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Tutoring Program Gets Low Grades

Ohanian Comment:Note that the vendor pimps complain that the school system's "notorious bureaucracy" is hampering their efforts. Note the lack of any evidence that individualized instruction is being used in these tutoring sessions. For that, you'd need a competent educator,not someone pulled in off the street. For individualized instruction, you can't use a script.

At a time when thousands more Chicago Public Schools students could find themselves working with private tutoring companies to improve in the classroom, those tutors are facing their own troubles, a Chicago Sun-Times examination has found.

Instructor turnover is high in some schools -- the private tutors generally work with academically struggling kids after school in classrooms -- and the quality of instructors can vary wildly, the newspaper learned.

What's more, the firms can be hampered by the school system's notorious bureaucracy, reluctant principals and their own inexperience in running large programs.

Private firms used

The private tutoring companies now work with 41,000 students, and that number could rise dramatically if the federal government has its way. A true measure of the quality of their work is the kids themselves, but performance data isn't available yet because the private tutoring program is too new.

After-school tutoring, now in its second year, is mandated for public elementary and high schools that fail to meet testing standards of President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind law. Around 42,000 kids are tutored in-house by off-duty Chicago Public Schools teachers. The other 41,000 are tutored by 27 private firms, which could take over all duties in coming months if the federal government wins a scrap with local officials over how $53 million in funding is used.

While there are some promising signs with the tutoring, a look at several companies suggests the private after-school instruction isn't the silver bullet the feds had hoped.

Instructor turnover and preparedness have been nagging problems in some spots.

At Linne School in the Avondale neighborhood, seven fifth-graders started the new calendar year with a new tutor -- their third since October.

During their first January session with the newest instructor, he seemed in over his head.

A reporter in the classroom that day witnessed two kids misbehaving repeatedly. While some students worked on multiplication questions, others had nothing to do. A game of math bingo, where everyone was supposed to participate, saw only a few takers.

"The tutors are struggling," said Mary Kovats, a full-time Linne teacher who tutors in the CPS-run after-school program and has observed the EdSolutions private tutors there. That firm works with about 2,000 kids at 41 schools.

"These kids have discipline problems, but we live with that every day," Kovats said. "I know how to handle the kids, I know what they need."

In schools where private tutoring is going well -- and plenty of examples exist -- the instructors often are CPS teachers hired by firms to teach their own students four hours a week. The largest firm, Platform Learning, has 1,100 instructors for 13,500 kids. About 82 percent are CPS teachers or full-time substitutes.

In December, the U.S. Department of Education ordered failing school districts like Chicago's to stop using federal money to pay for in-house tutoring. Instead, the feds want children in public programs to shift to private tutors.

In-house tutoring continues as local officials fight this push. A resolution is expected by Jan. 31, with the state pushing to preserve the CPS program this year. But even if Chicago wins, public tutoring likely will be replaced by private tutoring next year.

That could mean less overall tutoring, for the private firms are more expensive than the in-house operation.

Already, there isn't enough money for all of the students who qualify for the voluntary, free tutoring. More than half of Chicago's 430,000 kids are eligible.

To defend his program, Schools CEO Arne Duncan points out that many private firms hire CPS teachers. But federal officials say it's not about the instructors, it's about the curriculum the private providers offer.

Most CPS staff interviewed say otherwise. They like the private curriculums, but say it's who delivers it -- and how well the program is run -- that matters most. The state only requires private tutors to finish 60 hours of college, though many firms require a degree or a teaching certificate. CPS only uses certified teachers from within the system.

"Some of the tutors are trying the best they can, but companies just gave them a script and a basic training and that's it," said an administrator at a South Side school where three private firms tutor. "They're frustrated. It's hard for them when the kids don't get the skill. You often need to try four or five different ways to teach them something."

The quality of Chicago Public Schools teachers varies, of course -- whether they work for CPS or a private tutor. And the CPS program has its own problem. Reading books and math equipment have arrived late in many schools, and there's been criticism that tutoring groups are too large.

But most teachers embrace CPS' tutoring program.

Kovats says it's a chance to focus on 15 of her students, rather than her normal 40. During a recent after-school session, every student participated, even one girl who never reads out loud.

Private firms average eight to 10 kids per class. Many firms say their programs would work better with fewer kids. But they have to take on a larger number to make it worthwhile financially. Right now, CPS caps how much the firms can get paid, and the feds contend the cap level is illegal. They've asked the State Board of Education to investigate it.

The private firms say a few problem schools and instructors are to be expected, but insist kids are learning. Many parents agree.

"I think my son has gone up because of the program," said Diana Banks, whose son uses Platform Learning at Marquette School in Chicago Lawn.

Still, private vendors admit it's hard finding tutors for challenging schools, and say some tutors quit if they land full-time jobs.

Most firms don't keep turnover rates. A spot check of schools in the CPS program found almost no turnover.

Pointing the finger

Private managers also blame CPS. At Linne, EdSolutions' Linda Torp says her firm was shortstaffed because the school system gave her 80 extra kids two days before the program started. Linne officials say EdSolutions never told them that was too many. It took EdSolutions until January to fully staff up.

Another firm owner said his program was delayed because he couldn't get student phone numbers from several schools. Education Station, formerly Sylvan, had to end a program at one school in December because not enough kids showed up. That company tutors about 5,000 kids in Chicago.

Many firm managers said that while there's more organization this year than last, they place blame for the problems that exist on principals. Some welcome the private firms, while others make it nearly impossible to recruit students and efficiently set up tutoring, company officials said.

Still, firm managers insist they can get the job done. If a private firm -- or even the school system -- doesn't improve student achievement after two years, the federal law says they can no longer tutor.

"We want to prove that you can tutor poor kids," said Eugene Wade, CEO of Platform Learning. "This can be done but an investment has to be made. The standards have to be raised."

— Kate N. Grossman
Chicago Sun-Times


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