Page One

Public School Tutoring Industy Lacks Accountability, Students

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 09, 2006

This is Part Two of a two-part series on tutoring. Part One ran in the June 6 issue. 


Aracely Rodriguez used to struggle with math—adding and subtracting fractions was especially irksome. Since starting an after-school tutoring program, though, she’s confident she’s improving. 

“I needed a lot of help with fractions, but Mr. H is helping me, so now I’m doing better,” she said, proudly pointing up the As she’s been getting on her report card.  

Rodriguez, a student at Sobrante Park Elementary School in Oakland, attends small group tutorials twice a week as part of a No Child Left Behind initiative that requires underperforming schools to offer free supplementary educational services to low-income students. 

Her tutor Victor Hernandez, or “Mr. H” as she calls him, is a former middle and high school teacher now working part-time for a tutoring company while he goes to culinary school. He believes after-school intervention is a boon to his students, many of whom are English language learners and have fallen behind in traditional classrooms. 

“It’s helpful with regard to helping students take standardized tests and gives them a little more latitude” to learn in a safe environment, he said. 

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is little accountability built into the No Child Left Behind program. Poor planning and management difficulties, low participation rates, high costs and a lack of comprehensive research round out a laundry list of complaints critics levy against a program often billed as a hallmark of No Child Left Behind, the federal education reform law signed into effect in 2002 that is ironically touted for claiming accountability as a central piece.  

“In theory, it’s a very good idea for our school programs. You name students whose parents can’t afford extra help outside school,” said Niambi Clay, program manager for the Oakland Unified School District (OSUD) supplementary educational services office. “But in terms of implementation, it can be an absolute nightmare.” 

Through No Child Left Behind, students who attend schools that have failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals for three consecutive years—like Sobrante Park—are eligible for free, private tutoring. Parents pick the provider, and the federal government, through Title I funds, picks up the tab. 

The federal government allocated $2.5 billion dollars for schools to contract with tutoring companies this year, the Associated Press reported in April. In the current school year, OUSD, one of the largest districts in California, earmarked approximately $5 million in Title I funds for tutoring. 

Typically, Oakland students receive 20 to 60 hours of one-on-one, small group or web-based tutoring a year. Vendors, who must be approved by the state Department of Education, generally administer pre- and post-tests to measure improvement in the area of math or reading or both. The expectation is that tutoring bolsters individual student performance, thereby helping schools to meet their AYP goals. 

The school district is charged with informing parents about tutoring options, a lengthy process unto itself that involves communicating with school sites, posting information on the web, holding tutoring fairs and initiating other coordination efforts. Once parents select a provider, a chorus line of bureaucratic legwork ensues. District staff process applications, negotiate agreements and correct errors, like when ineligible students enroll or parents mistakenly sign students up with more than one vendor. To shoulder the workload, OUSD set up a new office with new staff, comprised of a program manager and an administrative assistant, whose salaries are drawn from the reallocation of Title I funds. 

Schools are also digging into their own pockets to cover management costs. Jefferson, Oakland’s largest elementary school, uses Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corp, a non-profit education services group, to manage the school’s 13 providers, of which five operate on-site. Coordinator Amber Blackwell said the nonprofit received $20,000 for the 2005-2006 school year. 

Higher Ground also contracts with Sobrante Park, where about a sixth of the student population receives free tutoring. Principal Marco Franco dipped into school site funds to hire a coordinator—at $40,000 a year, he said—because program management grew too burdensome for existing staff. “It’s a terrible logistical monster,” he said. 

Given the red tape districts and schools must penetrate, the school year is often well underway before tutoring sessions begin. Sometimes, they commence as late as January or February, Franco said.  

A Civil Rights Project study at Harvard University found similar management troubles in 11 large school districts across the country, including the Los Angeles and Fresno unified school districts. 

The study underscores one of the program’s additional shortcomings: low participation rates. Between 16 and 20 percent of those eligible actually participate, said Gail Sunderman, who conducted the research, in a phone interview this week.  

In Oakland, more than 11,000 students are eligible through the free or reduced lunch program. The district can accommodate 3,380, and about 30 fewer actually use the services, Clay said.  

The state average is bleaker. Out of 800,000 eligible students, 98,000, or a little more than a tenth, are served. 

Neither Oakland nor the state keeps statistics on the demographics of students who participate. Nonetheless, some say those struggling the most in school aren’t the ones benefiting.  

“I think they should make the kids who need it go,” said Jose Garcia, whose son attends an after school reading course at Jefferson. “It’s not right that there are all these services, and they don’t use it.” 

Susan Lee, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson, said just two of her students are enrolled in free tutoring, though neither is in need. One is already a strong student, and the other suffers from an attention deficit, which is best addressed with behavioral therapists not academic tutors, she said.  

The students she would like to see receive tutoring aren’t getting it because parents are too busy to sign their children up or are otherwise uninvolved in school, she said. 

In other words, parents don’t know what they’re missing—literally, in fact, since according to Sunderman, “There’s still no research on whether or not (the program) is effective.”  

Part of the problem is that states are charged with evaluating tutoring providers, but very few, including California, have done so, she said.  

In California, vendors must highlight the effectiveness of their pedagogical methods before the Department of Education (CDE) grants approval for operation in public schools, renewable after two years. Providers are not, however, beholden to specific standards therein, such as small class sizes or hours of service. The state has no system in place for evaluating providers on whether they improve academic performance, and has not removed a single company from the list of state-approved vendors for failing to furnish adequate services, said Jerry Cummings, program consultant for the CDE Title I policy office, which oversees the program. 

California is not alone. According to a study by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and the American Institute for Social Justice, only about a quarter of surveyed states had completed provider performance evaluations in the 2003-2004 school year, and just three said they had taken action against noncompliant vendors. None had evaluated the cost of supplying the services compared with academic improvements. 

“This is a particularly disturbing fact, given the amount of money spent on these programs,” the studies’ authors wrote.  

Beginning in October, the CDE will require all tutoring companies to submit data on what services they offered for the prior year, how many students they served and figures on academic performance.  

That still won’t determine whether the tutoring is worth its salt, though. Many schools offer other forms of intervention, meaning an uptick in test scores could be the product of any number of factors. 

At Sobrante Park, site funds are expended on art, music, writing and library facilities. The school has seen a 200-point improvement in academic achievement over five years on a statewide performance index ranging from 200 to 1,000. Franco credits his own programs. 

“We’ve grown from internal interventions rather than these (NCLB) programs,” he said, adding later, “It’s not that they’re totally irrelevant, but given the return, it’s just not ideal.”