Under the high ceilings and fluorescent lights of Maxwell Park Elementary School last September, eight private tutoring companies competed for the attention of LaMonica Bell. Like other parents with children in Oakland's underperforming schools, Bell had the right to choose a publicly financed tutor for her two kids. What she didn't know was that some of her choices had twice failed to meet the state's criteria for tutors.
Private tutoring is a cornerstone of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal law that sought to make every US public school student proficient in math and reading by 2014. Federally funded tutoring becomes available to low-income students when their schools fail to pass yearly improvement goals on statewide tests.
In states that have warmed to and regulated the program, such as Florida, officials say it has helped them improve some of their worst-performing schools. But a look at how tutoring works in California finds problems at almost every step.
Parents have no good ways to determine a company's effectiveness. Some industry marketing targets students with baubles and prizes as a way to sell their parents. Tutors aren't required to have any minimum level of education or training. The state Department of Education has lowered its accreditation standards for the industry on two separate occasions. Only a fraction of eligible children sign up for tutoring in most districts.
Consequently, instead of helping low-income students, in California the funding boom has created what the president of one company called a "wild, wild West" of tutoring. Some companies offer legitimate, researched-based skill-building. But others offer little more than glorified babysitting.
Although free to students, these programs come at a cost to schools. The money comes from the funding used to provide extra assistance for schools with a high proportion of low-income students. District administrators and principals are normally able to use these funds on internal spending priorities. Yet when a school fails to demonstrate adequate yearly progress on state standardized tests for three consecutive years, 5 to 20 percent of this money must be set aside for private tutoring.
Yet there's a loophole. If parents fail to sign up their children for tutoring, the money goes back to the school district and can be redirected for other purposes. This funding formula has created a "perverse incentive" for cash-strapped districts to undermine tutoring rather than embrace it, warns Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industries Association, a trade group. "They have figured out if they don't use all the money, they can recapture the dollars for their own use," Pines said. For instance, last year Oakland set aside $3.7 million for tutoring, but didn't use $1.1 million of that money. District staff could not produce records showing where the money went.
In essence, No Child Left Behind privatized tutoring at failing public schools. The program was what conservatives got in place of the more extreme privatization that backers of educational vouchers had hoped for. And for that reason, it is still bitterly opposed by many educators. "You're essentially taking money out of school classrooms," said Joel Packer, a spokesperson for the National Education Association, which opposes the way in which the program is funded. On the other hand, Oakland mother and tutoring proponent Kim Shipp complained that "teachers' unions, school districts, and the media ... look at it as 'the federal government has taken a portion of our money and has shoved this program down our throats'."
Despite the reluctance of many educators to embrace the law, the pools of money it sets aside have given rise to scads of new tutoring companies. The number of approved providers in California has mushroomed 78 percent since 2002 to 214. And even the industry's own lobbyist believes it is too easy for anyone to enter the field. "Every provider who gets in the door ought to be excellent," said Pines, who lobbies Congress on behalf of tutoring companies. "Right now, I think the door is open too widely."
Others would say the door is completely off its hinges — at least in California.
No Child Left Behind spawned a cottage industry of "ramshackle organizations to collect the money that was raining from the sky," said Manny Lopez, a teacher at the Global Family School in Oakland and a secretary for the teachers' union, the Oakland Education Association. "It appeals to moneymaking individuals, and it's not about the children."
Jack McAboy, the owner of the Piedmont franchise of Sylvan Learning Center, an agency that typically gets positive reviews from teachers and parents, agrees. He said the rush for tutoring dollars resembles the "wild, wild West." "There are people who come out of the woodwork chasing money, who are not really qualified to deliver," he said.
Money is indeed a big motivator for agencies that hope to tap into the state's $158 million tutoring budget. For each child a company signs up in Oakland this year it receives $1,179.70, down from last year's $1,293.
"Some of the companies are decent and well-intentioned," said Elizabeth Ozol, principal of New Highland Academy in Oakland. "And other ones seem like they're taking advantage of a niche. They're a little more mercenary."
Several companies engage in marketing that raises the eyebrows of school employees and parents. "Some advertise that kids will win a gift card or an expensive toy," Ozol said. "It seems like not a very ethical way to recruit families."
Parents report mixed feelings about all the goodies. "To hell with all these erasers, my son needs academics," Bell said. "I need him to be ready for college."
When LaMonica Bell heard that she could choose a private tutor for her son, she wasted no time signing up. But for her and other parents, it has been a bewildering experience.
Bell chose Sylvan Learning Center for her son because she recognized the name. "God knows if they're better than any others," she joked. As it turns out, Sylvan is regarded as effective by teachers and principals, but Bell said her decision was based on name recognition and little else.
Part of what makes the process confusing — the sheer number of providers — is built into a core notion of No Child Left Behind. It's the idea of choice. "Giving parents as much choices as possible is overwhelming," said Oakland Unified School District tutoring program manager Niambi Clay. "It's too confusing to look at a chart of fifty different organizations. The parents are kind of choosing in the dark."
This year, Oakland parents had a list of 31 private tutoring companies to choose from. Parents also had the option of attending "provider fairs" like the one at Maxwell Park, where tutor companies set up colorful booths to market themselves to parents.
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