Student Achievement

Pa. Tutoring Effort Could Foreshadow ESEA Results

By Erik W. Robelen — May 15, 2002 10 min read
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Fifth grade has been tough for Christopher Schivoni.

“He’s been struggling the whole school year,” his mother, Debra, said on a recent Tuesday evening as she waited for him to finish a private tutoring session.

Despite the extended day of schooling, Christopher appears focused, if a bit fidgety, periodically swinging back and forth in a swivel chair during the lesson. His tutor begins with math, including a five-minute quiz and a flashcard drill, then switches to reading comprehension and vocabulary.

Since late February, Christopher has been showing up almost every week at an office building a few miles from his public school for extra, one-on- one help. He’s here thanks to a new Pennsylvania program that offers parents up to $500 to purchase after-school tutoring for children in grades 3-6 who have performed poorly on standardized tests.

Ms. Schiavoni first heard about it in the newspaper. A divorced mother who works as a secretary for the state, she welcomed the financial help. And she said she already sees improvement in her son’s schoolwork.

But so far, parents who, like Ms. Schiavoni, have taken the state up on its offer of tutoring aid are the exception, not the rule.

Participation statewide has been low since the program, Classroom Plus, began last fall: between 10 percent and 15 percent of eligible children. It’s been much worse here in Lancaster, where only 13 of more than 800 qualifying students from city schools signed up. In fact, the state announced last week that it was expanding eligibility to drum up more applicants.

While the initiative is still new, the low participation rate may serve as a harbinger for a similar provision in the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. The law will allow parents with children in consistently poor-performing schools to direct a portion of the local district’s federal aid to pay for tutoring or other academic help after school.

The provision was championed by President Bush and conservatives in Congress looking to expand parents’ options in educating their children.

But the fledgling Pennsylvania program appears to offer a cautionary note: Simply passing a law is no guarantee that parents will avail themselves of new choices.

Although the federal and Pennsylvania initiatives are similar, the parallel is inexact. Eligibility for the state program is based on individual student scores, not schoolwide performance. Until last week, when the threshold was changed, that meant a score “below basic” on the state’s 4th grade assessment. In other eligible grades, it meant a score in the bottom 25 percent of test-takers on a nationally recognized assessment.

And the way the services are financed differs.

In Pennsylvania, the state reimburses parents directly after their children have finished the extra instruction. Parents, at least in theory, pay the provider. Some districts have been hesitant to participate, officials say, because they fear that they might not recoup their costs. While most for-profit providers require payment upfront, school officials said they did not feel comfortable imposing that burden on families.

The program was funded at $23.6 million this year, though as the June 30 close of the fiscal year looms, it appears that most of the money may go untapped.

The federal measure, on the other hand, will take a portion of a district’s aid under the Title I program for disadvantaged students and route the money to the tutoring provider through the district.

A key common ingredient is choice: Parents get to select someone to help teach their child at government expense. In fact, President Bush and former Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania—now Mr. Bush’s homeland-security director—were both hoping to create school voucher programs, but those efforts were rejected. Eugene W. Hickok, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education and Pennsylvania’s schools chief until last spring, said that in both cases, success hinges on getting the word out to parents.

“Go to the citizens,” said Mr. Hickok, one of the chief architects of Classroom Plus. “When parents know about it, and their children are not succeeding, they want to do something.”

Mr. Hickok said he expects many school district officials may not feel much incentive to promote the federal measure.

“It’s not going to be popular,” he said. “First, it’s a [poor] reflection on schools that aren’t working....And second, in their minds, it’s taking away funds from public schools....Our opinion is the money should go to help kids.”

That reluctance could pose a problem in ensuring parental choice. The federal law requires that districts notify parents of their options. But the experience in Lancaster, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, suggests that those schools and districts that actively embrace the idea are likely to see much greater participation.

Spreading the Word

Pennsylvania has approved more than 700 tutoring providers. All states will soon be expected to approve a list of providers under the No Child Left Behind Act, an overhaul of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

About 165 of Pennsylvania’s providers are school districts, according to William U. Kropp, the program director for Classroom Plus. Parents can also choose from nonprofit outfits, for-profit companies, universities, and even individual teachers.

But it seems the state has had an easier time signing up providers than students. As of last week, about 6,500 students were registered, out of roughly 50,000 eligible. The recent changes in eligibility are estimated to widen that pool by another 50,000.

“One of our biggest focuses right now is marketing, getting the word out there,” Mr. Kropp said. The state law directs all districts and schools to notify parents of eligible children. In practice, Mr. Kropp said, efforts made by school systems run the gamut from simply putting out fliers, to providing information in parent newsletters, to more personal contact.

“I think the direct contact is really the most successful,” he said. Mr. Kropp has begun to work more closely with districts to help them better recruit parents.

