Tutoring programs have little regulation
Ventura County Star
May 1, 2006


Yet the law mandates their use, experts say

By John Scheibe,

This spring, thousands of students across Ventura County will take federally mandated tests that measure their knowledge in everything from reading and math to science.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, schools are required to show adequate yearly progress for all of their students on state achievement tests. Schools that receive Title I federal funding for their low-income students and that fail to show improvement three years in a row must offer those students free tutoring services.

School districts across California are making millions of dollars available for these services, creating a booming market for the tutoring industry. Nationwide, the tutoring industry could take in $2.5 billion this year.

Given the amount of money involved, some say the industry needs a lot more regulation. Indeed, some find it ironic that No Child Left Behind, which is intended to make schools more accountable for student performance, mandates that poor students from failing schools and money from their school districts be sent to tutoring programs for which no clear standards of accountability have yet been created.

"There appears to be very little if any oversight on them," said Denis O'Leary, a teacher at Rio Real School in El Rio and a trustee of the Oxnard Elementary School District.

Most of the tutoring is done by for-profit companies, but religious entities and nonprofit groups can also offer tutoring, said Jerry Cummings, a program consultant for the California Department of Education. So can schools, as long as they're not targeted for improvement.

California has 281 tutoring organizations licensed by the state Department of Education. Many are eligible to operate in Ventura County, where school districts must offer the services to low-income students who score poorly on the tests.

Statewide, 98,403 students qualified for tutoring during the 2004-05 school year, the most recent period for which data are available, according to the state Department of Education. The number of students in Ventura County eligible for tutoring is not available.

'The amount varies widely'

How much a district pays for a student to be tutored depends on the amount of Title I money that it has and how many students need tutoring, Cummings said. "The amount varies widely."

In Ventura County, for example, the Santa Clara Elementary School District pays $413.50 per student while Mupu Elementary pays $1,392.30.

To get a student, a company or group must persuade parents that their tutoring is superior to others. The number of students that sign up varies widely among tutoring companies.

In the Oxnard district, for example, 16 companies are tutoring students this year.

One company has only two students, but another, Academic Tutoring Services Inc., has 454 students. This represents two-thirds of the 685 students being served by the district this year, said Micheline Miglis, the district's program improvement administrator.

O'Leary and others also worry about what they say is the relative lack of accountability required of the tutoring companies.

If test scores don't improve in the Oxnard district, "we get kicked off the board," O'Leary told Joe Grossman, administrator for Academic Tutoring Services, during a board meeting in February. "What happens if you're not able to help?"

"It's not as bad as what happens to you," Grossman replied.

Nevertheless, Grossman said his company is very conscious of the large sum of money it is receiving from the district this year. It stands to get $597,930.

"We had better deliver," he said. "We are taking (your) money."

In fact, the district could use this money to instruct students in the classroom were it not required to hire outside help.

Grossman said his company has 10 students per class and offers 45 hours of tutoring. The company's tutors are paid $45 an hour, he said.

By law, there are no minimum number of hours for which students must be tutored, Cummings said.

Tutors also aren't required to have teaching credentials. Even so, Grossman said each of his tutors has a state teaching credential.

Academic Tutoring Services was incorporated in March 2005. In addition to Oxnard, the for-profit company tutors students in six other districts across the state, Grossman said.

Aggressive marketing tactics

O'Leary worries about the aggressive marketing tactics used by some tutoring companies and groups.

Companies in other parts of the nation have offered parents computers and gift certificates to sign up their children.

Grossman said his recruiters offer no gifts or bonuses. In one case, one of his recruiters incorrectly identified herself as being from the district, something he said his company prohibits. He said his company retrained recruiters to make sure that this doesn't happen again.

However, they do go door-to-door in neighborhoods served by the low-performing schools looking for students to sign up. The school district must notify parents if a child is deficient and give parents a list of tutoring companies.

The law also says very little about how students will be tutored, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis said.

This hands-off approach has led to a great variety of tutoring services. While some students get face-to-face tutoring, others only are tutored online, without ever seeing their tutor.

"When it comes to choosing a service, it's buyer beware," Weis said.

Weis said state regulators gave his office the go-ahead this month to start tutoring students as of July 1.

Weis' office will recruit tutors from students who are studying to be teachers at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

"Tutoring will provide these students with valuable experience," he said.

Ultimately, it is the state's responsibility to evaluate each tutoring company, but exactly how these companies will be evaluated and what standards will be used has yet to be decided, Cummings said.

"We're working on this now to develop a set of criteria," he said.

State regulators hope to have something in place this year, he said.

Companies that fail the evaluation risk not getting another two-year license to operate in California, he said, but coming up with a fair and objective evaluation could be a tall order.

For starters, if test scores improve from one year to the next, "how can you know how much of it is due to schools trying harder versus the benefit that a student received from tutoring?" Weis asked.

Accountability sought

Weis' office is grappling with these same questions as it also works to develop an accountability system.

"We want to have something in place so we can show parents which companies are doing a good job and which are not," said Tim Weir, who works as director of assessment and accountability in Weis' office.

A bad evaluation won't necessarily put the company out of business, because it is the state that grants the license to operate.

However, it "could have an impact locally," Weir said.

Dianne McKay, a Thousand Oaks mother of four children who is involved with public schools, said it's very important that a sound evaluation system be developed quickly.

"I worry a lot that unless we have something in place soon, that the districts which need the most help will have to spend their limited funds on tutoring companies that aren't really doing anything to help students," McKay said.

"If public schools are held accountable, then these private companies should also be held equally accountable."