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NCLB Outrages

Tutors' work not getting checked: Districts pay for unmonitored help

by Angela Townsend

Millions of dollars are spent in Ohio every year to tutor students from the lowest-performing public schools.

How many millions and who's getting the most money is unclear, since the Ohio Department of Education just started tracking the spending.

Are parents getting any help to choose the most effective tutors? Not in most districts.

Are the tutors making a difference? No one knows because there's no uniform system to monitor the tutors and gauge student progress.

"When it comes to student progress, that's where the big stumbling block is," said Stephen Barr, associate superintendent for the Ohio Department of Education's Center for School Improvement.

The story is much the same in other states. A survey by the Center on Education Policy this year found 38 states unable to monitor the quality and effectiveness of tutors. Respondents, who were not named, blamed a lack of money and manpower.

Districts across the country have been required to offer the free outside tutoring since the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002. The tutoring is mandated once poor test scores put a school on a "needs improvement" list for two or more years.

In most cases, no one tracks whether student test scores are improving with the tutoring. And even if they are, there's no way to tell how much credit the tutor - as opposed to the regular classroom teacher - should get.

Currently, Ohio districts fill out and submit an online evaluation form for each tutor. They're rated on how well they comply with a dozen items in three categories, including student achievement.

But the districts calculate those ratings solely from information that the tutors supply. And the form leaves little room for more-detailed comments on the tutor's performance.

The state Education Department scores the forms but doesn't make the results public. Barr said the scores would not give a complete picture of how effective a tutor is. For example, a company with tutors across the state may score lower in one region than another because the staffs are different.

The department is considering how to improve the tutoring program and has explored options such as paring the size of the list and updating tutors' status every year instead of every two years, Barr said.

So, where does that leave parents?

Pretty much in the dark.

When picking a tutor, parents often don't have much to go on other than the providers' sales pitches, a list of questions that districts suggest they ask, word-of-mouth advice from other parents and data on the state's Web site - which give about as much detail as a name, rank and serial number.

That's frustrating for people like Tami Samuels. She was one of 20 or so parents who recently attended a meeting on the Bedford School District's tutoring program, which is being offered for the first time this year.

In addition to being offered brochures and pamphlets supplied by the tutors, parents also received a booklet with tutor-provided descriptions of services.

Samuels, who had been paying for private tutoring for her fourth-grade son, said she wished more tutors offered pre- and post-testing to show how much students improve.

"There are a few who are doing it, but not a lot," she said.

Even some tutors think the state should be doing more to gauge the effectiveness of services.

"Nowadays, everybody's a tutor," said Clayton Burroughs, a retired administrator in East Cleveland whose tutoring company, David's Challenge Inc., is on the state's approved list. "Who's out here checking on these folks to make sure they're servicing kids?"

Rose Marie Sedlak, another retired educator with a background as a reading specialist and in teacher training, tutored for the first time last year in Cleveland, Elyria, Lorain and Parma.

"I'd hear some of the providers say, 'There's all of this money there to be had,' " Sedlak said. "What are you looking at, all of the money or what is best for the children?"

Some individual districts have figured out a way to better assess the tutors they contract with.

The Akron district has set aside $750,000 in federal money to provide tutoring for up to 1,390 students this school year. Parents can choose from nearly 60 providers.

Spokeswoman Karen Ingraham said the Akron district:

Surveys teachers to determine how much the extra help has boosted grades.

Calls all parents to gauge their satisfaction.

Collects reports from providers that summarize student progress throughout the year.

Takes voluntary self-evaluations from providers.

Using that information, the district comes up with an effectiveness score for each tutor. A parent just has to call to find out the score.

Parents in Chicago can find two evaluations of tutors on the public school district's Web site.

The most recent report, issued in February, reviewed the test scores of more than 41,000 students who received free tutoring in the 2005-06 school year.

In measuring effectiveness using math and reading scores from the prior year, the 27-page report identifies the three providers (out of 42) that demonstrated the biggest academic improvements.

It also named two providers whose students fell behind the most.

In contrast, the Cleveland district - with more than 16,000 eligible children - does not provide parents with any evaluations. The district did hold two sessions in late August at which parents could meet the 87 tutoring providers and ask questions. Only 16 parents showed up.

The district is trying to clamp down on what it says are questionable practices by tutors in previous years, tweaking the contract to give tutors less "wiggle room," said Cindy Kline, Cleveland's deputy chief of state, federal and special-education programming.

Last year, for example, one tutor promised free computers to parents who signed up their children, but the hardware was never delivered. Others gave away bicycles as an incentive for parents to sign a contract.

Instead of signing up directly with the tutors, parents now have to mail their first and second choices to the district's No Child Left Behind office.

"The whole purpose of NCLB is to empower parents," said Juanita Holt, who oversees that office. "I don't want any undue pressure or influence put on the parents."

— Angela Townsend
Cleveland Plain Dealer


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