innovative Ideas curriculum in April 2004, one of the three reviewers, Ron Davis, cited the company for having "limited evidence" to prove a "positive impact on student performance." Another reviewer, Deborah Williams, said the company had limited evidence showing that the math curriculum the company used was in line with what the school system was using.
Despite those concerns, the company was approved as a supplemental education services (SES) provider under NCLB.
In school systems across the state, there's also been little effort to research the companies' effectiveness in raising student performance as they claim, prompting criticism from the head of the education software industry's professional organization.
"I'm beyond giving states a pass. They've had four years to figure it out," said Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association, a trade group that oversees education software and tutorial companies. "They ought to set high standards for how providers are approved. I think most states don't know how to set those high standards."
The Tennessee department of education is working with University of Memphis researchers on a long-range study to determine whether the companies have had the impact they claim on student performance.
Others say the NCLB law itself is to blame and that the tutoring company language in NCLB was the administration's way of forcing private interests into public schools.
"The SES language was added as a way for private companies to have a role in public education," said Andrew Rudalevige, an author and Dickinson College professor who has studied the history of NCLB.
The law's language was vague to begin with, experts have said, to allow companies wider latitude to operate within public schools.
Until June, the law didn't provide specific guidance on how the companies could market their programs. Now it does.
Ruma Banerji Kumar
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES