Federal

Critics Question Use of Offshore Firms for Online Tutoring

By Catherine Gewertz — April 19, 2005 4 min read
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Concern is rising in some quarters that the No Child Left Behind Act permits foreign companies to provide federally financed online tutoring to students at underperforming schools.

Such arrangements appear to constitute only a minute fraction of the tutoring business that is mushrooming under the federal law. But nine members of Congress last week asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the practice, along with a host of other implementation issues raised by the law’s provisions for supplemental educational services.

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The law requires school districts to use part of their federal Title I aid for disadvantaged children to pay for tutoring for low-income students whose schools fail to make sufficient academic progress three years in a row. Companies that obtain state approval may then contract with individual districts to offer tutoring. Some of those companies provide services, especially in rural areas, by computer.

In the wake of recent news reports that some tutors had subcontracted with companies in India to provide online lessons to U.S. students, groups representing teachers and education companies have taken strong stands against such decisions.

The American Federation of Teachers believes the practice is at odds with what it considers good-quality tutoring. Programs should be taught by people well-versed in the curriculum and standards in use in the host district, and who are in close enough contact with a child’s teachers to align the tutoring to classroom work, said Nancy Van Meter, a deputy director of the 1.3 million-member union.

The union harbors similar concerns about U.S.-based online tutors, she said, but subcontracting to foreign providers means tutoring is “one more step removed from the classroom.”

The Education Industry Association, a Potomac, Md.-based group that represents education companies, said in a statement that using foreign personnel “may not be the most effective instructional strategy” because such instructors might lack familiarity with the American education system, and “cultural and communication differences may impede student learning.”

Lawmakers Seek Probe

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the architects of the No Child Left Behind law, has expressed dismay that taxpayers’ dollars might be spent on tutors abroad instead of in the United States.

The letter he sent last week to the GAO, signed by eight other members of Congress, asked the congressional investigative agency to examine how much providers are “outsourcing these services to overseas contractors,” among other issues that have arisen with tutoring.

Officials of the U.S. Department of Education refused last week to take a position on the issue. They acknowledged that neither the law nor regulations for its implementation addresses subcontracting or using foreign companies for tutoring.

“This is not something the authors of No Child Left Behind anticipated,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the second-in-command in the department’s office of innovation and improvement.

Francesco Lecciso, one of the directors of Brainfuse Inc., a New York City-based online education company that is approved to provide supplemental services in more than 30 states, said he believes it’s wrong to view the use of overseas tutors strictly as an issue of where U.S. money is spent.

“It would be a mistake to lump this in with the greater outsourcing debate,” he said, referring to the highly charged issue of American companies’ shift of some support operations overseas. “The calculus should be, are we able to provide a good service for students?”

Brainfuse has been experimenting with using tutors abroad, but has not yet decided whether the advantages, such as a larger pool of expertise, outweigh the disadvantages, such as an often-unreliable Internet connection, Mr. Lecciso said.

George Cigale, the chief executive officer of Tutor.com, based in New York City, said his company has used only a few overseas tutors, but doing so has enabled it to expand its tutoring hours, given time-zone differences. Since his company supplies its “live homework help” to only one approved supplemental-services provider, serving two states under the No Child Left Behind law, it is “possible but unlikely” for a student in such a program to be served by a foreign tutor, he said.

One company ran into difficulty supplying the required proof of insurance and criminal-background checks for its foreign tutors.

Becki Robinson, who oversees supplemental services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the district discovered when it requested those documents that several tutoring firms were contracting out some of those services, but only SmarThinking Inc. was using tutors from other countries.

Burck Smith, the chief executive officer of SmarThinking, said the Washington-based company agreed to complete the year in Los Angeles—where it was serving about three dozen students—by executing a waiver in which it assumes responsibility for its overseas tutors.

The company trains all its tutors and exerts strong quality control in overseeing them, he said. But it is phasing out its tutoring work under the federal law because other parts of its online education business are growing more rapidly.

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