Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Indiana schools spend millions on private tutoring for students with and without learning disabilities

From The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind.:

Not meeting federal accountability standards can mean a lot of hard work for school officials.

But for private tutoring companies, it means big business.

If a school fails to meet the standards under the No Child Left Behind Act for two consecutive years, that school must pay for private tutors to help struggling students. Districts contract with state-selected private tutoring companies. The more schools and students that don’t perform up to par, the more tax dollars are directed to private tutoring.

Indiana public school districts spent more than $13.7 million on private tutoring services for low-income and low-performing students in the 2008-09 school year, according to the state Department of Education. Before the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, school districts were not required to pay for private tutoring.

"Obviously they’re making money off of schools that are failing to make (adequate yearly progress) and kids that are failing to make grade-level benchmarks," said Becky Perkins, federal program administrator for East Noble Schools.

It’s the tutoring companies’ mission to help students, but they also take a pay cut if students and schools don’t fail. Another complication is teachers who work for the tutoring companies as a second job, making their students their clients.

Teachers nationwide must follow a code of ethics set by the federal government that prevents them from using school resources to recruit students, but local school officials said there have been problems.

Teachers have had to be reminded they can’t use school curriculum during tutoring; can’t use their school phone lists to call and recruit students; and can’t work on anything tutoring-related during school hours.

There’s also the question of how effective the tutors are. School officials said they aren’t able to determine whether students’ improvement is directly linked to tutoring or whether other factors are at play.

For example, a student attending after-school tutoring sessions could also be getting extra help during the school day or be working with his parents at home. Educators haven’t found a way to connect what’s being taught by tutors to students’ improvement on the state ISTEP+ proficiency test.

State officials, district employees and parents evaluate the nearly 60 private companies contracted statewide each year. The companies are given a letter grade. The majority of companies that served students during the 2007-08 school year, the most recent year information was available, received a grade of B+, B or B-.

Twenty-five of the companies weren’t evaluated because they weren’t serving students in 2007-08 but might be now, said Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for the Department of Education. The number of companies that have been approved by the state to offer tutoring has grown since the program’s inception in 2002-03, but there are fewer providers this year because several were removed as a result of poor evaluations, Auld said.

"There’s a lot more paperwork and hurdles you have to go through in dealing with federal contracting," said Todd Walden, director of supplemental services for Club Z! In-Home Tutoring Services.

FWCS has paid tutoring companies more than $1.9 million since 2004-05 and budgeted nearly $1.2 million for the more than 900 students currently signed up in nine schools this year.

The budget jumped this year because more schools in the district are required to offer tutoring than in previous years, said Krista Stockman, district spokeswoman.

The district’s set rate is $1,621 a student; the district contracts with 10 companies.

One of those companies is the Indianapolis Algebra Project, a company founded by retired educators who tutor students in group settings in math. The company employs 200 tutors statewide and can offer its services to 80 school districts, said Terry Ogle, executive director.

The Indianapolis Algebra Project serves 10 northeast Indiana school districts and tutors students primarily at their schools. At a parent’s request, though, its tutors would also meet with students in their homes or at the library, Ogle said.

Ogle wouldn’t disclose what his tutors are paid but said that a teacher with a teaching license is eligible to make at least $25 per hour per student. They’re allowed to have a maximum of six students in a group, he said.

Ogle wouldn’t disclose how much money his company receives from state contracts but said it’s not enough to make the business lucrative.

"We haven’t really realized a great extra flow. The potential is there, but that’s not our goal," said Ogle, who began contracting with the state three or four years ago. "Our purpose really is not the financial part of it. We’re retired, and we’d kind of like to put it back into the community."

When No Child Left Behind was first implemented, school districts that did not meet federal standards could not apply to provide their own tutoring services, said Britt Magneson, executive director of student services for East Allen County Schools.

But a recent change in the law will allow any district to be listed as one of the providers along with the private companies, something Magneson believes will be more effective because teachers who know the students and their weaknesses can work with them. The EACS board voted last week to submit an application.

School officials must be careful not to sway parents toward one company or the other. Most districts conduct fairs at the beginning of the school year so parents can meet people from various tutoring services and learn enough about each company to make a decision on their own.

"We try to be purists in it, and it’s a little hard, because we’d like to give parents information about what we might think is more beneficial for the students, but we are purists and we don’t cross that line at all," Owens said.

West Noble Schools has two schools that offer tutoring from five available companies to 103 eligible students this year, Owens said. West Noble budgeted $127,989 for tutoring services this year.

But some have crossed the line in FWCS, which has 56 employees who also work for tutoring companies, said Tracy Bunting, Title I program specialist for the district. Teachers who also work for tutoring companies used by the district have had to be reminded they cannot use their school list to recruit students, Bunting said.

A few years ago, a tutoring company that Bunting wouldn’t identify told teachers who also were tutors that the more students they signed up, the more hours they would work and the more money they would make.

Bunting also has to remind teachers that during the school day, they work for Fort Wayne Community Schools and should not do any work related to their tutoring jobs.

Raven Johnson, 11, has been going to Specialty Tutoring Inc. for about four years because of dyslexia. Raven received private lessons from the Fort Wayne company until it started contracting with East Allen County Schools and Southwick Elementary School, where she is a fifth-grader. Now the lessons are paid for by the district.

Raven works with Specialty Tutoring twice a week after school at Southwick, getting help with sounding out words, reading, spelling and some math, said Yvette Johnson, Raven’s mom.

"They’ve helped her tremendously. She’s come a long way," Johnson said. "I can tell that she’s learned more. She doesn’t need help with some words."

There’s anecdotal evidence that the tutoring works, but educators have found it difficult to provide statistical evidence.

"We don’t see much of an impact," Bunting said.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has yet to do a long-term study. Although some students who are tutored make progress on ISTEP+ or in the classroom, officials aren’t sure whether it’s solely linked to the extra help.

This is the first year East Allen is trying to examine the ISTEP+ scores of students who receive tutoring to determine whether it’s been effective, said Britt Magneson, executive director of student services for the district.

Gwen Jackson, special-education resource teacher at Study Elementary, has been tutoring for the Region 8 Educational Service Center since November.

Jackson, who makes $50 an hour as a tutor, said she was skeptical at first but has seen the progress that Study students have made based on the extra help.

Whether it’s been proved to increase scores, there are some who believe the extra help can’t hurt.

"Any additional support you can give kids is helpful as long as the providers are giving a service that benefits kids," said Perkins, of East Noble Schools.