Published Online: June 16, 2005

Illinois Board Tightens Policy Over Supplemental Service Providers

In the face of growing debate about how to ensure high-quality tutoring under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Illinois board of education last week adopted rules that impose tougher oversight on the companies offering the tutoring.

State officials hailed the rules, adopted June 16, as a key step in building a sound structure by which providers can be screened and approved by states to work in local districts, and monitored once they are working under contract to those districts.

The rules were intended as a response to the U.S. Department of Education’s ongoing effort to clarify states’ substantial roles in managing tutoring programs.

“We think it’s important to help districts by taking more responsibility for overseeing [tutoring] providers and to ensure we have high-quality providers,” Becky Watts, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, said after the board’s vote.

The NCLB law requires districts to offer “supplemental educational services,” or tutoring, free of charge to low-income parents whose children attend schools that have failed to make sufficient academic progress for three years in a row. Illinois’ action comes as educators nationwide discuss how to evaluate the performance of groups and companies approved to provide the tutoring, and how to make sure they operate ethically.

The Education Industry Association, a Potomac, Md.-based group that represents private education companies, had sought a delay in the Illinois board’s vote, arguing that aspects of the financial-reporting and disclosure requirements were unreasonable and should be revised. But the vote went ahead as scheduled.

Steven Pines, the EIA’s executive director, maintained his opposition to some Illinois requirements, such as making companies publicly release details of their cost structure, a move he believes could restrain free trade and narrow parents’ tutoring choices. But he welcomed the bulk of the state’s new rules.

“Ninety percent of the rules are very helpful,” Mr. Pines said in an interview from Springfield, where he had flown to attend the meeting. “They hold [providers] to higher standards, but we don’t object to that. They set an appropriately high new benchmark in provider quality assurance, both at the front end of the initial application, and in data collection and monitoring.”

Increased Oversight

The new rules subject providers to heightened scrutiny when they apply for state approval, including a review of their program design, and whether their program uses diagnostic tests to assess a student’s needs, targets instruction to those needs, and also uses a post-test to see whether the student has learned the material.

Additionally, providers’ rate structures will be analyzed, including what portion of their fee is attributable to the “actual cost” of services. But debate continues about the appropriate definition of actual cost. New guidance released last week by the Education Department defined actual cost as “the amount a provider charges for services.” The Illinois rules, Mr. Pines said in a letter to the state board, violate that guidance by calculating actual cost based on the cost of those services to the provider.

The state also will share providers’ applications with the districts the providers hopes to serve, and let the districts ask for more clarification or information, though the state will retain approval authority.

Illinois’ new rules require increased oversight of providers once they are working, through such methods as improved data collection and site visits, in an attempt to better evaluate whether the companies should remain on the state’s list of approved providers. Tutoring companies will also have to abide by a code of ethics.

The new rules envision Illinois’ adoption of a statewide data-tracking system that will help the state evaluate providers’ effectiveness, as they are required by federal law to do after two years. That system will enable the state to cross-check tutored students’ performance on state tests with the performance of demographically similar students who did not receive the tutoring.

Chicago officials, who have clashed repeatedly with the federal Education Department over being able to provide tutoring after their district was deemed in need of improvement, and for terminating the services of one provider at a group of schools, said the new rules were much needed. ("Chicago, Ed. Dept. Settle Tutoring Dispute," February 9, 2005.)

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools, said in a statement in support of the new rules that they will bring “greater accountability” and “financial transparency” to the emerging field.

“These are absolutely critical reforms that will allow us to serve the greatest possible number of students with the best possible tutoring,” he said.

Patricia F. Sullivan, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based group that monitors the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law, said many educators have questioned how states and districts will know whether the tutoring is truly helping children, and Illinois’ action will help answer that question.

“We would applaud any state that takes the time to really think through an effective application process, that really uses the data to help us understand what’s going on,” she said. “Are the kids really learning more?”

Because so much federal money is at stake, and many questions have been raised about the range of providers’ fees for tutoring, public disclosure of the costs that drive those fees is a good idea, she said.

“In the spirit of full disclosure, since we are serving public school students, it’s appropriate … so we can understand what we’re buying,” she said.

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