A recent decision by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) gives a huge lift to private companies that supply after-school tutoring and other supplemental education services (SES) for the nation’s schools–but it also could result in a disruption or loss of service for tens of thousands of students in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and other districts of similar status.
In a Dec. 8 letter to Illinois state officials, ED demanded that CPS, along with 10 other districts across the state, stop serving as their own providers of tutoring services to struggling students. The letter, which came from Undersecretary Eugene Hickok’s office, informed the districts they were in violation of the stipulations set forth under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Despite demonstrated progress over the last several years, federal officials say the districts still fall short of meeting the standard for adequate yearly progress (AYP), a series of benchmarks used to determine how well schools are faring under the law. Until improvements are made, ED said, all 11 districts named in the letter must rely on tutoring solutions only from third-party service providers–or else they will lose federal funding for these NCLB-mandated services.
In an interview with eSchool News, Nina Rees, ED’s assistant secretary for innovation and improvement, said the law has always held that a school system labeled “in need of improvement” cannot serve as its own SES provider.
A district is considered “in need of improvement” if it fails to meet the accountability statutes proposed by the state for two consecutive years. Because each state submits its own plan, ED does not have a set formula for determining whether a district meets the federal standard.
If a school or a district is in need of improvement, it cannot be a provider, according to ED. But teachers within those schools can be, as long as they are hired out by a state-approved entity.
Illinois state officials asked the agency for a federal exemption that would have enabled CPS and 10 other districts in need of improvement to provide such services themselves. The letter, Rees explained, was intended to inform state administrators that their request had been denied. “We can’t simply waive a regulation,” she said.
The news elicited outrage from CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, who branded ED’s ruling “a slap in the face” and an “appalling disservice to the children of Chicago.” CPS, the nation’s third-largest school system, plans to challenge the ruling “through every possible means,” Duncan added.
In Chicago, district officials say the decision means federally mandated tutoring services will have to be halted for some 80,000 children, about 40,000 of whom are being tutored directly by CPS and another 40,000 of whom are being tutored by private vendors paid by the district.
“Some of those students chose to be in the CPS program, so now we have to start over, have parents reapply for services, and then reallocate the available tutoring services based on need,” said Duncan, who called the decision “ludicrous.”
If forced to go solely with private providers, the district estimates it will have enough money to purchase tutoring for just 24,000 students–a far cry from the near 80,000 who are receiving help today.
“The federal government has ensured that the cost of providing these tutoring services will skyrocket,” warned Duncan, who said the district saved a significant amount of money–and reached far more struggling students–by providing the required services on its own.
While CPS spends an average of $400 per child to tutor students itself, officials contend the cost jumps to nearly $1,500 per kid whenever a private SES provider enters the mix.
“If this is what the law calls for, then the law should be changed,” Duncan said, requesting that federal officials be more lenient in their enforcement of NCLB–especially in a district like Chicago, where more than 74 percent of students reportedly showed improvements in test scores last year.
In defense of ED’s ruling, Rees said CPS should have taken more time–and made sure it was in compliance–before deciding to tutor students itself. She also placed some of the blame on the state, saying state officials should have taken a more proactive approach in letting the district know where it stood under the law.
A boost to for-profit providers
As state and school district officials continue to wrestle with what is and what isn’t acceptable under the law, a host of educational service providers are ramping up their efforts to exploit what has become a very profitable revenue stream.
The SES provision of the law has opened the door for a myriad of for-profit companies, many of whose services rely on sophisticated technology to deliver targeted instruction and track students progress, to cash in on millions of dollars in federal funding earmarked for low-income students. Under the law, every school that fails to meet AYP for three straight years must set aside a portion of its Title I funds to purchase tutoring services for eligible students.
Though the programs–selected by parents from a state-approved list of providers–come in all shapes and sizes, from online courses taken at home to face-to-face tutoring sessions with certified teachers, the goal is the same: To help struggling students achieve higher test scores–and eventually boost the overall performance of the school.
