Tutor firms not vetted for public school deals
Read this and realize that NCLB tutoring is currently a fraud and potentially a disaster waiting to happen.
By Bridget Gutierrez
Millions of tax dollars are flowing to private tutoring companies —- including the high-profile Sylvan Learning Centers and less well-known mom-and-pop shops —- that are supposed to help lift test scores of struggling public school students.
But after one Stone Mountain provider recently was found to be faking test scores and student evaluations, then billing for tutoring that never took place, state Department of Education officials admitted they don't conduct background checks or interviews with company officials who are trying to win the potentially lucrative contracts.
"I knew there was an application process, but I was not aware there was not a background check," State Board of Education Chairwoman Wanda Barrs said. "I think that's something we need to look at in terms of our processes."
Some private tutoring businesses have flourished in recent years, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that certain public schools with low test scores pay for private tutorials —- an effort to give struggling students extra help while the schools worked to improve.
Here in Georgia, those companies earned a collective $7.5 million last school year for prepping reading, math and English skills of nearly 10,000 pupils. But those tutors haven't always proved to be doing the job for which they were hired.
This week, state education officials banned the private tutoring service Get Smart Inc. from continuing to work in the public school tutoring market for three years, after investigators found some students at Forest Park Middle School in Clayton County were being paid $5 each to forge parent signatures for lessons that never took place.
It was the sixth time since the program's inception that a tutoring service was barred from working with students. Others have been kicked out for violating student confidentiality and failing to provide adult supervision for pupils, among other reasons.
Get Smart, which had contracts with some of the largest school systems in the state —- including Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb counties —- was forced to shut down those operations immediately, sending hundreds of families scrambling to find new tutors in the middle of the school year.
Diane Troutman, whose daughter Jasmine was seeing a Get Smart tutor twice a week after classes at Lithonia's Miller Grove High School, said she was shocked by the news about a company she had been using since her daughter was in middle school.
"It's like: 'Is this really happening?' " Troutman said.
Get Smart's problems in Clayton came to light after school system officials received a tip from a parent. By the time the fraud was uncovered and the program was shuttered in November, Clayton County officials already had paid the company more than $18,000.
Last school year, Clayton spent upwards of $1.2 million for private tutoring for about 1,000 pupils. This year, the school system is working with 18 of the state's 133 preapproved tutoring companies.
Sharon D. Brown, Clayton's executive director of federal programs, said her school system tries to monitor the programs as diligently as possible. But she said she expected the state to admit only reputable companies to its list of providers and was surprised to learn that company officials aren't given criminal background checks before they're placed on that list.
"I thought . . . the process of approving the provider, that it was something quite in-depth," she said.
Under No Child Left Behind, the so-called "Supplemental Educational Services" program allows pupils at poorly rated campuses to get free, private tutoring in subjects such as reading and math. But, to get the free tutoring, parents may only use companies approved by the state.
Every year since the program began in 2002, Georgia officials have allowed companies to apply to be on the list of approved tutors. Companies must submit a detailed proposal explaining their teaching methods and demonstrate that their academic programs are based on proven strategies. They provide written references and financial information, including a business license and proof of insurance.
But company officers are not given a criminal background check or interviewed by state officials before being added to the state-approved list.
Clara J. Keith, the state department administrator who oversees the tutoring program, said although there are no background checks for applicants, her staff thoroughly investigates their business histories and requires some mandatory training before the companies may begin working with students. All of a company's staff members who work directly with children —- including tutors and bus drivers —- must have criminal background checks, she said, and the tutoring sites are visited annually.
Keith said she has confidence in the state's application process, which has been improved every year. "If the application doesn't meet our standards, then we don't make a recommendation for approval," she said.
Get Smart's president, Suzette Daniel, a former DeKalb County teacher and administrator, has blamed her company's problems on an unethical employee who, she said, was acting without her knowledge. But Daniel also said the state's process for vetting and monitoring companies, while improving, has been lax.
She said, for example, no one at the state department ever asked for copies of her employees' background checks, and she only realized recently the company had been operating without having them all done.
"We don't turn them in to anybody. But we keep them in our office, and when the state comes to monitor, they check the file," she said. "But when the state comes to monitor, many months have gone by."
Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, said he's not surprised about the lack of oversight in the tutoring programs. He said surveys have shown state departments of education don't have the manpower to manage all the contracts.
Since private tutoring companies first started being used to assist struggling public school students, six companies have been removed from a preapproved list of providers for violating state policies.
COMPANY: CyberStudy 101.com
REMOVAL DATE: August 2004
VIOLATION: Disregarded confidentiality by requesting students' Social Security checks on employees.
COMPANY: Alpha Academy Tutorial Center
REMOVAL DATE: August 2005
VIOLATION: Did not properly supervise children or conduct all criminal background numbers and dates of birth.
COMPANY: Accuratics Algebra
REMOVAL DATE: March 2006
VIOLATION: Received a performance rating of 2 out of a possible 46 points and failed to conduct background checks on all employees.
COMPANY: Early County Schools
REMOVAL DATE: April 2006
VIOLATION: School system was providing an after-school program, but not the expected tutoring.
COMPANY: Champions Tutoring Services
REMOVAL DATE: December 2006
VIOLATION: Did not attend state-required training.
COMPANY: Get Smart
REMOVAL DATE: Jan. 11
VIOLATION: Students were paid to forge their parents' signatures on tutoring applications and attendance sheets. Tutors made fake test scores and tutoring evaluations. Company billed for tutoring that never took place.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES