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An Experiment in Educational Capitalism

So far the law has forced only a few hundred districts to offer the sessions, but it will require thousands more to do so this fall.

Read clear to the end. The discipline problems faced by tutors is interesting, suggesting that being a teacher requires special skills.

CHICAGO, April 13 The competition between public schools and private enterprise that the Bush administration is encouraging heated up the other day, just outside Classroom 207 at Wentworth Elementary School here.

Over several months, a string of novice tutors from a private company offering federally financed after-school classes had tried and failed to control Room 207's dozen rambunctious students. A supervisor from the company was dispatched to troubleshoot. Effie McHenry, Wentworth's principal, was clucking her tongue in disapproval.

"I just don't think they're prepared to deal with challenging inner city children," Mrs. McHenry said of the company, talking past the supervisor to a visitor. "I think they expected to find children who'd just sit down and wait for them to expound. These kids aren't like that. They need challenging instruction."

The No Child Left Behind law has kicked off one of the nation's largest experiments in educational capitalism by inviting private companies and other groups to offer tutoring in failing public schools and financing the effort with federal money previously spent on the schools themselves. The aim is to help struggling children perform in their regular classrooms, while invigorating public education with private competition. The initiative has set off a stampede, with 1,000 companies rushing to recruit armies of tutors and grab chunks of what experts say could be a $2 billion-plus tutoring market.

Because federally financed tutoring is so new, there have been few if any systematic studies of its effectiveness. But here and there, school officials say they have seen improvement. For instance, the Little Rock, Ark., district tested 90 students before and after 40 hours of tutoring by two hastily organized companies this school year, said Dr. Lloyd Sain, director of supplemental services.

"For the most part, those kids did make a gain, despite how shaggy and fragmented the programs were," Dr. Sain said. "So the promise is there."

But the vast start-up effort has proved chaotic in Chicago and many other districts. Companies are struggling with the same discipline, attendance and other problems that have kept failing schools from raising proficiency levels on their own.

Classroom discipline is a challenge. It is not easy to get students to attend the after-school sessions, which usually cost taxpayers $40 to $80 an hour per student, in settings that range from one-on-one instruction to large classes. And with most companies paying instructors $18 to $25 per hour, and some as little as $12 per hour, far below what most public school teachers earn, even getting the tutors to class is a problem. Turnover is often high.

"This has been a year of fumbling and bumbling across the country," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington group studying the new tutoring programs in scores of districts. "The schools aren't used to dealing with private tutoring companies, and the companies aren't used to dealing with the challenges that people in public schools face every day."

But focusing on the rocky start misses the big picture, said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Sylvan Education Solutions, one of the largest tutoring companies. "This is the establishment of a whole new marketplace," he said. "It's like when Medicaid started, the creation of a new right for low-income parents. It will breed investment and innovation."

The tutoring program is hardly on the scale of Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor that cost taxpayers $163 billion last year, but it is growing. So far the law has forced only a few hundred districts to offer the sessions, but it will require thousands more to do so this fall.

The federal law requires schools to meet annual targets on standardized tests. Students at schools that fail to meet the targets for two years in a row are entitled to transfer to a higher-scoring school.

Low-income students at schools that fail for a third year are eligible for tutoring. The law says companies, nonprofit and religious groups and educational agencies can sign up students. Some districts, including Chicago's, are organizing their own teachers to offer tutoring sessions alongside the corporations.

Districts must set aside 20 percent of the federal money they get to educate low-income students, known as Title I money, to finance the transfer and tutoring programs. That has provoked tensions.

"We have a good relationship with Chicago, but many districts have an antagonistic relationship with tutoring providers, because we're paid with their dollars," said Steve Quattrociocchi, an executive vice president at The Princeton Review, which has organized tutoring in Chicago and about 20 other districts.

A study released in February by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University examined the experiences of 11 districts, from New York to Chicago to Fresno, Calif. It concluded that negotiating contracts and overseeing the tutoring providers "placed enormous administrative burdens on districts" and that the requirement to withhold 20 percent of Title I money for transfer and tutoring programs diverted resources from the neediest schools.

"These schools are being told to improve, but they're no longer going to get the money they need," said Dr. Gail L. Sunderman, an author of the study.

Eugene Hickok, the acting deputy secretary of education, dismissed those criticisms. "This law creates a new opportunity for parents," Dr. Hickok said. "I don't have much patience with those who argue that spending money on tutoring for kids hurts the schools. The point isn't the school, it's the child."

In Chicago, Title I financing has increased to $240 million this year from $160 million in 2001, partly because of a redistribution of resources driven by new census data, Chicago officials said. As a result, despite the 20 percent set-aside, Wentworth and other low-performing schools have not seen much change in their budgets, said Peter Cunningham, a Chicago Public Schools spokesman.

But many other districts have had their Title I money cut and are suffering from the set-aside, and many more will feel the pain next fall, said Bruce Hunter, chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "Many districts will lose teachers and gain tutors," Mr. Hunter said.

Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said there was "no evidence right now" to back up Mr. Hunter's assertions.

One tutoring company working in the Chicago schools is the Nashville-based EdSolutions, which pays its tutors $18 to $25 per hour, Margaret Mary Wilson, the company's chief executive, said in an interview.

Vernice Williams, an art teacher, works as a tutor with EdSolutions after her classes end because, she said, "I thought maybe I could help." She added, "Believe me, you're not doing it for the money, because it's so much less than your regular job."

One of EdSolutions' largest challenges in Chicago was that 6,000 children enrolled for tutoring but only 2,300 showed up, Ms. Wilson said.

Another challenge at Wentworth Elementary, in a working-class neighborhood on the southwest side, has been keeping tutors on the job.

Since The Princeton Review began after-school classes in Room 207 in November, the sixth- to eighth-grade students have had several tutors. Mrs. McHenry counted six, but Gary Solomon, Princeton's national director for educational partnerships, insisted there had been only three, with a couple of substitutes.

The tutors have not consistently held students' interest, said Lenore Strickland, Wentworth's supplemental services coordinator. "It's just, `Sit down and read,' " Ms. Strickland said. "The kids say, `This is just like school boring.' So they'll be running around and hitting each other, and the teachers get annoyed."

Princeton tutors have frequently ejected unruly students from the class, forcing Ms. Strickland, a public school employee, to baby-sit, she said. Other days no Princeton tutor has shown up, forcing her to watch the entire class, she said.

Wasi Young, a poet and musician who taught for Princeton Review here from January until he quit in March said: "It was extremely hard to get those kids' attention. They were boisterous and shouting from the day I walked into the class."

Princeton has faced a huge logistical challenge in organizing classes in 70 Chicago schools in a matter of months, Mr. Solomon said. "It's been a tremendous learning experience."

— Sam Dillon
For Children Being Left Behind, Private Tutors Face Rocky Start
New York Times


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