Student Achievement Commentary

Outsourcing the Tutor’s Job

By Susan Eaton — December 07, 2004 7 min read
‘Supplemental services’ is code for one of the biggest (and quietest) free-market experiments ever conducted in public education.

It is 4:30 p.m. on a blessed, sunny fall afternoon in one of Hartford, Conn.’s poorest neighborhoods. Inside a cheerily decorated but windowless classroom, teacher Lois Luddy paces the floor. Clutching a test-prep booklet, she shepherds her 3rd graders through a mandated reading-comprehension passage on dog sledding. She’s the city’s 2002 Teacher of the Year, a bona fide hero of public education, and in an after-school extra-help session, she’s doing her best.

The dismal paragraphs, heavy with passive voice and weak verbs, don’t hold the children today. But Ms. Luddy, perspiring faintly, stays in the game.

Sleepy Jeremiah, like most of the other children here, has never seen a toboggan, nor a Siberian Husky. But she tells him to imagine that he’s a dog-sledding captain and then to select the passage’s main idea from the list.

“Jeremiah, how would you go about making this choice? Jeremiah … ”

Jeremiah looks up, disgruntled. He reads. Then he chooses from a list and gets it right.

Officials in Hartford, and in the scores of other heavily poor school districts officially labeled by their states as “in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are, new this year, prohibited from offering the tutoring services for children that the law mandates. Such districts cannot even use teachers like Ms. Luddy, who’d logged dozens of extra hours and posted gains on the all-important standardized test, to instruct students after hours.

The No Child Left Behind law, signed in 2002, requires that schools getting federal Title I money aimed at lower-income children provide free tutoring for poor kids, after a school has failed three years running to make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, on test scores. The law also requires that school administrators put aside 20 percent of their Title I dollars—from about $900 to $1,700 a student—to pay for the tutoring, and other “supplemental educational services.” (“Federal Law Spurs Private Companies to Market Tutoring,” this issue.)

The rationale here is that parents will, at the district’s expense, choose from a variety of preferably private options for tutoring. Districts not “in need of improvement” can still provide their own tutoring services, staffed by their own teachers, and some do. But even these districts, overwhelmed with testing mandates, tend instead to dish out public dollars to big, private, for-profit, unregulated tutoring companies. That will be increasingly true once the newly defined school districts “needing improvement” are banned from tutoring students. (U.S. Department of Education officials, with state data, were expected to compile an official list of “in need of improvement districts” by this month.)

“Supplemental services” is code for one of the biggest (and quietest) free-market experiments ever conducted in public education. So far, the only clear winners are the larger, for-profit corporations who harvest profits from failing schools. Writing for the conservative Hoover Institution, analyst Siobhan Gorman unabashedly labels supplemental services a “new market” with “significant growth potential.”

Professor Henry M. Levin, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, at Columbia University, estimates that the portion of the supplemental-services market created by public Title I money is “somewhere between $1 billion to $2 billion and certainly climbing, and climbing fast.”

The law requires local districts to retain a fuzzily defined cadre of “highly qualified” teachers. But private tutors paid with public dollars need have no qualifications whatsoever.

According to the Department of Education, these unregulated, private for-profit companies make up well more than two-thirds of the supplemental-services market. Public school districts—whose educators are undoubtedly most familiar with the children and the curriculum—account for just 21 percent of it. Unregulated, private nonprofits and colleges or universities make up the rest.

The biggest private tutoring provider, the international Educate Inc. (formerly Sylvan Learning Centers), under its subsidiary, Catapult, saw No Child Left Behind revenue balloon sevenfold, from $2.8 million in 2003 to $21.3 million in 2004. And that’s only one corner of the market. In New York City alone, where administrators recently announced plans to outsource all tutoring, $30 million will be made available in Title I money. It’s the big, high-poverty districts, many due to be deemed “in need of improvement” by their states, that have the most in Title I dollars and are, thus, also the most lucrative.

In a hearing earlier this year, two private companies even complained to the Department of Education that by setting up its own tutoring program, the Philadelphia school district (it is not currently “in need of improvement”) was violating federal law and unfairly competing with private enterprise. That complaint is pending. (The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Martha Woodall, however, reports that private tutoring companies in that city charged $1,815 per city student for 40 hours of tutoring. But the district’s program—it operates after school, like Hartford’s—cost $300 per student for 160 hours of tutoring.)

In October of this year, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and the American Institute for Social Justice surveyed 91 school districts and 30 states. Together, the districts served more than 205,000 kids and received between $200 million and $300 million in federal tutoring dollars. The vast majority of the money went to for-profit companies. Under the No Child Left Behind law, state officials are supposed to approve the for-profit companies and evaluate the various programs after two years. But the ACORN-AISJ study found state officials lacked the time, money, and training to monitor properly.

“When it comes to children and schools, under the No Child Left Behind Act, testing and evaluation is regular and ongoing, but testing and evaluation of the private companies receiving public education dollars is virtually nonexistent,” the ACORN-AISJ researchers wrote. “As this school year begins, private companies are receiving millions in Title I funds … that school districts could be using for more teachers and educational aides or other programs.”

It’s probably unfair to judge states’ evaluation efforts and the performance of tutoring companies so early on. No doubt, some private tutoring companies may benefit some students. After all, middle-class parents have long hired private tutors when their children don’t perform to satisfaction.

Columbia’s Henry Levin warns, however: “There is tremendous variation between companies, and some of the claims being made by them about what they can do in terms of increasing achievement can’t be substantiated. … We do know that when you’ve got well-trained tutors, preferably with some experience, using good materials, it can, under some circumstances, make a difference.”

But, Levin adds: “Not every company operates like that. It’s really sad that some of these unsubstantiated claims about progress can sell so well in this climate. It would be nearly impossible for states to regulate this adequately. It would be enormously expensive. It would probably end up costing as much as the tutoring itself.”

It’s the big, high-poverty districts, many due to be deemed “in need of improvement” by their states, that have the most in Title I dollars and are, thus, also the most lucrative.

This underscores the hypocrisy inherent in the No Child Left Behind legislation’s supplemental-services provision. The law requires local districts, still without adequate funding, to retain a fuzzily defined cadre of “highly qualified” teachers. But private tutors paid with public dollars need have no qualifications whatsoever.

“Districts in need of improvement are not in the position of offering extra academic assistance outside of the regular school day if they are not capable of helping students meet AYP targets during the school day,” says Department of Education spokesman David Thomas.

Surely many school districts labeled in need of improvement are indeed in need of improvement. But in this new era of punitive policy, the federal government has effectively branded every teacher in every “in need of improvement” district as an abject failure who has wronged her students. That makes little sense.

Urban teachers didn’t concentrate poverty in our inner cities. Neither did they allow the gap between rich and poor to widen to today’s scandalous proportions. Since forever, we’ve placed the burden of social and economic inequality disproportionately on urban teachers’ generous shoulders. And now, the current regime in Washington is preventing them from trying even harder to remedy the educational symptoms of a festering national problem.

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