City tutoring services under scrutiny

Program targets the neediest students

  • Troynell Fisher is shown going from station to station at a district-wide "Providers Fair," where families can come and sign their children up for free tutoring services.
Troynell Fisher is shown going from station to station at a district-wide… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
October 08, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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