State leaders are also taking their message straight to the people. The state began running radio ads this month urging parents to call an 800 number to learn more about the program. Mr. Kropp said he expects an increase in the next couple of months because some systems, such as the Allentown district, plan summer school programs using tutors hired under Classroom Plus. But he declined to make any specific predictions.

Parents here in Lancaster—a city of some 56,000 people in the Pennsylvania Dutch tourist area of southeastern Pennsylvania—have several tutoring options. They can turn to the city school district, two nearby systems, two nonprofit tutoring services, and three for- profit ventures.

Debra Schiavoni, Christopher’s mother, said she decided on Knowledge Is Power Tutoring Services Inc. after talking at length with the company’s president, Christine R. Savicky, and getting a recommendation from a friend. Ms. Schiavoni said she’s been pleased with her choice.

“Christopher is doing a lot better,” she said of her son, an 11-year-old who has attention deficit disorder. She said his latest report card showed improvement in a number of areas.

“He’s more motivated, he actually sees the progress, and I think that’s really given him the determination,” she said. At $40 an hour, the state will reimburse her for about 121/2 hours of tutoring.

But not all parents are as motivated or prepared as Ms. Schiavoni to pursue the extra help for their children. Assuming they even know about the Classroom Plus program, some parents, particularly those with little education or fluency in English, may lack the savvy to navigate the system without help from a district. Transportation concerns may also limit options for some families.

Ms. Schiavoni is the only parent from James Hamilton Elementary School in Lancaster to use the state program. She said she does not recall ever hearing anything about it from the school.

District officials from the 11,000-student city system convened a meeting with principals this winter to tell them about the program and ask them to let families know about it. Principals’ subsequent efforts to spread the word varied. At Edward Hand Middle School, the principal put out fliers in the front office. No one responded. At Lafayette Elementary School, the principal sent out packets of information to eligible students, but never heard back from anyone.

Taking Action

Principal Diane E. Fisher of John W. Price Elementary School decided to take a more active approach. She phoned parents of eligible children and invited them in to talk about the program.

“I met with parents individually, and also let them know about the different providers, because I didn’t think it was fair to say, ‘We are the one,’” she said.

Ms. Fisher believes the meetings made a big difference. Six students signed up for her school program out of about a dozen eligible. She even helped them fill out the forms. Two others registered for Classroom Plus, but did not participate at her school.

Those pupils are by no means the only Price Elementary students who get additional help. For example, Ms. Fisher has made extra math instruction available in most grades in the mornings before school. But because of Classroom Plus, she hired another teacher to provide smaller-group instruction, for about five pupils at a time, for the 5th graders.

Mr. Kropp of Classroom Plus said such arrangements were not unusual.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of that throughout the state—in essence, people dovetailing existing programs, or expanding existing programs ...,” he said.

Some schools in the Lancaster district, which has been labeled low-performing by the state, may ultimately have to provide more choice under the No Child Left Behind Act, though officials here say they do not expect to have any schools in that category next fall.

Northeast Serves More

While participation in Classroom Plus has been low in Lancaster, that’s not the case everywhere in the state.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, a regional education service agency became a provider and worked with public school districts and private schools to ensure a strong showing. In the 3,400-student North Pocono district, just north of Scranton, 158 students qualified for the program, said Dominick L. Romanini, the district’s director of curriculum and guidance.

The district first sent information to parents, and followed up with phone calls to those who did not respond, he said. Ultimately, 101 students signed up for tutoring offered in the district’s schools. Mr. Romanini said that, to his knowledge, only a handful of students used outside providers—students who were already getting tutoring with those services.

Critics say Classroom Plus is misguided.

“The problem in Pennsylvania is that our schools are not equitably and adequately funded,” said Timothy W. Potts, the director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network in Harrisburg. “They’ve put together this philosophy of trying to transfer as much of public education to the private sector as they possibly can.”

But while no hard data are yet available on private providers, it appears so far that the private sector has not seen a big influx of pupils under the program.

In Lancaster, Knowledge Is Power has tutored ten students under Classroom Plus, though just one from the Lancaster district. A few miles away, five students are served by two Sylvan Learning Centers in suburban Lancaster. None are from the city system.

Steven E. Drake, the vice president for communications at Sylvan Learning Systems Inc., said he expects that Sylvan’s main opportunity under the federal law will be with the division of the company that provides supplemental services directly in schools.

Mr. Drake noted that most Sylvan centers tend to be in suburban locations, while he anticipates that schools in urban and rural areas are the most likely to qualify under the law’s supplemental-services provisions.

In essence, for many families, it’s not just a matter of having a choice.

“The more convenient and seamless you make it for the children and therefore their parents,” Mr. Drake said, “the better your attendance levels and participation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Pa. Tutoring Effort Could Foreshadow ESEA Results


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