City tutoring services under scrutiny

Loaded with an armful of rainbow-colored promotional brochures, Troynell Fischer waded through the sea of tutoring providers, searching for someone to provide extra academic support to her five children. She rejected one vendor's pitch for a laptop computer that her children could keep after the year of tutoring was over, but listened intently to another who gave an example of a math problem on cue.

"There were some really good ones, and I could tell from the extent of their conversations, their material, the data they were able to present," Fischer said at the recent city-sponsored fair, where providers promoted their services. "But others, I felt like it was just a business to them — that my kids wouldn't get what they were selling."

"I'm sure that guy will be successful with those laptops, but my kids won't," she added. "I'm going to choose the company that is best for my family."

The federally mandated tutoring program Supplemental Educational Services has become a lucrative business in Baltimore — city schools spent $55 million in the past nine years for such services. But local researchers and school officials say the program's private contractors operate with little public accountability and have shown no proven impact on student achievement. Meanwhile, the program has had problems with recruitment, applications and monitoring, according to education officials and an independent report.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso says the program may undergo an overhaul when states are allowed to begin seeking waivers from mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law this month.

"If I could, I would end SES as it exists," said Alonso. "The monitoring has been about dollars and cents, not about results. But this is about the public use of limited resources intended to benefit poor kids. So it needs to be about verifiable outcomes or be scrapped."

But those who provide tutoring services defend the program as more than just a data- and money-driven business.

"What I find is that there is an undercurrent to free tutoring that is negative, and from an outsider's point of view, it fits the current discourse around government programs," said Charles Brown, who has been a provider in Baltimore and Washington.

"But when you work with a student in fifth grade that's reading at a first-grade level, there's a shame and embarrassment that most people don't fully grasp. If I get him to a third-grade level, he may be able to raise his hand. That is what this program does."

The program requires districts to devote a chunk of federal dollars to nonprofit and private vendors to help the lowest-performing students. But the law also restricts how much state and local school districts can control the companies' operations and monitor their academic results.

A recent report by the Abell Foundation reviewed the program's implementation in Baltimore, concluding that the companies operate with free rein and questionable pay practices.

"There's a tutoring program targeting the worst schools and the poorest kids — it's a great idea, but you don't know how it's being done," said Joan Jacobson, who wrote the Abell report. "You're spending government money on private businesses that you can't control. It doesn't work. In the end, it's the students who [suffer], and it's the taxpayers."

Under No Child Left Behind, school districts must allocate roughly 20 percent of Title I funding — federal money that states funnel to the highest-need districts — to tutoring services for students who receive free and reduced-price lunches and attend schools that have not met federally mandated academic targets for three consecutive years.

This year, the city expects to spend about $11 million — $2,200 per student — on the program for about 4,300 students. About 7,600 students have registered, but the city over-enrolls because many students do not follow through and attend, a city school official said.

The fundamental flaw in the SES program, the Abell report concluded, is the federal law and its loose parameters.

Under the law, companies can set their own rates, even if it means providing fewer hours, and are paid based on invoices of oftentimes unverified hours and student sign-in sheets. They submit evaluations rating their own program's progress to the state; choose when and where to host their tutoring — including in homes and online; and hire tutors with qualifications of their choosing.

The Maryland State Department of Education vets and approves all of the providers that operate in the city and is the main monitoring agency, but with significant restrictions. The law says explicitly that state education departments "should not be … micromanaging the SES marketplace."

The Abell report said the state could do more to ensure that providers don't game a system that gives them far-reaching autonomy. Since 2006, the state agency has removed 50 providers for not obtaining the proper insurance, not reapplying or not serving their full two-year commitment, state officials said.

States can dismiss providers if they don't show progress in their programs after two years, but the report found — and officials confirmed — that Maryland had not done so based on performance.

State officials said that because providers offer a variety of programs, tailored to students' specific needs, it's impossible to evaluate them.

Maria Lamb, who oversees SES services for the state, said it doesn't have a valid and reliable measure to determine how tutoring services affect academic progress on the Maryland School Assessment tests.

"We can't attribute progress on [those tests] solely to the fact that students receive the SES program, because it's just one variable," Lamb said. "And we just don't think that 20 to 30 hours of tutoring a week is going to show us that."

However, Jacobson, the Abell report's author and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, concluded that monitoring is more important. Her own complaint against a company that was supposed to provide special education tutoring services — a separate program — to her son resulted in the owner being convicted of fraud charges in April and facing jail time.

"It's naive to allow these private contractors to evaluate themselves," Jacobson said. "Monitoring puts a cumbersome burden on the city school system, and really, it's the state's responsibility and they've chosen not to do it."

But Maryland has been identified as a leader in the screening, monitoring and vetting of SES providers, said state officials, who added that it is one of few states that does routine, often unannounced, site visits.

The state's screening process is also considered among the most rigorous. Only seven out of 35 providers that applied were added to the state's list of approved vendors for this year, according to state officials. There are 44 vendors operating in the state.

"Maryland runs a pretty tight ship — if you're a provider and you're not offering services, the phone calls come very quickly, from multiple sources," Brown, the SES advocate, said of Maryland's monitoring. "Nobody wants to be that provider. They will shut you down."

Brown, who is national director of Healthy Families D.C., has been involved in guiding SES policy at the local and national level for eight years. He is also part of a group of providers who launched a campaign called Tutor Our Children to lobby for SES to be included in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

He said it is an "imperfect system" but that the program's flaws don't negate its mission. The SES program has been associated with higher school attendance and lower dropout rates, part of a student's educational experience that Brown said isn't measurable on tests.

State education officials say it's a "daily task" investigating complaints in addition to their routine monitoring — which includes visits to vendor programs and spot checks of invoices and academic claims — which the federal law doesn't provide funding for.

"We would love to say that for every provider, we have a staff member who could go out once or twice a week, but we don't have those kinds of resources," Lamb said.

Because SES is a parent-driven program, recruitment is fierce, with companies going to great lengths to get a high head count, according to the Abell report. Recruitment near low-performing schools got so aggressive, the report noted, that Baltimore now restricts recruitment to a specifically designated time, such as the vendor fair last week. Maryland is also one of few states that bans recruitment incentives.

City school officials confirmed the report's finding that they comb through the 7,000 to 8,000 applications they receive from parents to ensure their veracity — they have received batches of applications with the same handwriting, from the same address — even if the tedious task may delay tutoring services until January, which happened in 2010. This year, the school system is hopeful they will start by November.

Tasha Johnson-Franklin, who oversees SES for the city school system, said the Abell report was "an accurate profile of some of our successes and challenges, by design." Missing, she said, was the extensive guidance the school system provides to parents like Fischer in making informed decisions.

Johnson-Franklin called Baltimore an "SES-friendly district," but said that "we still are wondering, just like the rest of the country, whether this particular intervention is touching academic achievement in a dramatic way."

"The report highlights things we should be thinking about: how we can serve more kids and how we can do it better," she said.

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