Last year at Public School 329 in Brooklyn, N.Y., about 300 students enrolled in supplemental courses provided by New York-based Platform Learning, which provides after-school tutoring to students in 17 states and more than 300 struggling schools nationwide.
Just one year into the program, Assistant Principal Salema Dawson said students on average have demonstrated a 75-percent improvement in test scores.
Driven by a statewide directive to promote balanced literacy, school officials adopted Platform’s Learn-to-Succeed program to assess students’ skills and reinforce key concepts through a combination of face-to-face instruction, individualized planning, and online data tracking.
Had it not been for federal money set aside for supplemental services, PS 329 would not have been able to foot the bill for the project, said Dawson, who added, “These programs are greatly needed.”
Through a combination of technology and face-to-face instruction, Platform Learning deploys certified educators with a college degree and at least one year of classroom experience whose job is to target students’ weaknesses and boost their self-confidence in hopes of achieving sustained progress.
The program provides assistance to students in both reading and math. Driven by small-group instruction and individualized planning, the service groups students according to skill level and need, allowing them to move at a pace more conducive to their own individual learning style, contends Platform Learning Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Eugene Wade.
The company uses a student information system to monitor student performance and behavior. For example, student absences are noted and a company call center contacts parents to advise them when students don’t show up.
With the aid of the online tool, teachers and mentors also can follow students’ progress through the use of a unique resource that gauges each child’s success related to pre- and post-tests handed out by teachers throughout the duration of the program.
Wade said the idea is to empower students. “We’re not just a tutoring company,” he said. “We’re actually in the business of changing kids’ beliefs and attitudes about learning.”
Though tutors use the data collected by the schools to tailor their instruction to students’ individual needs, he said, the program is about much more than number crunching.
“We want to use data to inform the learning process,” said Wade. “You’ve got to make a plan, and you’ve got to work that plan.”
Minnesota-based PLATO Learning is another educational service provider aggressively pursing state approval for supplemental services in struggling schools.
Currently approved in more than 41 states, PLATO’s Supplemental Services Education Program is a face-to-face tutoring service staffed by highly qualified teachers and anchored in the company’s Achieve Now curriculum for both reading and math. Each program includes a mix of interactive software, school and home learning activities, teacher materials, and student assessment tools.
Like some of its competitors, PLATO also provides an online assessment tool that enables educators to track students’ progress during the program and record their success based on a battery of assignments and incremental testing measures.
Before entering the program, students take an online pretest to help determine where they need the most help, said Bernice Stafford, the company’s vice president of school strategies and evaluations.
“Just because a child has difficulty reading doesn’t necessarily mean [he or she] must go back to the basics,” she said. By using the online assessment feature, Stafford contends educators can pinpoint students’ exact weaknesses and provide a more customized approach to remediation.
The online system also communicates students’ gains back to school administrators so they can update school and student profiles and plan accordingly, she said.
While the company’s SES program still is in the early stages of implementation in most schools, Stafford said it already has seen some gains in places like Alabama and the District of Columbia–though “it’s still too early to say if those gains are sustained,” she said.
PLATO’s tutoring program currently is offered at 13 schools in Chicago, providing services for 1,100 students across the district. Stafford said the company has yet to receive official word whether Chicago plans to halt its services until the situation there is resolved. No matter how it shakes out, she said, PLATO is looking forward to building its relationship with the district.
Despite being a third-party provider, Stafford said, PLATO doesn’t view itself as an outsider looking to take financial advantage of an uncomfortable situation. Still, she knows the company has to earn peoples’ trust.
“When we go into a district as an SES provider, we’re not going in for the first time,” she pointed out. “You have to have a knowledge of the district … you have to know its needs.”
While any company can go into a district and begin recruiting customers, she said, the key is to listen to what stakeholders are saying and come up with a solution that is unique to the community.
Then, she said–and only then–will you begin to see results.
Chicago Public Schools
PLATO Learning Inc.
U.S. Department of Education